(Foot)Notes on Iowa - Day 13 - Ledges to Don Williams Recreations Area + Beyond to Boone
Updated: Feb 10, 2022
After a meandering Part 2, Day 4, took me across to the west bank of Des Moines River and Camp Mitigwa, I decided I would stick to the more westerly course in order to encounter the Kate Shelley Memorial High Bridge. First, however, I returned to Ledges State Park for an early morning filled with drone flying and visiting with Roger Riley from WHO 13 Des Moines (story at: https://who13.com/news/history-professor-walks-the-dragoon-trail/)
While we visited about Dragoons and the progress of the walk, the sun rose high above the trees and the temperature continued to climb. For the fifth consecutive day the heat-index climbed over 100, and I anxiously eyed the sky while considering how the day's route consisted primarily of unshaded gravel roads. We wrapped things up and I headed, making my way up Magnolia road toward Moingona.
Moingona, a small unincorporated town residing in the floodplain of the Des Moines on the west bank founded when the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad reached the area in 1866. A year later, in 1867, the United States Post Office opened a branch in the small town. Although mail service discontinued in 1926, the small community today draws local visitors due to the old railway depot. Owned and operated by the Boone County Historical Society, the depot today exists as an interpretive site related to the legend of Kate Shelley.
An 1865 Irish emigrant to the United States and Boone County, Kate Shelley looms large today in the memory of Boone County. Just 17 years old on a dark and rainy July day in 1881, Kate Shelley heard a violent crash when supporting timbers of a railroad bridge over Honey Creek (a Des Moines tributary) washed out, ultimately leading to the crash of four men in a pusher-locomotive around 11:00 p.m. on July 6. Shelley, aware of the scheduled passenger express train due through around midnight, scrambled to the scene where she found the two survivors of the pusher-locomotive crash. The express, due in from the west, would shortly cross the Des Moines and disastrously plunge into Honey Creek unless someone warned those at the Moingona Depot.
Lantern in hand, Kate Shelley began to crawl across a towering bridge across the Des Moines River Valley. As she progressed, the lantern blew out leaving only the intermittent lightening to illuminate her slow crawl high above the river. Once she made the other side, she quickly crossed the final two miles to Moingona to arrive at the depot in time to stop the train and save the lives of those aboard the passenger train. Although sources suggests the train stopped further west at the edge of the storm, Shelley's heroic actions still stand as a remarkably selfless act.
Today, the converted depot, as well as the Kate Shelley Memorial High Bridge stand in honor of a young girl and her heroic actions on a July night in 1881. The original bridge, constructed by the Chicago & Northwestern from 1899 to 1901 roughly three miles west of Boone at the Des Moines River crossing, towered 185 feet over the surrounding valley. The highest double-track railway bridge in the United States, the C&NW renamed the bridge to honor Kate Shelley in 1912. Although still standing, the majority of rail traffic through the area now passes on a new Kate Shelley Memorial High Bridge constructed from 2006 to 2009. The new structure stands slightly taller, 190 feet, and allows two trains to simultaneously pass in opposite directions while traveling at speeds up to 70 mph.
The bridge crossed by Shelley in 1881 no longer stands, however, eager visitors can still see the piers at the site south of Moingona. The new bridges stand a few miles upriver from Moingona, and I ventured northward in their general direction. Following the 'Alternative' Dragoon Trail, I slowly made my way through rural Boone County while the sun scorched the gravel roadways beneath my feet. I maintained a course roughly following the river on gravel above the floodplain once I left Moingona, skirting around Ogden to the east and eventually winding my way to Don Williams Recreation Area.
A 600-acre site including a 150-acre reservoir lake and a 9-hole golf course, Don Williams marked the end of my walking for the day. Several trails, including one named for the Lakota, wind their way through the park. Upon arrival, I used the Lakota Trail to make my way through the park to the cabin hosting the expedition for the time we spent in Boone County. Between the early morning Ledges excursion, the WHO interview, and a day of absolutely scorching and unshaded day of agricultural walking I found myself spent. However, the Boone County Historical Society beckoned.
Heading in toward Boone, a quick stop at the Milton Lott Marker necessitated my momentary attention. Milton Lott, son of the no good horse thief and murderer Henry Lott, froze to death when the Wahpekute Dakota leader Sintominiduta's band burned their farm to the ground early in the winter of 1846-1847. When the band of Dakota arrived, they found only Milton and his mother at home. Although Lott and an older son returned, they hid in the bushes to avoid confrontation. Eventually, as the buildings burned, Milton took off through the winter inadequately dressed toward the early Boone-county settlement of Pea's Point. He never made it, instead freezing to death downriver from the cabin site. Lott and his elder stepson eventually made it to Pea's Point, rallied a group of other settlers and sympathetic Pottawattamie wintering in the area, and set out to rescue Mrs. Lott. They found her half-crazed, but otherwise unharmed. The settlers did not locate Sintominiduta. Years later, Lott murdered Sintominiduta in cold blood near Lizard Creek before eventually escaping out west.
Inaccurate historical portrayals, including an interpretive board at the Milton Lott gravesite, attribute the 1857 attack on Spirit Lake of Wahpekute Dakota leader Inkpaduta to the Lott-Sintominduta conflict. However, after carefully studying the topic for most of the past decade, I concluded several significant issues result from such over simplistic thinking (read more, like a lot more, in my doctoral dissertation "Forces of Nature: An Environmental History of Inkpaduta's 1857 Attack on Spirit Lake" at https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/etd/17929/) In short, attribution of Inkpaduta's much later actions takes a gross misunderstanding of Dakota revenge raids, kinship, tribal structure, and the general development of conflict along the Iowa frontier during the nineteenth century (I will discuss the topic more when I arrive at Spirit Lake in Part 3, but if you have specific questions feel encouraged to reach out).
Moving on from the site, I made my way to Boone where I met with a representative of the Boone County Historical Society at their downtown Boone History Center. The organization publishes a small periodical focused on topics of local interest, and the staff helped locate back issues with material related to the Dragoons. The organization also maintains the Hickory Grove School, the Kate Shelley Park and Railway Museum, as well as the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Birthplace. I toured the Boone History Center, enjoying a variety of well-constructed exhibits including those on Boone's development, local military history, and locally-rooted grocery store chain Fareway.
After my time at the Boone History Center, I looked around town for awhile to find several other significant historical sites. I stopped by the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Birthplace, although the museum remains closed. I also located the Daughters of the American Revolution "Dragoon Trail Historical Marker #8" on the westside of town. A full-day already behind me, I headed out toward Pilot Mound visit some friends and partake in a truly-Iowa experience of a maid-rite in a farmhouse kitchen. The conversation swirled from the Dakota in Iowa, to crop conditions, and beyond toward the decline of unions in Iowa meat-packing before the night ended. A wonderful end to perhaps the fullest day of the expedition. Exhausted, a headed back to Don Williams for some rest before the long trek up to Dolliver Memorial State Park near Fort Dodge lined up for Part 2, Day 6.