How Kate Shelley Saved a Train

Jan 9, 2023 0 comments

In 1901, the Chicago & North Western Railway erected a new bridge over Des Moines River in Boone, Iowa, the United States. The bridge was officially named the Boone Viaduct, but the locals quickly nicknamed it the Kate Shelley High Bridge, after the heroic 15-year-old lady, Catherine Carroll “Kate” Shelley, who saved a train full of passengers from sure disaster.

The Kate Shelley High Bridge shortly after it was completed. Photo: Chicago & North Western Historical Society

It was 6 July 1881. A massive storm lashed across Boone County and the waters of Honey Creek rose quickly and dangerously, washing out the timbers that had been supporting the trestle bridge across the tributary. Concerned about the deluge, the Chicago & North Western Railway sent two pusher locomotives out to check the bridges in the route for possible damage. One locomotive headed west from Moingona toward Ogden, while the other locomotive headed east towards Boone. The second engine made its way across the long Des Moines River bridge without any incident, but as it was crossing Honey Creek, the bridge collapsed sending the locomotive and its four operator crashing into the swollen creek below.

Kate Shelley, a 15-year-old Irish immigrant girl living with her family near the creek, heard the crash. Still in her nightdress, she rushed outside and ran to the collapsed bridge to find that two of the men had already climbed to safety and were clinging to the trees by the river bank. The other two men were lost in the water. Kate shouted to the men that she would get help, and then turned towards Moingona.

Kayte knew than an express passenger train was due in Moingona in less than an hour, stopping shortly before heading east over the Des Moines River and then Honey Creek. If she did not reach the railroad depot in Moingona in time to warn railroad personnel there about the collapsed trestle bridge, there would be a far worse accident at Honey Creek.

Kate Shelley

In order to reach Moingona, Kate had to first cross the massive trestle over the Des Moines River. This bridge was nearly 700 feet long, and to discourage pedestrians, the walkways on the bridge were removed, and the ties were farther apart than normal. Kate got down on her hands and knees and with one hand on a rail and the other on a tie, started to crawl across the bridge.

Later in 1888, in a speech in Dubuque, she said:

“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.”

Kate completed the crossing and ran the remaining distance to the Moingona station, shouted out the news and collapsed. The station agent immediately sent out a warning telegram and the incoming train, with 200 people on board, was halted. The railroaders then organized a rescue party and went in search of the men still stranded at Honey Creek. The two men named Edgar Wood and Adam Agar were pulled out from the water, but the other two men could not be rescued.

The Kate Shelley High Bridge along with the new concrete bridge. Photo: Bob/Flickr

Kate was hailed as a hero. The railroad presented her with a gold medal, half barrel of flour, half a load of coal, and a lifetime pass. The Order of Railway Conductors gave her a gold watch and chain. The state of Iowa also gave her a gold medal. Social activist Frances Willard paid part of her college tuition, and a Turkish immigrant raised funds to pay her debts.

In 1901 a massive steel trestle was erected over Des Moines River. Although the Chicago and North Western Railway named it the Boone Viaduct, folks began to call it the Kate Shelley High Bridge and the nickname stuck. Thus Kate became the first woman in the United States to have a bridge named after her. In 2009, the Union Pacific Railroad built a second viaduct alongside the old one. This one was officially named the Union Pacific Kate Shelley Bridge.

Kate received many offers for marriage from young men but she never married and lived most of her life with her mother and sister Mary. Shelley held many odd jobs, including that of second-class teacher in Boone County, until 1903, when the Chicago and North Western Railway gave her the job of station agent at the new Moingona depot.

Kate Shelley died in 1912. Years later, when the Chicago and North Western Railway began operating streamlined passenger trains, they named one the Kate Shelley 400.

# Kate Shelley: A Girl’s Heroic Journey, Historynet


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