The Purdue Train Wreck of 1903: A Football Rivalry Touched by Tragedy

Here at the archives blog, we strive to showcase some of the fun and insightful parts of our history that have been forgotten or remain obscure. For this post, our focus of interest will be on a much grimmer, not-so-fun topic.

Um, are you still there? OK, good…

Our sad story involves football, the historic rivalry between I.U. and our friends at Purdue and…trains.

It was Saturday, October 31, 1903. Already by this point in time not only was football an essential part of the fabric of university life, but the competition between I.U and Purdue for gridiron glory had already heated up into a fever pitch. In fact, the rivalry was so hot and intense, that both universities had agreed that matches between the two teams should be held on neutral ground, so as to limit potential hooliganism on the part of the spectators. Both had agreed on the most suitable ground for avoiding this nastiness–Indianapolis.

Arrival of the “Purdue Special,” November 20, 1909.

To get to the location, the teams, the entire student body (including Purdue’s president), and other followers from both universities crowded onto separate special service trains to take them en masse to into the city from Bloomington and Lafayette. In Purdue’s case, the train was cobbled together from available coaches, from modern (for the time) steel cars to older wooden coaches. The wooden coaches were attached near the front of the train, and the Purdue team rode took their place of honor in these cars at the front of the train procession.

As the train triumphantly chugged their way into the city limits of Indianapolis, the Purdue entourage had no way of knowing that their train was locked into a collision course with an opposing train on the same tracks, courtesy of a signaling error on the part of the railroad switching crew. The engineer of the Purdue special continued to rocket the train along at a speedy clip, unaware of danger up ahead. By the time he spotted the opposing locomotive bearing down on his machine, there was no chance of his being able to halt his barreling procession in time. Resigned to fate, he threw on the air brakes and leapt off of his engine.

Print  from copy negatives apparently made by The Indianapolis Times. The Purdue University Archives holds many more images of the wreck site:

The collision forces were such that the wooden cars attached at the front of the line splintered like kindling, and the cars immediately adjacent to these were sent violently off the raised tracks to the ground below. In contrast to this carnage, the cars further back were spared the crushing and derailment at the front of the procession, barely registering a jolt. The rearmost passengers wasted little time in coming to the assistance of the victims up ahead. According to Joseph Bradfield, then a Purdue student riding in the procession, “We began carrying the people out, the injured ones. There was a line of horse-and-buggies along the whole stretch there for half a mile. We didn’t stop for ceremony; we simply loaded the injured people into the buggies and sent the buggies into town, got them to a hospital [….] There was no ambulance, no cars…” By the time the scene was brought under control and the victims accounted for, eighteen riders had died as a result of the disaster, including most of Purdue’s football squad.

The shock of what had occurred thoroughly jolted not only Purdue, but I.U. as well. The intense rivalry was pushed entirely aside as I.U. flooded its fellow university with expressions of condolence and solidarity in the face of tragic and unprecedented loss of life. Faculty members paid tribute to the fallen Purdue footballers in an open letter as “honorable and friendly rivals, not our enemies,” and likened their shock at Purdue’s loss as “…to brothers who have lost the comrades of their day’s work.” In a similar spirit, some students suggested that the revenue from the cancelled game be directed to both university athletic associations as an appropriate way to deal with the financial matters stemming from the accident. In short, the tragedy served to cool the burning football rivalry between the two universities, so that future games would be normally played on either the I.U. or Purdue campus rather than alternate locations.

An unused ticket from that tragically doomed game.

So ends our sad but fascinating slice of university history, courtesy of the extensive collection at the I.U. Archives. If you’d like more details on this episode or others, please contact the staff at the Archives.

Martha Lipton Papers

I have no musical talent beyond pushing the buttons on my MP3 player but I love music and I am a big fan of both opera and classical music.  Recently, I had the pleasure of working with a collection of papers from Martha Lipton, a famous mezzo-soprano who was later a Professor of Voice at the Jacobs School of Music.

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Born in New York City on April 6, 1913, Lipton won a scholarship to the Julliard School where she received her formal training. Graduating in 1942, she was invited to join the worldwide music fraternity Delta Omicron as an honorary member and made her debut with the New Opera Company in Manhattan playing Pauline in Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades. In 1944 she began a prolific career with the Metropolitan Opera which continued until 1961 and included over 400 performances. Under the direction of famous conductors such as Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski, and Bruno Walter, she sang with both the New York and Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestras.  Her most popular recording was Handel’s Messiah with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir –  and while this recording I’m sure is wonderful, I’m sure that it had to be something entirely different live.  I have had the opportunity to hear the Tabernacle Choir perform in Salt Lake City and was awestruck!  Another notable role in her career was Augusta in the American opera Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore at the Central City Opera House in Colorado.  The opera became so popular that it was later performed at the Met.  In total, Lipton performed three dozen roles in four languages.

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In 1960, Lipton accepted a position on the teaching faculty of the Indiana University School of Music. Additionally during her tenure she graced the university campus with numerous performances, most notable being Puccini’s Aida in which she played the role of Amneris in July and August of 1963.  With a cast of over 600 including a full orchestra, the production was so large that the stage was built in the old Memorial Stadium! The photographs shown here give a sense of just how large the production actually was!

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The Martha Lipton papers include many wonderful promotional photographs which document the beautifully detailed costumes she wore in her performances as well as a hand fan that she used in Rigoletto.  That was a fun discovery!

Lipton was a gifted teacher who was much loved by her students.  While she officially retired from teaching in 1983 with the rank of professor emeritus, she continued to teach part-time until her death on November 28, 2006.