By: Kenny Thompson
There are very few reminders on the Purdue University campus today of the greatest tragedy in Boilermaker athletics history.
A plaque inside the entrance to Felix Haas Hall, located just a short drive north on University Street from Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, lists 17 names. Twelve players, an assistant coach, a trainer and three fans were killed in a train collision with a coal train on the outskirts of Indianapolis on Oct. 31, 1903.
More than 100 others, including future Indiana Gov. Harry G. Leslie, were injured. Leslie’s injuries were so severe that for a brief time it was thought he had perished as well.
Until that day, Oct. 31 was remembered as the birthday of university founder John Purdue.
The day was supposed to be a celebration of the annual game between Purdue and Indiana. This was long before the Old Oaken Bucket was introduced into the rivalry.
Nearly 10,000 fans were expected to witness “one of the greatest (games) ever played on Indiana soil,” the Lafayette Journal front page declared.
The Big Four Railroad provided a private, wooden car for the team. The traveling party consisted of more than 50 players, coaches and local businessman Newton Howard, who was invited as a tribute for his support. Twelve more cars would carry the band, students and adult fans – 964 people in all.
Protocol at the time called for the players to ride in the first passenger car behind the locomotive and the tender. That custom would prove fatal.
The 14-car train left Lafayette at 8 a.m. and was scheduled to make the 60-mile trip in two hours. The journey ended 15 minutes early.
A switching mistake sent seven coal cars – made of steel – toward a collision course with the Purdue train. Traveling at 25 miles an hour on the outskirts of Indianapolis, the Purdue train rounded a curve at 18th Street, next to a gravel pit.
Less than half the cars had rounded the curve when engineer W.A. Schumaker saw the coal cars rapidly approaching. Unable to avoid a collision, Schumaker and fireman Harry Van Tuyl jumped for their lives.
Steel met wood. The results were catastrophic.
The locomotive was demolished on impact. The tender was overturned, burying Van Tuyl beneath a heap of coal. He only suffered slight injuries.
The players’ coach was splintered in two, with the bottom half underneath the tender.
Nine players plus assistant coach E.C. Robertson, trainer Patrick McClaire, Howard and students Wilbert Price and George Shaw died instantly. A tenth player, Joseph Coates, died two hours later at City Hospital.
The death toll reached 16 when player Thomas A. Bailey, a freshman from New Richmond, died the next day. A 12th player, Harry O. Wright, would pass away 30 days afterward in St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Leslie would be reminded of the accident every day for the rest of his life. A compound leg fracture left him with a permanent limp. Leslie also suffered multiple jaw fractures but somehow regained his health in time to serve as manager for the 1904 team.
One of the players, I.S. Osborne, described the moment of impact to the Lafayette Journal.
“My feet shot from under me and I was plunged forward,” Osborne said. “I have no distinct recollection of what happened, but from the crashing of glass I must have shot through one of the car windows.
“It seemed as if the fall would never end. I struck the ground and someone fell on top of me. After that I do not remember anything.”
Teammate F.M. Hawthorne of Wingate was also launched through a window.
“I only know I felt myself flying through the air. It seemed to me I was five minutes on the way. I found myself lying across the ditch when I came to. I was about 30 feet from where I started. I can’t shut my eyes now, though, without feeling that sickening sensation of going through the air in the darkness.”
The second car, carrying the band, jumped the track and rolled down an embankment. All of them survived.
The third car soared over the players’ coach and landed on one of the coal cars.
An investigation cleared the Purdue train crew of wrongdoing. A dispatcher in Kankakee, Ill., failed to notify the Indianapolis yardmaster about the Purdue train.
The Big Four Railroad settled with the families of the deceased for between $2,500 and $3,000 apiece. That computes to nearly $105,000 per family. The Big Four also contributed $15,000 toward Memorial Gymnasium.
The Lafayette Journal launched a $50,000 (more than $1.7 million today) public fundraising campaign to build a memorial to the players. Memorial Gymnasium opened five years later with 11 steps, a landing and six more steps to represent the deceased.
John Wooden was among the Boilermakers to play basketball in Memorial Gymnasium, Purdue’s home until Lambert Fieldhouse was completed in 1938. The facility became home to the women’s gymnasium until 1985, when the building was remodeled to accommodate the Department of Computer Science. The building was renamed for Haas, a former dean and provost, in 2006 after the computer science department moved across University Street to Lawson Computer Science Building.
As a postscript to the tragedy, the Boilermakers posted a 9-3 record in 1904. Among the nine victories were a 27-0 win over Indiana at Indianapolis and 36-0 against Notre Dame in West Lafayette.
That record stood as Purdue’s best until the 1929 Big Ten Conference champions finished 8-0.
Purdue safety Dillon Thieneman has been selected to The Athletic’s Midseason Freshman All-American team.
The former Westfield standout leads all freshmen and was second in the Big Ten through six games with 62 tackles. Thieneman also leads all freshmen with three interceptions. …
Another notable Westfield product, Purdue sophomore guard Braden Smith, is projected as one of five “breakout” guards for the 2023-24 season by The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie.
“The next leap for Smith will be just becoming entirely comfortable when guards play particularly high pressure against him defensively,” Vecenie wrote. “I think that comes this year, and we see Smith as something like a 14-point, six-assist per game guy who knocks down shots and leads what should be one of the 10 best offenses in the country.” …
Purdue center Zach Edey, the reigning National Player of the Year in college basketball, was the only unanimous selection Monday when the Associated Press released its Preseason All-America Team.
Edey was joined on the team by former Michigan center Hunter Dickenson, now at Kansas; Armando Bacot of North Carolina, Kyle Filipowski of Duke and Tyler Kolek of Marquette.
– Kenny Thompson is the former sports editor for the Lafayette Journal & Cou¬rier and an award-winning journalist. He has covered Purdue athletics for many years.