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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.

 Black and white photograph of a street filled with people. In the background is a recently arrived train.
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.

 Black and white photograph of a derailed train car and workers examining the wreckage.
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.

 Scanned image of a football ticket for a game between Indiana and Purdue.
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.


  • Dina Kellams says:

    Oh my goodness, how heartbreaking.

  • Jim Truitt Hoyt says:

    my Grandfather, a surgical student (Frank L Truitt MD) was called to the wreck with his class, and found his brother and best friend Samuel Campbell Truitt (backup QB and a freshman) had died in the wreck. Their parents had to borrow a car and drive from Noblesville In. to Indpls.
    Samuel left behind his beautiful fiancee, Miss Frances (Fanny) Elizabeth Nagle (also from Noblesville). There was to be a party that night in Noblesville to celebrate the game and Fanny’s 20th birthday, which occurred the previous week. She was a sophomore at Depauw and a true love.
    She in later years turned away numerous suitors and never married. Her relatives told me she often said she had just one love. (note: Nobelsville HS won the Indiana state football title the previous year)

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