1903 Purdue Train Wreck

As time moves on, I’m not sure the Sigs of today, recognize that some of Purdue’s greatest and sometimes most tragic moments in its early history had Delta Delta ties.  Here’s a story compiled for our upcoming book, Sigma Chi at Purdue—150 Years of Brotherhood. 

Sig Brother Dies in 1903 Purdue Train Wreck


Brother Joseph C. Coates ‘1906 is in the top row, third from the right.

On the morning of Halloween 1903, two trains with wooden passenger cars headed to Indianapolis for the Purdue versus Indiana University football game. The first train was filled with nearly one thousand people—football players, coaches, managers and trainers. Members of the band and the faculty with some female guests were in the second, and fans filled the coaches behind them, including Purdue President Winthrop Stone and his wife, Victoria. One of the football players on the first train was Sig brother Joseph Collins Coates ‘1906 from Berwyn, Pennsylvania.

Early that morning, the first train left about two hours before the second, and as it entered the north side of Indianapolis it collided head on with a string of coal cars. The Purdue train was knocked from the track and landed on its side. In his book Ever True, author John Norberg wrote, “Stone rushed out of his coach, ran forward, and what he saw was unspeakable carnage: body parts, blood, and youth cut short.”

Seventeen people died—fourteen were football players—including Delta Delta brother Joseph Collins Coates who, according to the Indianapolis Journal, passed away in the hospital after having both of his legs amputated.

Memorial Gym plaque honoring 1903 Purdue train wreck victims

Inscribed upon this tablet are the names of those who lost their lives in the railroad accident at Indianapolis on the thirty-first day of October nineteen hundred and three. To their memory this building is erected. Joseph Collins Coates ’06 is the second name listed.

Railroad workers from the coal train in the switching yard said they were not aware of the Purdue train rushing toward them. The engineer for the Purdue train, who had jumped to safety, said he had no knowledge of the coal train approaching. After a grand jury investigation, no indictments were issued. The blame was placed on what was determined to be an imperfect system of train handling.

In 1908, Purdue’s Memorial Gym, later renamed Felix Haas Hall, was built and dedicated to those who lost their lives in the train wreck. The front entry has seventeen steps, one for each person who died. Inside, a plaque lists the names of the deceased.

Purdue students Sharon Humes and Michael Sheedy of Pennsylvania were chosen as delegates to attend Coates’s funeral in his hometown of Philadelphia. Humes represented the class of 1906, and Sheedy represented all of his Delta Delta brothers in mourning.

The Story of Tom Leslie ‘68’s Grandfather

1903 Train Wreck photo

The wreckage of the Purdue train after colliding with another train in Indianapolis on October 31, 1903.

Also a member of the 1903 Boilermaker football team was Harry G. Leslie, grandfather of Delta Delta brother Tom Leslie ’68.  While at Purdue, Harry Leslie, nicknamed “skillet”, was captain of both the football and baseball teams and became one of the school’s “immortal” players.  Aboard the first train car when the two collided, Harry Leslie was one of eighteen boys who were pronounced dead at the scene and taken to the morgue.

A few hours later, as the morticians prepared to embalm his body, they discovered he still had a pulse and immediately rushed him to the hospital. Doctors found he had a broken jaw, several fractures of both legs, a brain concussion and internal injuries. His death was actually announced to the press.  Leslie needed several operations and edged on death for several weeks. His recovery was slow, but he eventually regained his health, although he walked with the aid of a cane for the remainder of his life. He returned to school at the end of 1904 and after another year he graduated. His survival of the “Purdue Wreck” received significant attention across the state and he became a famous folk hero.

Ade Honors Dinner w Harry Leslie

Former Governor Harry Leslie , (back row center) whose son is a Sigma Chi, at a dinner honoring George Ade (front row center). Other Sigs in attendance are John T. McCutcheon (back right) and Lawrence Downs (front right).

Harry Leslie entered Indiana politics and went on to become Indiana Speaker of the House and the 33rd governor of Indiana. His term as governor was marked by the start of the Great Depression.  Harry Leslie, to date, is the only Purdue graduate to have served as governor. A West Lafayette native the bridge from Lafayette to West Lafayette is named in Governor Leslie’s honor.

In December,1937, Leslie and his wife visited his lifelong friend, George Ade, in Miami Florida.  Ade, Delta Delta 1887, was a distinguished alumnus and a gracious benefactor of the University. Suddenly stricken with a heart attack at the Ade house, Governor Leslie was removed to St. Francis Hospital in Miami on December 10. He died several hours later.

Why was the Purdue – IU football game to be played in Indianapolis?

To learn more details about the tragic story of the 1903 Purdue train wreck, and a football rivalry that was touched by tragedy go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-8A06k7FPc. You’ll learn why the Purdue-IU game was scheduled to be played in Indianapolis on that fateful day.

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