1903: Big Four Special crash kills 15 Purdue Footballers

31 October 1903. A football game is scheduled in Indianapolis between Indiana and Purdue Universities. Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway (Big Four) locomotive 350 was leading the first of two special trains bringing the Purdue football team and fans along the old Indianapolis & Lafayette tracks.

At around 10:00 AM, due to a combination of limited sight lines and lack of communications, the Big Four Special smashed into a cut of coal cars near “the old gravel pit,” which at the time was at the west end of 18th St. The area is now part of Peerless Pump Company, I-65 and the Methodist Hospital complex.

The old Lafayette and Indianapolis Railroad route, which in 1889 became the Chicago Division of the Big Four, started by running north along the tow path of the Indiana Central Canal/Missouri Street. When the canal turned northwest, the route continued north to a spot south of 16th St.. Then another curve occurred at 19th St. The tracks would then head toward 30th St. and another curve before heading off to New Augusta and Zionsville.

The curve at 16th Street, in addition to the plant of the United States Encaustic Tile works south of 16th Street, created a serious slight line issue. A switch train hauling coal cars to North Indianapolis was backing up northbound slowly, the engineer believing he had right-of-way. He had no knowledge of the Big Four Special coming south along the same line.

1898 map of the “Old Gravel Pit” area of Indianapolis

Coming into the northern curve, southbound, was Big Four #350 and its special consist. Along the west side of the track, at this point, was a siding that was occupied by a cut of box cars. This led to even more slight line issues. It wasn’t until the trains were within a city block of one another that the engineer and fireman of #350 noticed the switch engine.

The Special was running at a high rate of speed at this point. The engineer, W. H. Schumaker, reversed his engine and jumped from the side of the cab. The fireman, L. E. Irvan, jumped on top of the coal in the tender, where he remained an instant before the collision.

Of the 14 coaches (carrying 954 [Indianapolis News] or 963 [Indianapolis Star] passengers and the Purdue football team) that were part of the Special, four were completely wrecked. This was in addition to the engine, tender, and several coal cars of the switch train. The first coach was, according to the Indianapolis News of the day, “reduced to kindling wood.” The second was thrown into the gravel pit down a fifteen foot embankment. The third coach was thrown to the west side of the track, badly wrecked.

The list of the dead included two assistant coaches, several players and substitutes. The list of dead and injured from this wreck took up roughly 20 to 24 column inches of the Indianapolis News that evening – in the seventh extra.

In the pending investigation, the train crew of the Special were held responsible for the crash, though that crew states they had specific orders for their train. They deny having any responsibility for the crash. The crew of the switch train were given no indication that a special train would be running that day, as was standard operating procedure. The switch engine would arrive at 10:16, pulling on to a siding at North Indianapolis to allow the passing of the daily train southbound, as part of its normal everyday work.

Mentioned in the Indianapolis Star the next morning, “it is said, however, that the operator at one of the stations near the scene of the accident failed to notify the switching crew of the coming of the special train and that they made no efforts to get out of the way.”

Big Four officials, claiming that there are standing orders to maintain control of a train between North Indianapolis and Indianapolis, i.e. maintaining slower speeds to allow stopping in cases like this, dispute the claiming innocence of the crew of CCC&STL #350. The exact rule is “trains not scheduled, when permitted to run between North Indianapolis and the shops, must keep under control, expecting to find track occupied by yard engines.”

Particularly damning was a quote by H. F. Houghton, assistant superintendent of the Big Four: “Whether it is a straight track or a curve, clear weather or foggy, a heavy train of a light train, must be considered by the crew. The method of stopping a train is perfectly simple. By the exertion of small muscular force, such as a boy of ten years could furnish, the train can be brought to a standstill.” He went on to add “the rules provide that the conductor and the enginemen are responsible for the safety of the train.”

Beginning of the End of the Original L&I

It wasn’t long after this that the original L&I route through the Gravel Pit was bypassed. The Chicago Division line was, at first, cut just short of 30th Street. The new Chicago Division was routed along the Peoria & Eastern (on some maps called the Peoria Division due to operational contracts between the P&E and the Big Four) to a point just north of 10th Street. The rails then, and still do, run along the east side of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. This track ran due north to connect to the original Lafayette line around 60th Street.

Eventually, the line would be dismantled a section at a time. The south end was removed for, among other things, the building of the Indiana State Government Center. The north end became only accessible from the Indianapolis Belt Railroad.

The sight lines along the bypass were much better than the original line, since the bypass is far straighter than the old line.

Information and quotes used in this entry come from the Indianapolis News of 31 October 1903 and 3 November 1903, and from the Indianapolis Star of 1 November 1903, courtesy of newspapers.com. Map sources used include the Indiana State Library (http://cdm16066.contentdm.oclc.org/cdm/search/collection/p15078coll8) and Google Maps.


4 thoughts on “1903: Big Four Special crash kills 15 Purdue Footballers

  1. Thanks, I think about this every time I pass by…

    I’m surprised this wasn’t mentioned (from Wikipedia):

    Team captain and future Indiana governor Harry G. Leslie was initially thought to have died in the accident, but was later revived.


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