Iowa Bridge Bears Name of Woman Who Saved Countless Lives Near Its Site
An Iowa bridge that was built more than a century ago is named after a woman who put the lives of others ahead of her own. She saved lives not far from there, while just a teenager.
During a central Iowa rainstorm on the night of July 6, 1881, an Iowa teenager who had been born in Ireland 15 or 17 years before (her age varies in historical articles) heard a train locomotive fall from a railroad bridge, and into the water. Knowing the train had damaged the bridge and a passenger train was scheduled for later in the night, she jumped into action.
The girl's name was Kate Shelley. The daughter of a Chicago & Northwestern Railroad worker, she carried only a lantern as she made her way to the site of the accident. Unable to help those that had been in the locomotive, Shelley's focus was to cross the bridge to save an even bigger catastrophe.
Despite her lantern going out, Shelley was able to crawl across the damaged railroad bridge, in part due to lightning lighting the way. She then ran at least a mile to reach a depot in the town of Moingona, alerting workers to what had happened, before she fainted. A railroad worker was able to flag down and stop the "Midnight Limited," an express train carrying about 200 passengers, preventing those on board from a horrific fate.
Shelley soon awoke and took rescuers to the site where the locomotive went into the water. Two of the four people who had been inside the locomotive were saved. One perished, while the fourth was never found.
After Kate Shelley's heroism, she became known across the U.S. Shelley was the subject of poems, and songs, and has even had books written about her incredible act of selflessness. "Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express" is one of the books available on Amazon.
Between 1899 and 1901, a new bridge was built over the Des Moines River, a replacement for the one Shelley had crawled across to save others.
Under construction in the 1900 photo below, the new bridge bypassed hills and curves, allowing trains to get out of the river valley without the help of additional locomotives.
When the bridge was completed, it "was one of the highest and longest double-track railroad bridges in the United States." It consisted of nearly 6,200 tons of steel, was 185 feet over the river below, and was nearly 3,000 feet long. Only three viaducts of its type existed in the world at that time. Iowa's was the biggest:
"The bridge was the longest and heaviest viaduct of its time and may be the longest extant double-track railroad viaduct in the world. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places."
In the 1901 photo below, a test train crosses the bridge. Originally called the Boone Viaduct, soon everyone would call it the Kate Shelley High Bridge.
On May 28, 1901, the train of President William McKinley (below) crossed the bridge. The 25th President would be assassinated four months later.
The original bridge was closed to all traffic in 2009. While it still stands today about three miles west of Boone, next to it is a new Kate Shelley Bridge (photos below). Built from 2007 to 2009, it has dual tracks which allow two trains to cross the bridge at the same time, at speeds of 70 mph.
Kate Shelley would end up becoming a special agent for the C&NW railroad at the Moingona depot. She passed away in 1912, but neither she nor her heroic act in the summer of 1881 have ever been forgotten. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad (C&NW) named a passenger train after her in 1955.