Cleaning up after the Purdue Train Wreck. From MSP 43, Purdue Photographs Collection.

Ticket to Another Time, By Selena Romo

Blog Entry One     //     Blog Entry Two     //     Blog Entry Three
To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

Blog Entry One, March 10th 2016
The Story of One of Purdue’s Greatest Tragedies

Purdue University suffered a historic tragedy on October 31, 1903. That day Purdue students and faculty were taking a train to Indianapolis to watch their football team compete against the school rival Indiana University. Unfortunately, the train never made it as it was struck head on by an incoming coal train due to a switch malfunction. The accident killed 17 students and injured over a hundred. The Purdue train wreck impacted students and faculty throughout the school year as they had to take time to heal. I am researching a football game ticket from the train wreck, because it’s an item that seems so insignificant and invaluable; however, it offers a gateway to a series of emotions, mourning, and insight into Purdue’s student history.


To most people, a ticket is simply a piece of paper that is only significant for a short amount of time. For example, you buy a movie ticket at a counter, then take less than five steps, give it to another worker to have it ripped, and it’s handed back to you to never to be used again.

Ticket to the 1903 Purdue-IU football game. From MSP 117, the Collection of Purdue Train Wreck Materials. Photo by Selena Romo.

Ticket to the 1903 Purdue-IU football game. From MSP 117, the Collection of Purdue Train Wreck Materials. Photo by Selena Romo.

However, the game ticket from 1903, a small rectangle of yellow paper no sturdier than a community chest card in Monopoly was worth saving. It’s nothing special not signed or fancy, just a small, mass-produced card with black lettering on it. It has two small holes that were punched in on both corners, and a perforated dashed line that separates information about the event from the seating information that was handwritten in pencil. It’s just a ticket to an Indiana University and Purdue University football game, one that happens every year. However, this piece of yellow paper was involved in a major accident and was well preserved for 60 years by its owner Frank W. Willey, who later donated it to our archives making this ticket almost 110 years old. The ticket currently can be found in the Collection of Purdue Train Wreck Materials, Box 1, Folder 1 in Purdue University archives (MSP 117).


Donation letter to Purdue Libraries sent with the 1903 Purdue-IU game ticket. From MSP 117, the Collection of Purdue Train Wreck Materials. Photo by Selena Romo.

Donation letter to Purdue Libraries sent with the 1903 Purdue-IU game ticket. From MSP 117, the Collection of Purdue Train Wreck Materials. Photo by Selena Romo.

This ticket has no monetary value, unless you consider the dollar someone had to pay to get it, yet it is has so much worth to the Purdue class of 1903-1904. Someone who has no connection to our university might think it has little to no significance. However, have you ever kept something of a family member who has passed? This ticket is just like that. It is an object of mourning, a memento if you will, something kept to remember people by. When Frank W. Willey donated the ticket, he wrote to the Purdue archivist stating, “You may want to preserve it. My observation of Halloween will go on as before.” This man kept the ticket for 60 years, and four days before Halloween he decided to donate it to the Purdue Archives. Why keep something that long if it triggers a painful memory?

Personal Connection

I understand why he kept it because I went through something similar to the train wreck on a smaller scale; a schoolmate of mine passed away in my senior year of high school. And after losing someone suddenly you want to have something to remember them by. To this day I hold onto memories of that person in the form of a blue bracelet I wore in her honor at show choir competitions; every time I walk into my room I stare at the musical poster she signed as a fellow cast-mate; and I remember the conversation I had with her mother three days before her death in vivid detail.

Initial Thoughts

The moment I touched that ticket I felt a connection, and even as I am writing it gives me goose bumps. I was not drawn to this ticket by how it looks, but by how it made me feel. I felt a rush of emotions such as guilt, sadness, and sympathy as I compared the train wreck to events in my own life. Furthermore, in that moment all I wanted was to know more about the wreck and understand what that year must have felt like to students. Suddenly, I realized that this ticket has an emotional timeline. Before the crash it was a symbol of excitement, school spirit, and team rivalry and after it was a symbol of loss, grief, mourning, and remembrance. One small piece of yellow paper can become the key to unlocking the events that led up to and after the train wreck in a whole new light.

