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Kate Shelley (1881)

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  • Kate Shelley (1881)

    Kate Shelley

    The year was 1881. The place, Des Moines, Iowa. Kate Shelley, who was only 15 years old, lived in a farmhouse in the beautiful valley of North Creek. She lived there with her mother (a railroaders widow) and her 5 other siblings. The Chicago and North Western Railroad ran right past the Shelley house. The particular day was July 6th, it was late in the afternoon, and a terrible rainstorm began to flood the creek in front of the Shelley home.

    At 11:00pm an engine stationed at Moingona, the closest village, was ordered, "A run to Boone and back regardless of all other trains and the weather." The train left the station with 4 men on board. As the train passed the Shelley house, two men were standing on the outside of the engine checking for washed out tracks. Then the train made its way onto the Honey Creek Bridge, when out of nowhere, CRASH!! The bridge had broken.

    "They've gone down!" Kate shouted to her mother. Kate jumped to her feet and sprang into action because she knew a passenger train would be on these same tracks shortly. With only a jacket, a straw hat and a tiny miner's lantern, Kate ran out into the stormy night.

    Kate made her way along the bluff, on the backside of her house, to the railroad tracks. She followed the tracks to the Honey Creek Bridge, where she found the men and wrecked engine in the water below. Kate knew the Midnight Express would be at this very same spot soon and they too would plunge into the abyss below…unless she could somehow stop it. Quickly, she decided she must go to Moingona and stop the passenger train. The town was only a mile and a quarter away, but first she would have to cross the Des Moines River wooden bridge.

    So she just started running. Soon she reached the river and the bridge. The water had never been this high before. At least Kate had never seen it this high before. (Now, prior to all of this happening, some of the planking had been removed from the Des Moines River Bridge to help discourage pedestrians from using it. The ties were placed a pace apart and had been studded with rusty spikes and nails. So, Kate would have to plan her steps just right in order to get across.) As Kate stood before the bridge planning her path, a gust of wind extinguished her light. She was now left in total darkness.

    Here's the good part. Terrified and freezing, Kate dropped to her knees, and began to crawl across the wooden trestle. Sure she was scared, but she just could not stop thinking of the drowning men and the Midnight Express. Her skirt got caught on nails, her knees got scraped, she lost her balance once…twice…then a sharp pain shot into her hand. OUCH!! A spike had gouged into her. But Kate continued on and on until at last, she felt solid ground below her. Yeah! She had made it across the bridge. You'd think she'd be exhausted right? But not our little Miss Kate. With what little strength she had left, she stood up and can you believe ran the final quarter mile to the station at Moingona.

    After telling her story to the station workers, they sounded an engine whistle, which alerted the town, and the red light at the signal was illuminated, which stopped the Midnight Express. Kate had done her job. The message had arrived in time. But she didn't stop there…she continued on by leading the workers back to the Honey Creek Bridge, where they were able to save 2 of the men.

    Kate was an instant hero. People came from miles to see the scene of the great rescue and tragedy. There were press and poems, articles and photos, and the Chicago Tribune helped to raise a fund to get the Shelley Family out of debt. Kate was one of the most famous women of her time. A new bridge has since been built and is now called the Kate Shelley Bridge.

  • #2
    Northern, thanks for the amazing piece of history. Got chill bumps on my arms as I read it. Can't imagine the terror for her on that nite.
    I may not be king..But..ITS GOOD TO BE QUEEN