The Story Of Kate Shelley: Railway Heroine
The following is a copy of an anonymous account of Kate Shelley and her heroic efforts to
save a Chicago and North Western passenger train one stormy night in Iowa in 1881.
High above the valley of the Des Moines River near Boone, Iowa, a
span of steel joins the crests on each side of the partly wooded slopes. Over
this bridge day and night the fast freight trains of the Chicago and North
Western Railway rumble 184 feet above the usually sluggish stream.
As an example of construction the bridge would draw the immediate
attention of civil engineers. But stresses and strains and the mathematics of
construction are not the interesting aspects to those few who know the story
of the Kate Shelley Bridge. For one thing, the bridge is a "she" and as such is one of the few major
American viaducts named for a woman. "She” was named for an Iowa girl who had neither wealth nor the
so-called "high station in life"; the bridge is one of the few tributes remaining as a memorial to a brave
17-year-old girl (based on records from County Offaly in Ireland, look under Famous People) who
flashed out of obscurity to the accompaniment of night-splitting thunderbolts and the roar of rampaging
Nature put on her best show of violence in introducing Kate to the world in the tradition of 19th
Century melodrama. Her introduction had everything of the theatrical lithographs of the '80's when
womanhood was regarded as something frail and to be protected and any deviation from this was
sufficient to add zest to the plot of the play. All the elements were there: the poor innocent country girl;
the frightening storm; the rising river; a wrecked bridge; the terrifying race against time and the elements
to save a train from its doom with the curtain finally coming down on a scene of supreme triumph for the
little girl receiving the homage of those she has saved. The only difference between Kate's story and the
dramas of her day is that her story is true and can be found in any newspaper archives of that day, for it
was in 1881 that she was destined to become one of the nation's great heroines.
Kate was only nine months old when her parents, Michael and Norah Shelley, emigrated with
many of their neighbors from Offaly County, Ireland. The Shelley's headed westward when they arrived
in America and settled on a quarter section of poor farming land near Moingona, Iowa, which was just
flexing its muscles under the influence of a coal mining boom. Michael got himself a job as a section
hand on the railroad and built for his family a small frame house on the plot of ground only a short
distance up the slope from Honey Creek, a tributary of the Des Moines River, and within sight of the
railroad's Honey Creek bridge.
Michael soon became a section foreman but he also had more mouths to feed as children were
born in the cottage. First came Margaret, then Mayme, Michael, Jr., and, finally, John. Twelve years
passed uneventfully in the Shelley family. Father Michael worked on the railroad and in his spare time
tilled the unproductive soil, eventually adding a cow, some hogs and chickens to his assets.
Then two events suddenly projected 12-year-old Kate into second-in-command in the Shelley
household. Her father was killed in a railroad accident and shortly afterward Michael, Jr., the oldest of the
two boys, was drowned while swimming in the Des Moines River. As the oldest of the children and with
Mother Shelley broken in health and spirit Kate had to take over many of the chores of the household. For
the next three years she plowed the fields and harvested what small crops there were; took care of the
livestock, saw to it that her brother and sisters continued their schooling and somehow managed to keep
up her own studies with the vague aspiration of someday becoming a school teacher. Life wasn't pleasant
for this little girl in those years but she didn't look at it that way, because she knew of no better life.
July 6, 1881 started out just as another summer day. A scorching sun came up that morning and as
it passed into its afternoon Kate's mother remarked that everything indicated a thunderstorm that night.
Sure enough, late in the day heavy black clouds rolled up from the horizon in the southwest, swiftly
enveloping the sun. A breeze sprung up and farmers hastened with evening chores while anxious
housewives hurried to bring in their washing and to see that their chickens had found shelter. As the dense
cloud-veil spread over the sky, the breeze became a stiff wind that moaned down through the Des Moines
valley. Twilight deepened into night, made blacker by blinding lightning flashes. Nearer and nearer came
the rumble and crash of thunder until the windows in the valley homes rattled. Then down came the rain
with a hushed roar.
In the Shelley cottage up the slope from Honey Creek the children watched the storm until its
violence drove them from the windows. The night drew on and, as the storm showed no signs of relaxing,
Kate and her mother eyed each other uneasily. They could hear the rumbling torrent in Honey Creek,
which had been high for days because of frequent heavy rains. Now and then the
sickening tearing of tree roots from the ground followed by the snapping of tree
limbs and a heavy thud told them another tree had succumbed to the gale. By the
light of intermittent flashes of lightning Kate could see Honey Creek was already
threatening the stable half way down the slope. Something had to be done.
