You won’t find a better example of real-life heroism than the story of a brave fifteen-year-old Iowa girl named Kate Shelley. I can picture what this girl went through because I grew up not so far from the Des Moines River, and near a railway with a high, scary trestle that I crossed a few times.
Kate, the 12 year old adult
Kate was born in Ireland the year the American Civil War ended. The following year, 1866, her family emigrated to America to escape the terrible poverty gripping Ireland. Eventually the family settled on a 160 acre farm near Moingona, in Boone County, Iowa. To make ends meet in supporting his five children, Kate’s father took a job as a section hand on the railroad, a branch of which ran past the family’s house.
When Kate was twelve, her father died in a railroad accident. The following year tragedy struck again when her brother drowned while wading in the nearby Des Moines River. It was Kate who found his horse at the river when he didn’t return home. Kate’s mother never recovered from the tragedies and suffered from poor health the rest of her life. Twelve-year-old Kate had to take her father’s place on the farm. It was also she who got her siblings up in the morning, sent them off to school, and tucked them in at night. During the day she farmed. Because she could not attend school herself, in spare moments she read every book she could find.
During the afternoon of July 6, 1881, Kate watched a fierce and rapidly moving storm blacken the sky. Rain had been falling for most of the week already. Honey Creek, a tributary of the Des Moines River, was already very high, so the tremendous cloudburst sent the creek far out of its banks. When Kate went out to check the livestock she found water already in the barn and rising rapidly. After she led the larger animals to higher ground she discovered a number of pigs who’d taken refuge on a haystack island. These she carried to the house.
The storm continued to rage. From a window, even before darkness set in, Kate could see the flood water piling debris against the supports of a nearby trestle over Honey Creek. Around 11 p.m. Kate and her mother heard the sound of a yard engine climbing the steep grade to the bridge. There followed a tremendous crash and an explosive hiss of steam as the boiler hit the cold water. Kate knew she had to go out to see if she could help save anyone, despite her mother’s fearful pleas. She knew how dangerous this was but argued that had her father been in such a situation she’d expect the same of someone else. Her concern went beyond the men on the pusher engine, for she knew the midnight express train bound for Chicago would be coming through soon.
The young hero’s dangerous trek
After lighting her father’s old railroad lantern, Kate set out to a small bluff overlooking the trestle. Among the pilings and debris she saw part of the engine poking out of the swirling brown water. Somehow, amidst the noise of the storm and raging stream she picked up faint cries for help. She spotted two men holding onto tree branches in the rushing water. With her lantern she signaled to let them know they’d been seen, but knew she could do nothing for them herself except bring help. And if she didn’t stop the express train, its cars and 200 passengers would be down there on top of those men.
To get to Moingona, the nearest station and the last station able to stop the express, Kate needed to cross the creek. This required slogging through farmland and climbing a grade to reach the next trestle over the churning creek. From there, it was a mile and a half to the station, but that distance included an enormous obstacle—the 700 foot long trestle across the flooded Des Moines River. Crossing it was a daunting feat even in daylight because the wood ties were splintery and set two feet apart. To prevent anyone but the most fearless from crossing on foot, many boards were removed from the narrow service walkway and the ties peppered with bent nails and spikes.
Kate knew, even before she was nearly blown off the bridge by a wind gust, that it was too dangerous to cross upright. So she crawled along on hands and knees, holding the lantern in one hand and picking her way through the obstacles. All the while the thunderstorm with its driving rain raged about her and the rampaging water thundered beneath her. The tracks were normally 50 feet above the river but the flood brought the water much closer to the tracks. Not far into the crossing the lantern was drowned out by the rain and wind, so Kate had to feel her way across in the dark.
The fright on the trestle
Adding to Kate’s fright was the shaking of the bridge as uprooted trees and other large objects plowed into the pilings. Near the middle of the river, a flash of lightning showed a huge tree bearing down on her, one she feared would tear out the trestle when it struck. It, however, passed between two pilings and the bridge sheared off some of its branches. Kate felt the sting of its branches as it passed and was doused with spray.
Kate was chilled to the bone from the heavy cold rain, her hands and knees were covered with splinters and cuts, and her clothes were ripped from the obstacles, she continued on and eventually reached firm ground again. Although exhausted, she knew the station was now only half a mile away and there was no time to waste because, without lantern light, she had no way to stop the midnight train on her own. So she set off at a run. She later said she had little memory of what happened when she burst into the station with her warning, other than someone among a group of men saying “That girl is crazy.” But the station master recognized Kate and took her seriously. He immediately telegraphed the next station up the line to make sure the express was stopped, then dispatched one of the yard engines, and the bevy of volunteers which piled on, to rescue the men in the creek.
Kate needed to guide the party to the men in the creek. The train cautiously crossed back over the long trestle and to the collapsed bridge. When the rescuers found no way to reach the pair from that position, Kate led the party to them by the muddy overland detour she’d taken earlier. One of the men had managed to climb up into a tree and was soon rescued with a rope, but the second man couldn’t be helped until near dawn when the water receded. After it was over the men took Kate home and she went to bed. Although it turned out that the express train was already halted along with other traffic due to the ferocity of the storm, Kate didn’t know this at the time of her heroism.
The next day the story of Kate’s bravery began to spread through the railroad telegraph network. Soon newspapers picked it up and before long the Iowa girl’s story had spread throughout the country and beyond. Reporters and well wishers flocked to her farm. She got no rest. The ordeal so exhausted her that four days after the experience her doctor confined her to bed, and there she stayed for nearly three months before she recovered.
When Kate had her health back she received countless honors, and some much needed donations. Letters poured in from around the world. Not only did the passengers on the express train collect several hundred dollars for her, the state of Iowa also awarded her money to help out the family. Even the railroad chipped in; besides $100 in cash, it gave her half a load of coal, half a barrel of flour, and a lifetime pass on its trains. Later, money was raised to send her to college, but she attended only one year because she was needed at home.
In time Kate’s fame waned. She earned a teacher’s certificate and landed a job teaching at a local school, however, her meager salary was inadequate. The loss of the family farm loomed when the mortgage payment couldn’t be met. Once again, the public responded. The Iowa legislature also granted her $5000 for her past heroism. The North Western Railroad offered her a job several times and in 1903 she finally accepted the post of station agent at Moingona, the station where she’d delivered her news twelve years earlier. The Des Moines River Bridge she’d crossed was replaced in 1900 by a new one, several miles north and named after her (see photo above).
Kate remained on the family farm, never married, and worked at the station until the illness that preceded her death in January 1912.
For those who wish to learn more about Kate, two modern era books present her story. Both are illustrated children’s books.
Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express, by Margaret K. Wetterer
Kate Shelley: Bound for Legend, by Robert D. San Souci
Kate has a museum dedicated to her–housed in the very railroad station to which she carried her news and in which she later worked. The Kate Shelley Railroad Museum is maintained by the Boone County Historical Society. See another photo of the Kate Shelley Bridge built in 1900 (the wooden one).
Credit and license information for beginning photo of Kate Shelley Bridge