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FreightWaves Classics: Young girl saves hundreds of lives

Kate Shelley depicted crawling across a railroad bridge. (transportationhistory.org)

In modern times, a hero is often described as an ordinary person who is able to achieve an extraordinary feat. Another definition is someone who puts others before themselves and is selfless in a good way.

So it was in central Iowa on July 6, 1881 (141 years ago today). A deadly passenger train wreck was averted thanks to an ordinary teenage girl. Seventeen-year-old Katherine Carroll “Kate” Shelley is the heroine of this story. 

Born in Ireland, Kate and her family immigrated to the United States when she was 18 months old. Eventually the Shelley family settled in Iowa’s Boone County, near Honey Creek, which is a tributary of the Des Moines River. Kate’s father had worked as foreman of a section crew building tracks for the Chicago and North Western Railway (C&NW) before he died in 1878. Kate’s mother was in poor health, so Kate became the de facto head of the household. She provided for her mother and siblings by planting and harvesting crops and also hunting for food.

Strong thunderstorms that began earlier on July 6 caused a flash flood at Honey Creek later that night. The flood washed out timbers that supported a trestle bridge across the creek. At around 11 p.m. a locomotive dispatched to check track conditions in the still-stormy weather plunged into Honey Creek as the bridge disintegrated. 

Kate heard the locomotive’s crash into the overflowing water. Carrying one of her late father’s railroad lanterns, she raced to the washed-out bridge. Two of the locomotive’s four crew members had climbed up onto branches of a large tree overhanging the creek. The other two crew members were not visible. Realizing that the men in the tree could not climb down because of the ever-worsening flood conditions, Kate shouted that she would get help.

A CN&W passenger train of the period. (Photo: lakestatesarchive.org)
A CN&W passenger train of the period. (Photo: lakestatesarchive.org)


An eastbound passenger train in harm’s way

As Kate ran for help, she realized that an eastbound passenger train from Omaha was scheduled to pass through the area at midnight. She understood that unless she could reach the railroad depot in the community of Moingona in time to warn railroad personnel there about the collapsed trestle bridge, there would be a far worse accident at Honey Creek.

To reach the depot in Moingona, Kate ran along the tracks as fast as she could, despite the strong rain and winds. When she reached the bridge across the Des Moines River, however, her lantern’s flame was extinguished as a result of the steady rain. On her hands and knees she crawled across the bridge; the only illumination came from periodic lightning. She saw the raging river below her, while sharp splinters from the bridge’s trestles cut her hands and knees.

After completing her crawl across the bridge, Kate ran for at least a mile along the tracks to reach the depot. When she arrived, Kate shouted about the dangerous situation at Honey Creek and then fainted. Luckily, she had arrived just in time – the people at Moingona were able to alert another depot along the route to stop the train from traveling any further. There were approximately 200 people on board the train. 

Kate regained consciousness and led a rescue party to the stranded crew members at Honey Creek. Both crew members were still stranded in the tree but were safely rescued. The body of another crew member was located downstream, while the body of the fourth man was never recovered.

Kate Shelley at the Moingona railroad station. 
(Photo: rejectedprincesses.com)
Kate Shelley at the Moingona railroad station.
(Photo: rejectedprincesses.com)

The rest of the story

Kate Shelley won national acclaim for her heroic efforts. Poems and songs were composed in her honor. The passengers on the train that did not crash because of her warning took up a collection for her, and the state of Iowa gave her a medal crafted by Tiffany’s.

The C&NW presented her with $100 (about $2,860 today), a half-barrel of flour, half a load of coal, and a lifetime pass for the railroad. These were valuable gifts for a family in such dire straits as the Shelleys – but that was only the beginning.

Over the next several years, Kate received a gold watch, a college scholarship, cash (one newspaper raised funds to pay off the Shelley’s mortgage), as well as numerous marriage proposals. An award was established in her name to celebrate women in the railroad industry. Her story was used to teach children in nearby schools to read. A train, a bridge and a trainman’s lodge were named after her.

However, the greatest gift was a lifetime job with the railway. The CN&W appointed her railroad station agent at Moingona, and set up a stop right outside of her house.

The C&NW built a new bridge across the Des Moines River in 1901. It replaced the bridge that Kate Shelley had once crawled across. Although the new bridge was officially named the Boone Viaduct, it was unofficially known by most as the Kate Shelley Bridge or the Kate Shelley High Bridge. 

An image of Kate Shelley in her later years. Although she had a variety of jobs and lived until 1912, she was always defined by her heroics on the night of July 6, 1881. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)
An image of Kate Shelley in her later years. Although she had a variety of jobs and lived until 1912, she was always defined by her heroics on the night of July 6, 1881. (Photo: State Historical Society of Iowa)

Kate Shelley died in 1912. However, as recently as 1956 – 42 years after her death – the railroad industry still celebrated her, decorating her grave with a bronze plaque. It reads: “Hers is a deed bound for legend – a story to be told until the last order fades and the last rail rusts.”

Another bridge was constructed in that area and was opened to rail traffic in 2009. That bridge was formally named the Kate Shelley Bridge. It is one of the tallest double-track railroad bridges in North America. In addition, Kate Shelley was one of the first women to have a train named after her – C&NW’s streamlined passenger train Kate Shelley 400 made its inaugural run in 1955.

Today, the Kate Shelley High Bridge is owned by the Union Pacific Railroad. 

The Kate Shelley High Bridge. (Photo: bridgehunter.com)
The Kate Shelley High Bridge. (Photo: bridgehunter.com)

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.