Throwing a cloak about her shoulders she paused at the door a moment and
dashed out into the rain, wading through mud and water to the stable where she
let the horse and cows out to take care of themselves. On the way back she
rescued some little pigs, which had climbed on a pile of hay for safety.
The children were put to bed but for Kate and her mother there was no
sleep as the storm hung over the valley. They remained alert and apprehensive of danger, going to the
window frequently to watch the still rising waters of Honey Creek. They talked of the Honey Creek
railroad bridge and whether or not it would withstand the flood. Kate knew what heavy prolonged rains
could do to railroad embankments from what she had heard her father say.
It was already after eleven o'clock when Kate and her mother heard the rumble of a train crossing
the distant Des Moines River bridge. It was old No. 12 with Ed Wood, George Olmstead, Adam Agar and
Patrick Donahue on board. Their orders were to "run to Boone and return to Moingona regardless of all
trains". The engine came backing down the track with the brakeman and section foreman standing on the
running board behind the tender looking for washouts. They came in view of the Shelley house and then
rolled out on the swaying Honey Creek bridge. Kate and her mother listened intently and twice heard the
bell over the noise of the storm. Then, as she described it later, "came the horrible crash and the fierce
hissing of steam" as the engine plunged down with her crew into twenty-five feet of rushing swirling
waters. One of the crew later said the engine “screamed like a woman”.
Kate turned frantically to her mother. There were no more sounds from the direction of the bridge.
Nothing but the noises of the storm. "They've gone down !" Kate exclaimed, and suddenly her heart beat
faster as she remembered another train was due -- the midnight express from the west! Someone must
warn the train when it arrived in Moingona, on the other side of the long Des Moines River bridge, and
Kate knew it was up to her.
Attired in an old skirt and jacket, she caught up a straw hat and one of her father's railroad
lanterns, hushed her mother's pleadings and went out into the night. The entire valley was flooded by this
time and the Shelley yard was knee deep. The direct route to the railroad was impassable so Kate climbed
the bluff back of the house and detoured over higher ground until she reached the spot where the road cut
through the bluff. Once on the tracks she ran to the wrecked bridge. There the flashes of lightning showed
her that Wood and Agar had somehow grabbed limbs of trees as they fought in the stream and had
climbed up into the branches. They were safe for the time being, if the trees weren't washed away. She
could see that one of the men was calling to her but his voice was drowned out by the roar of the torrent.
No other men were in sight.
Unable to give aid and knowing that the express must be stopped, Kate turned and ran westward
down the track. Moingona was not far, only a mile away, but the long Des Moines River trestle lay in
between. Kate silently prayed as the storm seemed to subside but it picked up in tempo again. As she
reached the east approach of the bridge the heavens were split time and again by lightning flashes. The
wind howled over the unprotected bridge and the rain came down faster than she thought possible. She
was drenched to the skin and her chest was aching from running the short distance against the wind and
At the bridge she paused, breathless. Never had she seen the water so high. It was rushing under
the bridge almost up to the tracks. Uprooted trees and bushes, chicken houses, logs and boards swept out
of the darkness, slid with surprising swiftness under the bridge and then disappeared into the darkness
again. Kate pictured the engine falling into Honey Creek and then visualized the passenger train following
into the stream. In her imagination she could see the coach
lights disappear into the waters and hear men and women
screaming. It can't happen! She must hurry, hurry.
She took a few steps out on the long trestle and a
gust of wind almost blew her off. She dropped on her
hands and knees to the ties studded with nails and twisted
rusty spikes. The bridge was a high one and the railroad
never permitted anyone to walk over it. As a
discouragement some of the planking had been removed.
There was danger in crossing during fair weather and in
daylight but to attempt to cross in pitch darkness into the teeth of a gale and heavy rain on the slippery ties
would have been a test of courage for any man.
On her hands and knees Kate tried to appraise the situation and as she paused a terrific gust of
wind riding over the bluffs swept over the bridge. She swung her arm out to maintain balance, striking her
lantern against the ties. The lantern light flickered -- and then went out! A feeling of terror came over her,
but she now had no thoughts of turning back. Slowly she started her crawl over the trestle, guiding herself
by one of the steel rails and feeling of the ties ahead of her. Again and again her skirt caught on a nail or
spike and frequently she grabbed the rail as the wind sought to blow her off balance. The rough spike
studded ties bit cruelly into her palms and knees, but she kept on. She fervently hoped the lightning would
subside for at each flash the angry swirling waters only a few feet below were revealed and each time a
wave of dizziness swept over her.