Research Plans and Questions

I will be continuing my research on the Purdue train wreck and the events that took place before and after through an emotional sense rather than a historical one. Rather than tracing what happened, who was at fault, or who died, I will research mourning from both an institutional and personal standpoint. Perhaps keeping the ticket was the way Willey remembered his lost schoolmates, but as he headed towards the end of his life thought that it was something worth sharing. I hope to get in touch with the descendants of alumni Frank W. Willey in order to get more information on him and his life to better understand why he donated his tickets to Purdue archives. I hope my research will answer some of my questions on the train wreck: why is there another ticket in the collection that looks different from Willey’s? Why there aren’t more tickets from the train wreck preserved? What other mourning practices took place, and how quickly were parents informed during the events? Hopefully through my research these questions will be answered and I will be able to put together the emotional timeline that is centered around the events that took place on October 31, 1903.

Blog Entry Two, April 28th 2016
One Ticket’s Journey: A Story Based on True Events

Author’s Note
For this blog I wanted to try something new, so I decided to create a historical fiction piece (plain text) to go alongside my research (italicized). This story is adapted from a survivor interview taken by the Indiana University Archives (Purdue Train Wreck) along with Bob Collins’ book Boilermaker: A History of Purdue Football.

Joseph L. Bradfield, better known by his nickname “Brad”, was roaming the campus of Purdue University admiring the fall colors that graced the trees on a mid-October day. He was just in his second month of his freshman year and was ready to start making new memories. He had just walked past the Electrical Engineering building, his domain for the years to come, when he saw the booth selling tickets for the Purdue vs. Indiana University (I.U.) football game that next week. Though the ticket would cost him a dollar it was worth it to see the football team crush the “Pride of Indiana”. Going to the game meant it would be his first time in Indianapolis, and to say he was excited was the understatement of the year.

 From the help of the “Measuring Worth” website and their process of measuring the worth of money over time along with other sources, I can safely say that a dollar to Joseph L. Bradfield back in 1903 is around $27.80 to us now. [1] For me knowing the value of a dollar from back then is important, because most of the tickets were refunded after the crash and the money was donated to the Memorial Gymnasium, currently known as Felix Haas Hall. I found support in a letter addressed to Winthrop E. Stone (the president of Purdue in 1903) from W.D. Allison Co. where they asked the money from their four tickets be given to the Purdue Athletic Association for the memorial. This letter can be located in the first folder in box 13 of the Winthrop E. Stone Papers collection [2] in the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center. I can say as a current college student my value of money has completely changed from high school; now when I go to a store and I see something for $27.80 I can assure you it won’t be in my shopping bag later. This helped me realize that the students of 1903 probably had to save for a few weeks just to purchase a ticket that is approximately thirty dollars in our time.

 Now, anyone who watches college sports knows about the rivalry between Purdue University and Indiana University as it is without a doubt the biggest in Indiana and possibly the United States. However, until discovering a blog written by Jason Slutzky I didn’t realize how much the two schools hated each other. With the help of the Indiana University Archives, I discovered that the main reason for the football game being played in Indianapolis was because it was decided that it needed to be on neutral territory rather than the campus fields. Joseph L. Bradfield in his interview stated the two schools were “absolute enemies” and no one dared to have the game on campus fields because the “rivalry was so bitter”.  In fact the rivalry before October 31, 1903 was the most intense it ever was.

train track sketch romo 2Brad felt claustrophobic as he, along with the entire Purdue campus, waited for the Purdue Football Special to come down the tracks. The train was built using multiple coaches some modern and some wood. As much as he wanted to be near the front of the train the first coach was reserved for the team, the next the band, and the other 12 for the fans. Brad ended up in the 10th coach with his classmates. [3] Excitement was in the air and there was nothing anyone could do to calm down the rowdiness of each coach packed with, devoted fans full of school spirit and pride.

The students didn’t know it at the time, but they were on a direct course to collide head on with a coal train. Though the exact actions or lack of thereof that caused the crash are unknown, investigators determined that the dispatcher did send the message to the workers on the main line that the Purdue Football Special was going to be coming in on a specific track that day. [4]

train wreck romo 2When nearing Indianapolis Brad felt a jolt and was highly confused as to why the train would have stopped just outside of the city. He decided to investigate and got off the train and saw that up ahead a car was turned sideways. After walking to the front of the train and climbing over the sideways car he saw destruction; the entire front coach was in shards. He took a step only to find a body faced down on the ground. Slowly and cautiously turning the boy over he realized it was Jay [5], who sat next to him in math. Bile rose in his throat as he realized Jay was dead, it was a strange sensation to see the person you would ask for notes if you missed class or make side remarks to was gone. He was awakened from his thoughts by the sounds of groans and screams around him and immediately jumped into action. Brad, along with many other students and townsfolk who had arrived started to carry the injured and load them into horse drawn buggies to take them to the nearest hospital. Everyone understood that they didn’t have time to take a moment of silence and mourn, but needed to help the vast amount of injured people.

map sketch romo 2Over the course of my research I have been trying to figure out how far the hospital was from the crash site. Even after looking at old maps of Indianapolis and its surrounding areas I couldn’t find all the streets or hospital drawn in a rough sketch of a map from a survivor. [6]  I wanted to be able to see if I could estimate how long it took for injured students to be transported by horse and buggy considering that many sources report that there were no cars or ambulances involved.

