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Iowa History Daily: December 12 - Heroine of the High Bridge Kate Shelley

Iowa History Daily: On December 12, 1863, Kate Shelley, the heroine of the high bridge was born. At seventeen, Kate Shelley braved a massive storm to crawl across a bridge spanning the Des Moines River in order to alert the depot at Moingona to stop the oncoming Omaha passenger train. An incredible moment of courage in the history of Iowa, Shelley’s memory soars on two bridges spanning the Des Moines River near Boone today.

Born in Ireland, Kate Shelley immigrated with her family in 1865. Mike Shelley, Kate’s father, got a job working for the Chicago & North Western Railroad, and the family followed the line west to Boone County, Iowa. The CNW line ran directly in front of the Shelley house, just to the east of the Des Moines River crossing to Moingona. Mike Shelley died of tuberculosis in 1878, before Kate’s younger brother James drowned in the Des Moines River just months later. Forced to drop out of school to help her mother manage the farm and care for three remaining siblings, Kate Shelley grew up fast.

Thunder rocked the Shelley cabin beginning at 11:00 p.m. on July 6, 1881, and soon the sounds of pusher locomotive tumbling and the Honey Creek Bridge breaking rolled over the cabin. Counting the minutes until the midnight passenger train would come barreling down the tracks, Shelley went out into the storm with a small lantern and discovered the crash. At least one of the four men on the pusher died in the wreck. One of the surviving men urged Shelley to head for the Moingona depot.

While Shelley made haste toward the trestle spanning the Des Moines river, her lantern flickered out. Surrounded by the storm the teenage girl crawled on her hands and knees over the wet planks. An angry sky pelted rain as the Des Moines swirled menacingly down below, and Kate Shelley continued to put one hand in front of the other. Finally arriving on the other side after an unimaginable struggle across, Shelley ran the final mile to the depot.

In a later speech at Dubuque in 1888, Shelly said: “I felt I had to go. I believe God makes strong the weakest and makes the poorest of us able to endure much for his merciful purpose.” Although the Chicago & Northwestern had already halted the train Shelley raced to save, her heroic selflessness still stands out as a courageous moment in Iowa’s early history. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar


1 Comment


It is misleading to title the article "Heroine of the High Bridge", as Kate did NOT cross the high bridge (that we know has that name today). She crossed another bridge that was closer to her home. People who read this article will likely come away with the notion that she crossed the 'high bridge'. Also, the bridge that she did cross, although shown in the article, is not captioned thus clarifying it as being the actual one that she crossed.

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