About midstream a flash of lightning revealed an enormous tree rushing down on the crest of the
flood toward the very spot where she was clinging. It came with the speed of an express, ugly uprooted
and like a battering ram. In panic she rose upright on her knees for it seemed inevitable the impending
shock would carry out the bridge. Rising and falling in the waters like an ugly sea monster the tree swept
down on the bridge, dipping down and between the piers with a rush. There was a shattering of branches,
spraying the girl with water and the tree was gone off into the darkness.
Kate breathed deeply again and resumed her journey. To her it seemed she had been on the bridge
for hours. The start was in the long dim past and only the present was clear in her mind. On she crept on
hands and knees and suddenly cried with joy when she felt soil between two ties. She had crossed the
bridge and was on solid ground!
Mental relief gave her new strength. She stood up and ran down the track in the darkness, still
clutching the lantern. Had she thrown it away it would not be in the Historical Museum at Des Moines
today. It was only as she neared the Moingona station that she realized her strength was failing fast. She
recalled breathlessly telling her story and that someone replied, "The girl is crazy". and then she fainted.
But the station agent recognized her and he was quick to realize the importance of her message.
The whistle of an engine in the yards aroused the town. An engine was put into readiness; ropes, shovels
and other rescue gear were quickly collected. A "stop" order awaited the midnight express. In the
meantime Kate regained consciousness and strength. She insisted on going with the rescue party, crossing
the river on the rescue train en mute to Honey Creek. She guided the party along the bluff to the track
above a washout and on to the west bank of the creek where the survivors of the wreck could be helped. A
rope was cast out to Wood, still perched in a tree, who fastened down the line and then came ashore, hand
over hand. Agar couldn't be reached until the waters began to recede, but he, too, was rescued completely
exhausted after long exposure.
In the meantime the railroad's
telegraph wires hummed with the story of the
rescue and the girl's timely warning to stop
the night express. The days following July 6
were no days of rest or relaxation for Kate.
First came curious crowds who visited the
scene of the wreck and poured into the
Shelley home. The next day newspaper
reporters arrived, each with his list of
questions, exploring the whole neighborhood and checking into every minute detail for some undisclosed
dramatic information. The third day it was the same, with more reporters. The news was flashed all over
the country and made the most sensational reading of the nation. Kate's name was on everyone's lips. As
new details in the story came to light the whole story poured out to the nation again. Such was the case
when Donahue's body was found in a corn field a quarter mile downstream from the bridge. The body of
Olmstead, the fireman, was never found. On the fourth day, the ordeal of questions and answers proved
too much for Kate. Her strength gave way and she was confined to her bed for three months.
When she was finally able to be up and around Kate discovered that the storm had opened up a
new world for her. It was a world of praise and adulation. The passengers of the train she saved collected
a purse of a few hundred dollars for her; the school children of Dubuque gave her a medal; the state of
Iowa gave her another and with it an award of $200; the Chicago and North Western Railroad presented
her with $100, a half barrel of flour, half a load of coal and a life-time pass. A gold watch and chain came
from the Order of Railway Conductors. Letters poured into the Shelley cottage from all over the world.
Some letters contained verses in her honor, some requested her autograph or picture, others a piece of her
dress or a splinter from the wrecked bridge. Her story captured the fancy of the nation's poets, too, some
of them beating Pegasus unmercifully in their zeal to pay tribute to the 15-year-old girl. One of the best of
the poems was written by Eugene J. Hall who closed it with the following stanza:
"Ah, noble Kate Shelley, your mission is done;
Your deed that dark night will not fade from our gaze.
An endless renown you have worthily won;
Let the nation be just and accord you its praise.
Let your name, let your fame and your courage declare
What a WOMAN can do and a WOMAN can dare!"
Another poet, the Rev. Francis Schreiber of Havana, Ill., rode the winged horse of poetry hard
"Up to the station her steps she bent
To state the doleful incident;
And when she'd done and knew no more
She swooned and reeled and hit the floor."
Many were the poems written in her honor but one of the best did not receive the light of day until
in comparatively modern times in 1930 when the well-known journalist-author, MacKinlay Kantor, wrote
"The Ballad of Kate Shelley". A typical stanza reads:
"The midnight coaches from the west
Plunged in the ripping rain;
West of Moingona Ties were sound –
East was a broken train –
(East in the bile of Honey Creek
In one drowned, "creaking" curl,
Lay ninety tons of twisted steel)
Between them was a girl."
Kate even had a statue erected in her honor in Dubuque, but to many persons the honor was a
dubious one. The story of that statue deserves more than passing mention. One of the passengers on the
train was a Dr. Henry D. Cogeswell, a San Francisco dentist who extracted more profits in real estate than
in teeth, eventually finding himself a millionaire. The good doctor decided to turn some of his millions to
philanthropy in the form of public drinking fountains in public parks wherever townsfolk indicated they
were interested. There were some folks, however, who suspected the fountains were a form of self-
perpetuation, for all his donations were surmounted by a bearded cast-iron likeness of the dentist-realtor.
