Iowa History Daily: July 6 - Kate Shelley Crosses the River

Iowa History Daily: On July 6, 1881, as thunderstorms washed out a railway trestle on Honey Creek in Central Iowa, seventeen-year old Kate Shelley braved the storm while crawling across a bridge spanning the Des Moines River 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 Irelands, Kate Shelley immigrated with her family in 1865. First moving to Freeport, Illinois, to reunite with her father’s sister. 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’s 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 other siblings, Kate Shelley grew up fast.

Thunder rocked the Shelley cabin beginning at 11:00 p.m. on July 6, 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




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