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Kate Shelley

Updated: May 11, 2023

The Incredible Tale of a High-Bridge Heroine


Growing up in north central Iowa, I was fascinated by the amazing true story of a girl in the 1800s who lived only 20 miles from my home. In 1881, a 17-year-old Irish immigrant girl named Kate Shelley risked her own life to save the lives of 200 souls on a midnight passenger train. The train was about to cross a trestle that had collapsed into the water below during a storm. (Iowa has tremendous prairie thunderstorms and tornadoes and you wouldn't want to be on a collapsed high trestle in a driving thunderstorm at night over a raging river!)

During the night of July 6, 1881, a horrific thunderstorm caused flash flooding near Boone, Iowa, near the Shelley farm homestead. Kate was one of five children but she had lost her father, a railroad foreman for the Chicago & North Western Railway, then the oldest brother to drowning in the Des Moines River. So she took up the mantle of caring for her family, farming and hunting.


Kate knew the schedules of the nearby trains. That night, a "pusher" engine left the small Moingona train depot to check the tracks and long trestle crossing the Des Moines River but it plunged into a collapsed trestle at 11pm that night. Kate heard the crash and grabbed a lantern to investigate. Four men were on the train. One was dead, one was swept away in the water (never to be found), and two were alive. She yelled down to them that she was getting help.

She knew that the Midnight Special passenger train could be coming within an hour and she would have to cross the long Des Moines River trestle to signal the train. The trestle was long, high and did not have close planking like most trestles. The cross beams were three feet apart. She crawled on her hands and knees balancing on the rail over the raging river. One slip and she'd be dead. Her lantern soon blew out, but she continued in the dark, the rails illuminated only by the flashes of lightning.

Finally, she reached the other side and still had to run two miles to the Moingona depot to sound the alarm. Finally, the train was stopped. Two hundred people were on board. Kate then led a crew back to the collapsed trestle to rescue the two survivors.

The modest Iowa farm girl became a national sensation. She was interviewed by newspapers, honored by railroads, songs and books written about her, and a collection taken up by the 200 passengers of the Midnight Express to honor her.


Twenty years later, a steel bridge slightly upstream was completed in 1901 and popularly called "The Kate Shelley High Bridge." (Despite a campaign to officially name the bridge after Kate, it was called the Boone Viaduct.) It was the highest double-track bridge in the country, 200-feet high and 2,685-feet long. In 1903, the Chicago & North Western Railway gave Kate a job as the train station agent for the new Moingona Depot.


Decades later, in 1955, the Chicago and North Western Railway named an Iowa passenger train the Kate Shelley 400 that ran until 1971. Then, finally, in 2009, the Union Pacific Railroad completed a new steel and concrete bridge next to the 1901 bridge. Its OFFICIAL name: The Kate Shelley Bridge.

You may also enjoy these related posts about other amazing women:

-Stagecoach Mary

-Calamity Jane

-Native Warrior Women

   

Kate Shelley originally posted June 6, 2019 on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com

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Deborah Hufford

Author, Notes from the Frontier

Deborah Hufford is an award-winning author and magazine editor with a passion for history. Her popular NotesfromtheFrontier.com blog with 100,000+ readers has led to an upcoming novel! Growing up as an Iowa farmgirl, rodeo queen and voracious reader, her love of land, lore and literature fired her writing muse. With a Bachelor's in English and Master's in Journalism from the University of Iowa, she taught students of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, then at Northwestern University, Marquette and Mount Mary. Her extensive publishing career began at Better Homes & Gardens, includes credits in New York Times Magazine, New York Times, Connoisseur, many other titles, and serving as publisher of The Writer's Handbook

 

Deeply devoted to social justice, especially for veterans, women, and Native Americans, she has served on boards and donated her fundraising skills to Chief Joseph Foundation, Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW), Homeless Veterans Initiative, Humane Society, and other nonprofits.  

 

Deborah's soon-to-be released historical novel, BLOOD TO RUBIES weaves indigenous and pioneer history, strong women and clashing worlds into a sweeping saga praised by NYT bestselling authors as "crushing," "rhapsodic," "gritty," and "sensuous." Purchase BLOOD TO RUBIES online beginning June 9. Connect with Deborah on DeborahHufford.com, Facebook, and Instagram.

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