The adrenaline left as soon as it came, after all the injured students had made it to the hospital. Uninjured students and faculty made their way to eat in downtown Indianapolis as they waited for transportation to take them back to Lafayette, all sitting there in overwhelming silence. It was determined at the time that 16 people had been killed; 13 players, the assistant coach, and trainer. Brad decided to telegraph his mother in Ohio with his message, “I’m all safe”; however the newspaper reporting the crash hadn’t gone out yet, so his mother had no idea what he was safe from.

From my research I discovered that back then the major telegraphing company was Western Union, which would explain why all the telegrams saved in the Winthrop E. Stone Papers Collection have the Western Union logo on them. Later on independent companies were bought out by Western Union and Bell. [7] However, the fastest method of communication in Indiana was the newspaper. Considering the crash happened early in the morning, it was easy for newspaper companies to print out new editions of the same paper with a different headline. In fact, one student injured in the crash, Simeon V. B. Miller, collected multiple articles from October 31, 1903. These articles looked exactly the same at first, yet I noticed small differences in the edition numbers, death toll numbers, and a couple of added articles. This also explains why Brad’s mother was unaware of the crash, because he was an out of state student from Ohio, the rest of the states wouldn’t be informed until a few days later.

After finally boarding another train back to Lafayette, Brad eventually made it to his dormitory. As he stood outside his room, he reached into his pocket for his keys and pulled out his yellow game ticket.

Ticket to the 1903 Purdue-IU football game. From MSP 117, the Collection of Purdue Train Wreck Materials. Photo by Selena Romo.

Ticket to the 1903 Purdue-IU football game. From MSP 117, the Collection of Purdue Train Wreck Materials. Photo by Selena Romo.

Author’s note

This ticket is what got me started with researching the Purdue University train wreck, and its story doesn’t end with the students returning to Lafayette. If you would like to find out more about this ticket’s journey into the Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center stay tuned for my next blog.

Blog Entry Three, May 7th 2016
Ticket to Another Time

“Lead, kindly Light, amid th’encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home.”

After the crash most students returned to school, while injured students stayed in hospitals or returned home to recover. Though the students and faculty didn’t stop to mourn at the accident it was soon decided that a memorial monument should be made, and so the idea of the Memorial Gymnasium (Memorial Gym) was born.

romo blog 3

The Memorial Gymnasium, or Felix Haas Hall, at Purdue University

The Memorial Gymnasium, renamed Felix Haas Hall in 2006, is currently used as classroom space, not as a memorial. In the November 11, 1903 memorial issue of the Exponent the building idea was proposed, but I believe there was some anger about the idea, because the gym had been desired long before the crash. It was even stated in the article that the gymnasium had three purposes, “First, that of satisfying a long-felt want; secondly, that of furnishing a sure restorer of the best athletic interests; and but chiefly, that of a monument for Purdue’s fallen athletes.” [8] The Memorial Gym wasn’t even finished until many years later and by then most students involved in the crash were long gone.

“Lead thou me on!
Keep thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene–one step enough for me.”

The notion of the Memorial Gym was a nice thought at the time; however it never really served the purpose of an emotional memorial that gave students closure and a place to honor the dead. If I were to pick a current monument at Purdue that represents loss or mourning it would have to be the Unfinished Block P (known by students as the Unfinished P).

The Unfinished Block P at Purdue University

The Unfinished Block P at Purdue University

As engraved on the monument the Unfinished P is a statue that honors students “who, for various reasons did not get the opportunity to complete their Purdue experience” and reminds us that “even after graduating from Purdue our experience is not over.” I have walked by it many a time to see bouquets of flowers placed at its base to honor our lost students. That is the difference between the Memorial Gymnasium and the Unfinished P; the first is functional and had/has a separate purpose whereas the latter provides a place where emotion is acceptable.

