The 1903 Purdue football team of which fourteen members perished in a train wreck in Indianapolis. (Image: Purdue University)
For many, this weekend marks the true beginning of autumn as college football kicks off across the Hoosier State. Thousands of fans will converge on college campuses across the state to take part in an afternoon of tailgating and cheering on the home team. Although Indy lacks a team that competes at football’s top collegiate level, we have housed plenty of memorable and significant college games. Though it is important, as we anticipate another season of excitement, to remember a great tragedy from football’s early days in Indiana.
By 1903, the rivalry between the Indiana Hoosiers and Purdue Boilermakers was beginning to heat up, despite the “Old Oaken Bucket” trophy being seventeen years down the road. Both universities began competing on the gridiron in 1887. Purdue president James Smart created the Western Conference (The Big Ten) in 1896 and Indiana University joined up in 1900. The rivalry had grown so intense, it was decided the contest would be held at a neutral site to avoid interference by unruly fans.
Heading to Indianapolis to catch a game in the early 1900’s wasn’t just a quick jaunt down I-65 for the Boilermaker faithful. To insure a proper representation, Purdue arranged for two “special” trains to carry over 1,000 fans with the team to Indianapolis. These special trains were not part of the regular scheduled service.
Unfortunately, there must have been a glitch in communication. The first train containing the team entered Indianapolis on the Big Four line, around what is now the area of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and 18th Streets, only to find a curve existed were a coal train was resting on the tracks.
The engineer had little time to react as the engine plowed directly into the idle train. The aftermath was horrifying. Of the 17 casualties of the day, 14 were members of the football team who were housed in the first passenger car. Many more were injured, including Harry Leslie, the team captain, who would go on to become governor of Indiana. There was no game that year.
The Boilermakers and Hoosiers did play in Indianapolis at Washington Park the following year, but all other contests have been held on the respective schools campuses. In 1909, the Memorial Gymnasium was constructed on the Purdue campus, featuring 17 steps to honor the 17 killed. Each time the Boilermakers take the field at Ross Ade Stadium they enter through a tunnel, dedicated in 2003, in memory of the lives lost 100 years prior.
2014 looks to be a big year for college football in Indianapolis. The Boilermakers will return to play the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame for the last time, in a series that dates back to 1946. The Big Ten Championship will be decided on December 6, 2014 at Lucas Oil Stadium and although the experts are giving Purdue and Indiana University no chance in participating, there could “technically” be a rematch. Hope springs eternal, as both clubs remain undefeated.