Note: Yesterday I told you the story of the brave Iowa pioneer boy Milton Lott. Here is another tale of a heroic young person from early Iowa. Both are from my book Highway History And Back Road Mystery II.
In Boone County, Iowa we came across the story of Kate Shelley, a courageous teenager who risked her life to save those of total strangers.
Life had never been easy for Kate. Born in Ireland, her family emigrated to America when she was nine months old and settled on a hardscrabble piece of farmland near Moingona, Iowa. Kate’s father Michael got a job with the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, and on his time off worked the land, trying to eke out a living for his growing family. When Kate was twelve years old her father was killed in a railroad accident, and only a few months later her brother Michael, Jr. drowned while swimming in Honey Creek near the family’s small house. The twin tragedies left her mother broken in both health and spirit.
As the oldest of the surviving five Shelley children, Kate took over the role of family provider. For the next three years she plowed the fields and harvested what small crops she was able to grow, took care of the livestock, saw to it that her brother and sisters continued their schooling, and somehow managed to keep up with her own studies, hoping to someday become a school teacher. Life wasn’t pleasant for this young girl, but she never complained.
On July 6, 1881, a terrible storm swept across the region, dumping buckets of rain that flooded creeks and rivers, while howling winds blew anything that wasn’t nailed down into the next county. Snug and dry inside their little house on the banks of Honey Creek, the Shelley family suddenly heard a terrible crash about 11 p.m. and realized that the bridge over the creek had washed out and a railroad switch engine had plunged into the water.
Fifteen year old Kate ran out into the storm and found two survivors of the crash on the far bank of the creek. Two other men had been trapped in the locomotive and died in the accident. Growing up within hailing distance of the railroad, Kate knew that the Midnight Express passenger train was due to cross Honey Creek in less than an hour. Somebody had to stop the train before it, too, crashed at the washed out bridge!
Returning home long enough to grab her father’s old kerosene railroad lantern, Kate rushed back out into the terrible storm and began running toward the Moingona station. Kate had to cross a high railroad trestle over the Des Moines River to get to the station, a perilous task at any time, and even more so in the pounding storm. But there was no other way. If she did not warn the station agent at Moingona to stop the Midnight Express, over a hundred passengers and crewmen could die!
The bridge had been built to prevent pedestrians from crossing it, with no planks, just steel rails now slippery with rain, and ties spaced two feet apart. Kate never hesitated. She began crawling across by clinging to the rails, inching her way across, holding on for dear life so she didn’t slip and fall into the raging river below. If the Midnight Express arrived while she was on the bridge, she would have been crushed instantly. But she struggled on while the wind tore at her, splinters ripped her clothing and skin, and a tree crashed down on the bridge, its branches whipping the rain soaked girl.
Finally she crossed the 500 foot long bridge and struggled to her feet and ran on another quarter mile to Moingona station, where she burst in the door, mud splattered and wild eyed, just as the whistle of the approaching passenger train could be heard. Wasting no time after hearing Kate’s tale, the station agent ran outside with a red lantern and flagged the train down. Kate had saved the Midnight Express! She did not know it at the time, because as soon as she delivered her lifesaving message, she collapsed in a wet heap on the rough wooden floor of the railroad station. Kate soon regained consciousness and insisted on leading the rescue party to save the men trapped on Honey Creek.
In the days to follow, Kate Shelley became an overnight celebrity. Curious crowds swarmed to the scene of the train wreck and poured into the Shelley home to see this young girl heroine. Newspaper reporters flocked to the family farm, asking hundreds of questions about every detail of her experience. By the fourth day, the melee proved too much for Kate. Her strength gave way and she was confined to her bed for three months.
Newspapers around the nation reported on her courageous deed, and politicians boasted of her brave American spirit. The Chicago and Northwestern railroad rewarded her with $200 and a gold watch and chain, plus a lifetime rail pass. A Chicago newspaper paid off the mortgage to the family farm, and the state of Iowa gave her a gold medal. A benefactor paid her tuition to Simpson College and Kate got the education she had long dreamed of. In 1901 a more modern bridge replaced the trestle Kate had crawled over on that dark and stormy night and was named in her honor.
After graduating from college, Kate taught school for a time. But she never completely recovered from her ordeal the night of the train wreck. Always a healthy girl before the incident, Kate was plagued with health problems. The Burlington Hawkeye newspaper reported on May 4, 1882 that she had been bedridden, suffering from the effects of her dangerous journey across the railroad bridge.
Several times the railroad offered her employment, but it would have required leaving her family behind, and Kate felt duty bound to remain in Moingona and help her widowed mother raise her younger siblings. Kate never married, though at least one newspaper account reported that a railroad switchman had proposed to her.
In 1903, Kate took the job of station master at Moingona, becoming one of the few women station agents employed by the company. She held that position until she died on January 22, 1912, of consumption at the age of 46. The Chicago and Northwestern railroad sent a special train to carry Kate’s coffin to Boone, Iowa for burial, and hundreds of people came to her funeral.
Today there is no track past the Shelley homestead. Originally the railroad’s main line, it became a branch line in 1900, and in 1933 the railroad took up the branch line. Some people claim that on dark and stormy nights the ghost of Kate Shelley still visits the place where she risked her life to save others, perhaps maintaining a spiritual vigil in case someone else needs a warning that disaster lies ahead.
The old Moingona railroad station where Kate worked is now the Kate Shelley Railroad Museum, displaying artifacts from Kate’s life, railroad equipment and memorabilia, and a railroad passenger car. Operated by the Boone County Historical Society, the museum is open on Saturdays and Sundays from June through September from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., or at other times by appointment. The museum is located in Moingona, just a couple of miles south of U.S. Highway 30. GPS coordinates at the museum are N 42º 01.184 W 093º 55.943. The Kate Shelley High Bridge, named after the brave Iowa farm girl, is just a few miles north of the museum. The Boone County Historical Society can be reached at (515) 432-1907.
Today is your last chance to enter our latest Free Drawing. This week’s prize is an RV camping journal donated by Barbara House. Barbara makes several variations of these, and they all have pages where you can list the date, weather, where you traveled to and from that day, beginning and ending mileage, campground information including amenities at RV sites, a place for a campground rating, room to record activities, people met along the way, reminders of places to see and things to do the next time you’re in the area, and a page for notes for each day. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn this evening.
Thought For The Day – Fear kills more dreams than failure ever will.