The story of Kate Shelley is as inspiring today as it was 125 years ago, when the 15-year-old Iowa girl crawled across a long railroad bridge— in the dark, a few feet above a flooded river, battered by rain and expecting a train to roar into her any minute—to warn that another bridge had been washed out and that two railroad crewmen were trapped.
The unofficial keeper of Kate’s legacy is her nephew Jack Shelley, 94, a longtime radio and television newsman and a founder of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, who is a celebrity in his own right. Born two months after Kate’s death in 1912, Jack is the only child of Kate’s younger brother John. Jack has given hundreds of talks about his illustrious aunt, and he said interest in her remains intense, especially among girls.
“I think a lot of young girls look at Kate and think of her example of what a young woman could do if faced with a challenge, to tackle it without fear,” he said. “Whenever I talk to elementary school children, the girls particularly are taken with Kate and admire her to a degree that is almost excessive.”
Kate, the oldest of five children of Michael and Margaret Shelley, was born in Loughaun, Ireland, in 1865. The family immigrated to the United States when Kate was 9 months old, settling near Moingona, an Iowa farming and coalmining community northwest of Des Moines. Kate’s father built a small house on a slope above the northwest bank of Honey Creek, which flows into the nearby Des Moines River. The house was about 200 yards northeast of the Chicago & North Western Railway trestle over the creek, and about a half-mile northeast of the bridge over the river.
Michael Shelley worked as a section foreman for the C&NW until his death in December 1878. While some reports say he was killed in a railroad accident, Charles Irwin, executive director of the Boone County Historical Society, said he died of Bright’s disease—a kidney ailment that ultimately killed Kate in 1912. In 1879 Kate’s 10-year-old brother James drowned in a swimming hole under the Des Moines River bridge. That left Kate to help her mother care for the three other children, all under age 10— Margaret, Mayme and John.
“The family made ends meet by farming—with Kate shouldering much of the load,” said Jack Shelley.
Iowa’s spring and summer in 1881 were unusually wet. On Wednesday, July 6, a hard rain began falling around 4:30 p.m. Honey Creek quickly rose—so much so that the Shelleys released animals from a barn threatened by the water. By 10:30 the creek and nearby river had become a torrent carrying picket fences, lumber, trees and uprooted stumps.
Concerned about the deluge, the C&NW agent in the town of Boone sent a telegram at 11:30 to the station in Moingona ordering two engines out to check bridges. Engine No. 230 headed west from Moingona toward Ogden to check the 55 bridges along that stretch. As section foreman John O’Neill got off the engine and walked onto a bridge a few miles west of Moingona, the timber gave way, throwing him to his death. The other engine, No. 11, backed out of Moingona toward Boone—with 35 bridges and trestles to check over a distance of about five miles. The engine made its way across the long Des Moines River bridge and inched up to the Honey Creek bridge.
Engineer Ed Wood backed locomotive No. 11 slowly, with fireman George Olmstead, brakeman Adam Agar and section foreman Patrick Donahue riding the tender’s running board, keeping a lookout. Donahue signaled Wood by lantern and told him to go forward, that the ties looked OK. The engine had gone about 12 feet when the four men heard the timbers crack and realized the center supports had been washed away. Inside the Shelley farmhouse, Kate heard the locomotive.
“I heard the bell toll twice, distinctly, as she swayed on the uprooted bridge and then came the horrible crash and the fierce hissing of the steam as tender and engine went down in 25 feet of water,” Kate said in an 1888 speech in Dubuque. The current swept Wood and Agar safely into trees, but Donahue and Olmstead drowned.
“The storm and all else was forgotten and I said that I must go to the help of the men, and to stop the [Atlantic Express] passenger [train] that would soon be due at Moingona, the midnight train from the west,” Kate recounted. She circled behind the farmhouse to a ridge and then came around to the Honey Creek bridge, from which she saw Wood and Agar. She saw Wood call to her, but neither could hear the other in the howling wind. Knowing she had to reach the Moingona depot for help, Kate turned toward the massive bridge over the Des Moines River, lantern in hand. The bridge measured 696 feet— more than twice the length of a football field. To discourage walkers, there was no floor, and the ties were farther apart than normal—and were studded with spikes.
Kate—who could not swim—got down on her hands and knees, and with one hand on a rail and the other on a tie, started across. The lantern went out as she crawled, battered by wind and rain, only a few feet above the flood-swollen river. As Kate said in her 1888 speech:
“Halfway over, a piercing flash of lightning showed me the angry flood more closely than ever, and swept along upon it a great tree, the earth still hanging to its roots, was racing for the bridge, and seemed for the very spot I stood upon. Fear brought me upright on my knees, and I clasped my hands in terror, and in prayer, I hope, lest the shock should carry out the bridge. But the monster darted under the bridge with a sweeping rush and his branches scattered foam and water over me as he passed.”
She made it across and ran the final eighth of a mile to the Moingona station, burst into the depot and shouted out her story, later recalling that one man said, “This girl must be crazy.” But the station agent recognized her and immediately sent out a warning telegram—just before the wire went dead. Railroaders ran to a locomotive in the Moingona yard, and blasts from its whistle brought out men for a rescue attempt. Even so, it was daylight before Wood and Agar could be pulled from the water.
Part of the Shelley legend is that Kate saved the Atlantic Express just as it approached the Moingona depot, but that’s untrue, said Jack Shelley and Irwin. The train already had been stopped about 40 miles west, because of concern about the bridges. But despite her exhaustion, Kate did save Wood and Agar.
“She helped to get the two surviving men out of the water, and then went home and collapsed,” Jack Shelley said. “She was terribly ill for weeks and weeks. She was cold and shivered for days on end. The family was pretty worried about her, but finally she pulled out of it.”
Kate was now a national celebrity. The railroad presented her with a gold medal, two barrels of flour, a carload of coal and a lifetime pass. Kate attended Simpson College and taught school near Moingona. She also worked as a bill clerk for the Iowa Legislature in Des Moines. Despite the accolades, Kate struggled to pay the bills. The Chicago Tribune took up her cause, the Iowa Legislature voted her a $5,000 grant, and she was able to pay off the mortgage on the family’s home and build her mother a new house.
In 1900 the C&NW changed the route of its main line, bypassing Moingona, and built a new bridge west of Boone, 2,685 feet long and 185 feet above the Des Moines River. The C&NW in 1995 merged with the Union Pacific Railroad, but the Kate Shelley High Bridge remains the longest double-track railroad bridge in the world. The single-track line through Moingona became a branch line, with little traffic. In 1903 the railroad offered Kate the job of station agent in Moingona, and she accepted. Periodically the C&NW would run special excursion trains to Moingona for people to meet the famous woman. Kate was popular, loved to socialize and frequently would take a train to go skating or dancing. Despite her popularity, she never married.
“She had a lively appreciation for the opposite sex, but didn’t see the need for a man in her life as a permanent fixture,” Jack Shelley said.
Kate worked as the station agent until 1911, when she became ill with Bright’s disease and was hospitalized in Carroll. Jack Shelley said his aunt in her final days came home to her house near Honey Creek and died there on January 21, 1912.
“I’m very, very proud of Kate,” Jack Shelley said. “She’s taken quite a bit of my time, but it’s been a labor of love.”
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.