In "gratitude" to Kate he offered one of these fountains to the city of Dubuque where civic pride overrode
civic prudence and the offer was accepted. For many years the fountain with its iron-clad Dr. Cogeswell
staring off at the horizon stood in the center of Dubuque's Washington Park. Its inscriptions included one
to Kate Shelley, reading in part: "Presented by Dr. Henry D. Cogeswell, a citizen of San Francisco, Cal.,
to the citizens of Dubuque, and dedicated to Miss Kate Shelley, who," etc.
Almost from the beginning the fountain was not popular, possibly because Dubuque's brewers
disagreed with another inscription on the fountain. This was a "must" on all of the doctor's donations and
advertised his teetotalism by hailing "pure water for man and beast". To many of Dubuque's citizenry the
fountain did greater honor to Dr. Cogeswell and "pure water for man and beast" than it did to Kate
Shelley. A mysterious attempt to bomb the statue failed when the cast iron man weathered the blast. Then
one day the fountain, statue and all, disappeared, and it is believed to be buried in the park. Similar
statues, which the doctor scattered around the nation, particularly on the West Coast, also have
disappeared with a singular lack of public remorse.
One of the persons inspired by Kate's act was Frances E. Willard, the famous reformer and temperance
leader, who wrote to her friend, President Isabella W. Parks of Simpson College at Indianola, Iowa, and
offered to contribute $25 toward providing advanced education for Kate. Mrs. Parks was enthusiastic and
helped raise additional funds for Kate to attend Simpson during the term of 1883-84. But for some reason
college life didn't appeal to Miss Shelley, possibly because she knew she was needed at home. She didn't
come back the following term.
In the ensuing nine years Kate grew up with no self-imposed halo of heroism. A plain girl with
plain features and the square jaw of a hardy Irish girl, she resumed living and working as usual at the
Shelley home, wrestling with the plow and helping the family make ends meet. She "passed her
examinations for a teacher's certificate and started her career at a small school near her home The monthly
salary of $35 a month was the principal cash income for the Shelley household.
As the years drew on the public forgot about Kate. Then, in 1890, a Chicago newspaper
discovered the Shelley's home was mortgaged on a $500 loan, at ten per cent interest! It was also revealed
that the payment was due soon with the prospects of the Shelley's being cast out of the home they
occupied for twenty-three years. The revelation immediately brought public response. The mortgage was
paid off by the auctioning off for $500 an Armenian rug, wove in one of the display windows of a
Chicago furniture store. Other cash gifts totaled an additional $417. Meanwhile the publicity caused the
state of Iowa to vote Kate a grant of $5,000 and a publisher of school textbooks put an account of her
heroism into a "Third Reader" used subsequently in Iowa schools. This "Third
Reader" has now become a rare collector's item.
For some time the North Western railroad had offered Kate a job and in
1903 Kate decided to accept the duties of station agent at Moingona, becoming one
of the few women station agents employed by the company. Kate did her work
well, undoubtedly because her whole life had been associated with the railroad.
Twice each day she made the trip between her home and the station on foot along
the same route she traveled that fateful night in 1881, crossing the same bridge,
which in 1900 was replaced by a new iron bridge over the Des Moines River. This
was a much longer and sturdier span. That it was named for her made no
difference to Kate's outlook on life. Trains still passed over the old route over Honey Creek approaching
the Des Moines River, but a new route was laid out for the main line a few miles north of Moingona.
When Kate was at home train crews would slow down their trains and sometimes even stop to pay their
respects to her. The tracks past her home were now a branch line and such pauses did not hold up main-
Kate, for some reason known only to herself, never married although undoubtedly such a famous
person as she had many opportunities to avoid spinsterhood, Her interest now was her work at the station,
giving it up a short time before her death on January 21, 1912. At the time of her funeral hundreds of
friends and acquaintances came to the little cottage to do her homage, the railroad even sending a special
train to her home as a convenience for the family and her friends.
Today there is no track past the Shelley homestead. Originally the railroad's main line, it became a
branch line when the new Des Moines River bridge was completed in 1900 and a less tortuous main line
was built. In 1933 the road took up the branch line. Even so there are those who say the spirit of Kate
Shelley still visits the spot on dark and stormy nights, warning you, as does poet MacKinley Kantor:
"Be sure to take a lantern flame
To keep your spirit warm
For there will be a phantom train,
And foggy whistle cries –
And in the lightning flare you'll see
Kate Shelley on the ties."