“I was not ever thus, nor pray’d that thou
Shouldst lead me on.
I loved to choose and see my path; but now,”

In David C. Sloane’s essay “Roadside Shrines and Granite Sketches: Diversifying the Vernacular Landscape of Memory” he discusses the differences between memorial monuments and their emotional value. [9] One example he uses is a comparison of the National World War II Memorial and the Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Sloane discusses that though the World War II Memorial is immaculate it gives visitors the sense of celebration of “the nation’s victory over our enemies,” rather than focusing on memorializing the dead. Whereas the Vietnam Memorial gives visitors a place where emotional expression is okay, as the designer Maya Lin wanted “a quiet place meant for personal reflection and private reckoning.” That personal quality is made possible because this monument allows visitors to bring photos, flowers, letters, and so on giving the memorial a more intimate and personal aura to an abstract piece of art. That is why the Unfinished Block P is the best-suited memorial as it gives visitors the ability to interact with the monument and express their grief.

“Lead thou me on!
I loved the garish day, and, spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will. Remember not past years.”

The students had to wait for the official monument to be built. It took until 1908 for the Memorial Gymnasium to be open to the public. It took five years after the incident for the building to be finished due to limited funding. Though the building hardly seems like a memorial there were small things incorporated into it to honor the departed such as having seventeen steps each representing a life lost.  Sloan explains, why people build roadside shrines is because the public is unwillingly to wait for a memorial to be built or as he puts it “relinquish to the state the right to memorialize the dead.” Roadside shrines are increasingly common because they give people a way to honor the dead in a personal way with small additions such as “teddy bears” or their “favorite music” that are more personal than flowers. I believe the long wait for the building caused students to find other outlets to mourn their fellow classmen. One way was the memorial issue of the Exponent that published November 11, 1903 where every fallen member has a long eulogy that described them in a personal way. Another is the shrine built in the tunnels that our football players use to enter the field, a way for football teams to honor their teammates from the past. The Memorial Gymnasium was a good notion, however due to its structure, purpose, and prolonged construction it didn’t serve as the memorial the students needed and did not offer the emotional outlet that the Unfinished P offers today.

“So long thy pow’r hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone.
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile!” [10]

I better understand why Frank W. Willey donated the ticket, after reading more on the roadside shrines. The ticket in a way was his own roadside shrine that reminded him of those he lost, his portable piece of mourning. Students didn’t get that special form of mourning where you can bring special items to honor that person. I think that is also why he chose to donate it later, so that the departed could be remembered in a personal way that would survive throughout time. Purdue archivists serve as the “shrine keepers” as they preserve this ticket, just as shrine keepers replace and water flowers and change candles in roadside shrines. The ticket is a preserved personal memorial that will outlast the test of time.

Base of the Lion Fountain at Purdue University, picture taken by Selena Romo

Base of the Lion Fountain at Purdue University, picture taken by Selena Romo


[1] Williamson, Samuel H. “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,” Measuring Worth, (April 2016),

[2] Stone, Winthrop E. Letter from W.D. Allison Co. 03 Nov. 1903. Box 1, Folder 1. U.A 2.05 Winthrop E. Stone Papers. Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN, 02 April 2016.

[3] Collins, Bob. Boilermaker: A History of Purdue Football. Lafayette: Haywood Printing Company, 1976.

[4] Miller, Simeon V. B., 1900. Box 1, MSA 21. Simeon V. B. Miller Scrapbook, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN. 20 March 2016.

[5] Although Bradfield does not name him, I believe the dead man was Jay Quincy Hamilton- age 17, a Sophomore in Electrical Engineering and a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Both men were the same age and had the same majors and we know that Hamilton died in the wreck. “The Disaster.” Exponent [West Lafayette] Nov. 11, 1903,——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-

[6] Hand Drawn Map from Survivor. 01, Jan 1917, Box 1, Folder 15. MSP 117, Collection of Purdue Train Wreck materials, Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Libraries, West Lafayette, IN. 20 March 2016.

[7] “The History | Old Telephones.” The History | Old Telephones. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.

[8] “Memorial Gymnasium.” The Purdue Exponent. Nov. 11, 1903,——-en-20–1–txt-txIN——-

[9] Sloane, David C. “Roadside Shrines and Granite Sketches Diversifying the Vernacular Landscape of Memory.” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture. Volume 12 (2005): 64-81. Print.

[10] A choir of students sang “Lead, Kindly Light” during the memorial in Eliza Fowler Hall at Purdue University. The hymn written by John Henry Newman in the 1800’s and the music written by John B. Dykes.


To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

About the Authors

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