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Why are Purdue students and alumni called Boilermakers?

The Boilermaker Special
The Boilermaker Special, Purdue's mascot, helps keep a legend alive.

Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana, has had winning sports teams since the 19th century, when both our union and the university were young. In 1889, Purdue's football team traveled to Crawfordsville, Indiana, to play Wabash College, whom they defeated 18-4.

Wabash students and the people of Crawfordsville were devastated by the defeat. According to one correspondent from the era, the town began referring to the Purdue team as "a great big burly gang of corn-huskers," "rail-splitters," "foundry molders," and "log-haulers." One newspaper reporter wrote this line: "A blacksmith they had would come into the Wabash boys like a mogul engine and the more they choked him the happier he seemed to be."

Over the next few years, Purdue's reputation did not dim, and when their team gave Wabash College a 44-0 drubbing in 1891, the local press wrote wildly about the carnage. One sports writer for the Daily Argus headlined his story "Slaughter of Innocents," with the line under that reading, "Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue."

By the next football season, the name had stuck. Ever since, Purdue's teams have been known as the Boilermakers, and the school's mascot is now the Boilermaker Special, a vehicle outfitted to look like the 19th century steam engines that Boilermakers built throughout the country.

What about that widely held view that those early teams actually used burly Boilermakers from the local railroad shops? Unfounded. West Lafayette's Monon railroad shops were not built until 1895, several years after the name was already in use.

One fact that may have contributed to public acceptance of the Boilermaker nickname is that Purdue's engineering students pursued a hands-on education, often working directly with the tools. From 1891 to 1897, they kept a fully operational steam locomotive, The Schenectady, on hand for research. Real boilermakers and blacksmiths would have felt right at home in this university lab.

For a more detailed explanation of the Purdue/Boilermakers nickname history, visit

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