Kate Shelley

Honored by:John D. (Jack) Shelley
Brick location:D:13  map

Born in Ireland, Kate Shelley in 1881 almost overnight became an internationally-known railroad heroine whose story is still being told more than 100 years later.

On July 6, 1881, 15-year-old Kate was living with her widowed mother and three younger children in a farmhouse near the east bank of the Des Moines River in Boone County, Iowa. The North Western Railroad's single-track line, which Kate's late father helped to build, passed in front of the Shelley home and then went over the river to the town of Moingona.

Honey Creek, a normally-placid stream, flowed past the Shelley home, then passed beneath a railroad trestle before entering the river. Late that afternoon, a storm generally described as one of the worst of the century struck Boone County; cloudbursts turned Honey Creek into a raging torrent and washed out timbers supporting the trestle. A locomotive sent out from Moingona to check the condition of the track was able to cross the Des Moines River bridge safely, but disaster struck when it moved out over the Honey Creek span just to the east.

The locomotive with its four crew members plunged into the flood waters below; two men drowned, while the remaining two saved themselves by grabbing onto tree branches, but were trapped in the surging water.

By now it was about 11 p. m.; the storm continued to rage, but despite continuous lightning and thunder, Kate heard the engine crash. She knew that a passenger train from the west was due to stop at Moingona in about an hour, then head east over the now-ruined trestle. She told her mother she must go to the crash scene, see what had happened to the engine crew, and then go to Moingona and warn that the passenger train must be stopped.

With only a hastily-repaired lantern to light her way, Kate took a circuitous route through the hills behind her home to reach the tracks between the ruined trestle and the Des Moines River bridge. She shouted to the surviving crewmen that she would get help, then turned to start across the river span -- 673 feet long. Her lantern had snuffed out, and lightning flashes provided her only illumination as she crawled across on her hands and knees. When she reached the other end she ran more than another half-mile to the Moingona depot and sounded the alarm. Then, in spite of exhaustion that would make her desperately ill for weeks later, she led a rescue party back to the other side of the river and helped rescue the two engine crew survivors.

The 15-year-old girl almost immediately became the object of nationwide praise. Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, poems, songs, and other tributes have been written about her. At least four children's books telling the story have been published in the latter part of the 20th Century. The state of Iowa gave her a handsome gold medal, crafted by the famous New York jewelry firm, Tiffany's. Philanthropists sent her to Simpson College. The combined management and labor unions of the railroad industry placed a bronze plaque, affixed to a granite marker, on Kate's grave 75 years after the deed. The Boone County Historical Society maintains a depot museum in the now-tiny village of Moingona, on the exact site where the railroad station stood that stormy night in 1881.

Kate died in January, 1912 at the age of 46. Her name deserves a place in this "Plaza of Heroines." As the plaque on her grave in Boone's Sacred Heart Cemetery says: "Hers is a deed bound for legend ... a story to be told until the last order fades and the last rail rusts."

Submitted on 11/4/94