Kate the Great

Catherine Shelley was no stranger to hard work and hard times. She and her parents had immigrated from Ireland to the United States when she was a small child, eventually settling on a farm on Honey Creek, outside of Moingona, Iowa. Her father, Michael, worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad in addition to farming. For a while it looked as if the Shelleys’ hopes for a better life in America would be realized.
But Michael Shelley suddenly became ill and died, and the oldest son, James, drowned at age ten while swimming in the Des Moines River. Now Kate was left to shoulder most of the burden of farming their 160 acres, hunting and fishing for food, and caring for her ailing mother and three much younger siblings. She was fifteen years old, and on July 6, 1881, she would face the most harrowing and difficult test of her courage and resourcefulness.
It had rained hard that day, and Honey Creek had flooded, washing away the timbers of the railroad bridge that crossed it. The C&NW sent a pusher locomotive out to check on track conditions. The engine, with four men aboard, made it across the Des Moines River bridge, but at Honey Creek it plunged into the water at eleven P.M.
Kate Shelley heard the crash from her house and knew immediately what had happened. She also knew (she wasn’t a railroad man’s daughter for nothing) that a passenger train was due to stop at the Moingona station briefly before heading on to Honey Creek, unaware of the danger there. They would have to be stopped.
Kate first ran to the crash site on Honey Creek and called out to the survivors that she was heading for the Moingona station and would send help to them. Then she turned and headed for the still-intact Des Moines River bridge. She’d started out with a lantern, but now it failed. Kate needed no one to tell her how dangerous her situation was, but she never thought of turning back. She crossed the Des Moines bridge on her hands and knees, feeling her way across the slippery span in a fierce wind and able to see only by the intermittent flashes of lightning.
Once over the bridge, Kate ran another half-mile or so to the station at Moingona. She was exhausted and soaked through, but she was in time to prevent the passenger train from starting its run toward Honey Creek. Two hundred people were aboard that train, and many or all of them would surely have died once they started over the damaged bridge.
Tired as she was, Kate then led a rescue party back to the crash site. Engineer Ed Wood, sitting in a tree above the water, was able to grab a rope thrown to him and make his way hand over hand to safety. Adam Agar had to wait till the waters receded some in the morning, but he too survived. Patrick Donahue’s body was found nearly a quarter-mile away, washed into a cornfield. And fireman George Olmstead’s body would never be found.
The unassuming Irish farm girl was hailed as a hero. The grateful passengers she’d saved from certain death took up a collection for her. The C&NW Railroad gave her $200, a half-barrel of flour, a half-load of coal and a free lifetime pass on their trains. The railroad conductors’ union presented her with a gold watch and chain. Schoolchildren in the city of Dubuque raised money to have a medal made for her. And the state of Iowa commissioned another medal for her, crafted to order by none other than Tiffany and Co.
Like most true heroes, Kate Shelley went on to live an ordinary and peaceful life. She attended a year of college before moving back to her hometown to teach school and later to work as a railroad stationmaster. She died in 1912, aged forty-seven, of kidney disease.
Kate Shelley’s legacy lives on. Many poems and ballads were written about her and survive to this day. The C&NW named a train after her, the Kate Shelley 400, which ran from 1955 to 1971. She was the first woman ever to have a train named in her honor.
The Honey Creek Bridge was rebuilt and named the Kate Shelley Bridge, making her also the first woman in the U.S. to have a bridge named after her. In fact, until Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross Bridge was opened in 1976, she was the only woman to hold this distinction.
The Kate Shelley Bridge is still standing. It’s been rebuilt and expanded and can accommodate two trains going up to seventy miles per hour. It is one of the tallest two-track railroad bridges in the country.
Kate would surely approve of it.

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