Kate Shelley: train rescuer Part II—and a railroad trestle in my past

Kate Shelley: train rescuer Part II

An Iowa trestle from the author's childhood: bridge across Pittman Creek near West Point, Iowa - photo taken by Mary Eipert shortly before demolition of bridge

For those who took an interest in the story of Kate Shelley, I’d like to share a few more interesting tidbits. According to the accounts I’ve read, after the death of her husband and son Kate’s mother not only lapsed into poor physical health, she also lost her spirit. I suppose that means she broke mentally and could no longer adequately care for and raise her children. This placed a terrible burden of responsibility on Kate, her oldest child, and Kate sacrificed her own childhood and later independence in order to fill this void and take care of her family. She was not recognized for this heroic act.

I could not find a photo of the bridge Kate shinnied across, but some illustrations I ran across show the bridge with girders and supports rising above the tracks and bridge deck. As far as I can determine, the bridge was open and unprotected, much like the one out of my own childhood, pictured above. The Kate Shelley Railroad Museum in Moingona is on my list of places to visit; perhaps it has photos of the bridge.

The water level, normally far below the tracks, was not far below the bridge deck during the height of the flood, and not only trees, but farm buildings too, were washing downstream at a fast clip. When they crashed into a piling the whole bridge shook. I wrote that all trains were stopped because of the severity of the storm but found this in only one account. Other reports don’t mention it, so it is unclear when the order to stop all trains went out—before or after the stop order for the midnight express telegraphed because of Kate’s warning.

Kate fainted from stress and exhaustion after delivering her warning at the station. She came around in time to insist on joining the rescuers because she needed to lead the party to the endangered train crew hanging on for dear life in the flood amidst the wreckage.

The thing I found most endearing and refreshing about Kate was her indifference to fame. She could have ridden it far, had she chosen to do so. Kate’s drama captivated a nation through countless news stories and interviews, and she even had poems written about her. She would surely have received offers such as speaking engagements, business proposals, and marriage but she turned them all down. What she did do was resume her life and the family burdens no fifteen year old should be shouldering.

Her fame faded in time, but for years passing railroad crews paid their respects by slowing down when they passed her house. Some even stopped. And when she rode a train, they obligingly stopped to pick her up or let her off at her house.

A railroad trestle closer to home—and its inclusion in a novel

One reason I particularly like Kate’s story is because I have some railroad-trestle-crossing experience myself and can appreciate the bravery it took to cross that Des Moines River trestle under those dangerous circumstances. A similar type of trestle (photo above) spanned Pittman Creek in Lee County, Iowa, near my family’s farm, so of course crossing it a time or two was irresistible. But its ties were not spaced two feet apart, my crossings occurred in daylight, no flood raged below me, no train was due momentarily, and no violent thunderstorm was in progress. I am not encouraging anyone to venture out on an active rail line to gain a better appreciation of Kate’s experience, but I have no doubt you could better picture Kate’s adventure after doing so.

The trestle of my childhood no longer stands. A branch line ran across it and the train was known locally by its nickname, the Peavine. The bridge and train intrigued me enough to give them both an important role in my novel, Butterfly Powder and the Mountains of Iowa. My hero did not pull off any Kate Shelley heroics on the bridge, but he was lucky enough to survive his confrontation with an unexpected oncoming train when he and a car load of other teens were track riding across the bridge in a car. The bridge is also the setting for a number of other incidents in the book.


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