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Kate Shelley Saves the Train

An Iowa Legend based on a true story

One night, in 1881, a fierce storm broke over the Des Moines river valley. The storm raged through the night, flooding the river and the nearby creeks. Along about 11 p.m., a "pusher" train was sent to search for any wash-outs along the track. After it passed the home of the Shelley family, a railroad widow raising five children, the family heard a terrible crashing sound. The bridge over Honey Creek had collapsed, taking the pusher train with it.

The eldest daughter, fifteen year old Kate Shelley, ran out into the storm to investigate. She saw two of the four men trapped in the water, but she could not reach them. Kate realized that she could not rescue the men by herself, and furthermore, that a midnight express train was due to pass over the Honey Creek Bridge, possibly sending more people to their death if she did not warn the nearby Moingona station of the washout.

Kate Shelly knew there was a nearby trestle bridge with a tiny catwalk over the flooded Des Moines River. So, amid the darkness and the storm, Kate crawled on hands and knees across the catwalk. Halfway across, a tree came crashing into the center of the trestle bridge. Kate was sure the tree would break the rickety bridge apart, throwing her into the flood waters below, but at the last moment, the tree slipped between the piers, splashing water all over Kate.

As soon as Kate reached the other side of the river, she ran towards Moingona Station, trying to beat the clock. She burst into the station, wild-eyed and warned the station agent of the wash-out. The station agent ran out into the storm with a red lamp to halt the express, whose headlight was bearing down upon the station.

As soon as the express train was safe, Kate led a rescue train to where the two men from the pusher train were clinging on for dear life, and they were saved as well. Only two lives were lost that night, thanks to the bravery of Kate Shelley.