Kate Shelley

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Kate Shelley, railroad heroine

Catherine "Kate" Shelley (September 25, 1865 – January 12, 1912) was a midwestern United States railroad heroine, and the first woman in the United States to have a bridge named for her.[citation needed] She was also one of the few women to ever have a train named after her, the Kate Shelley 400.[1]


Catherine Shelley was born in Loughaun, Moneygall, County Offaly, Ireland.[2] Transcriptions of Irish records show her parents, Michael Shelley and Margaret Dwan, married on February 24, 1863. and Catherine was baptized on December 12, 1863.[2] However, United States 1880 census records indicate she may have been born in 1865.[citation needed] Her tombstone says she was born on September 25, 1865 and died January 21, 1912. The family name was originally spelled Shelly, which is how Kate often wrote her name, but the spelling Shelley was later adopted.[3]

Michael Shelley was a tenant farmer in Ireland, living on 3 acres (12,000 m2) and farming another 15.[2] The family emigrated to the United States when Catherine was a baby.[2] They first lived with relatives in Freeport, Illinois, then built a home on 160 acres (0.65 km2) at Honey Creek, near Moingona, Boone County, Iowa.[2] Michael Shelley became foreman of a section crew, building tracks for the Chicago and North Western Railway.[2]

Michael Shelley died in 1878. Margaret was in poor health, and Kate had to help support the family - plowing, planting and harvesting crops, and hunting.[2] The 1880 federal census for Worth County, Iowa showed 35-year old Margaret, 15-year-old Kate, both born in Ireland, and Mary (8), Margaret (6) and John (4), all born in Iowa.[4] Michael and Margaret Shelley had another child, James (also born in Iowa), but he drowned while swimming in the Des Moines River when he was only ten years old.[5]

The story[edit]

1908 map showing the Chicago and Northwestern route through Moingona, the southernmost community on the map. The railroad crossed the Des Moines River between Moingona and Honey Creek. (Red dots on the map are coal mines.)

On the afternoon of July 6, 1881, heavy thunderstorms caused a flash flood of Honey Creek, washing out timbers that supported the railroad trestle. A pusher locomotive sent from Moingona to check track conditions crossed the Des Moines River bridge, but plunged into Honey Creek when the bridge fell away at about 11 p.m., with a crew of four: Ed Wood, George Olmstead, Adam Agar and Patrick Donahue.[6]

Shelley heard the crash, and knew an eastbound passenger train was due in Moingona about midnight, stopping shortly before heading east over the Des Moines River and then Honey Creek. She found the surviving crew members and shouted that she would get help, then started to cross the damaged span of the Honey Creek bridge followed by the Des Moines River bridge. Although she'd started with a lantern, it had failed, and she crawled the span on hands and knees with only lightning for illumination. Once across, she ran a half-mile to the Moingona depot to sound the alarm, then led a party back to rescue two of the engine crew survivors.[6] Wood, perched in a tree, grasped a rope thrown to him, and came ashore hand-over-hand.[7] Agar couldn't be reached until the flood waters began to recede.[7] Donahue's corpse was eventually found in a corn field a quarter mile downstream from the bridge, and Olmstead, the fireman, was never found. The passenger train was stopped at Ogden, Iowa, with 200 aboard.[2]

The aftermath[edit]

The passengers who had been saved took up a collection for her. The children of Dubuque gave her a medal,[6] and the state of Iowa gave her another one, crafted by Tiffany & Co.,[8] and $200.[6] The C&NW gave her $100, a half barrel of flour, half a load of coal and a life-time pass.[6] The Order of Railway Conductors gave her a gold watch and chain.[6]

News of her bravery spread nationwide; poems and songs were composed honoring her. The railroad built a new steel bridge in 1900, and named it after her.[9] It was the first and, until the Betsy Ross Bridge in Philadelphia was opened in 1976, the only bridge in the United States named for a woman. The bridge was rebuilt by the Union Pacific Railroad from 2006 through 2010. The new structure can accommodate heavy trains, features two tracks and can handle two trains simultaneously at a speed of 70 mph. It was opened on October 1, 2009 as the new Kate Shelley Bridge, one of North America's tallest double-track rail bridges. [2]

Frances E. Willard, a reformer and temperance leader, wrote president Isabella W. Parks of Simpson College at Indianola, Iowa, offering $25 toward an advanced education for Shelley. Mrs. Parks raised additional funds for Kate to attend during the term of 1883–84, but she didn't come back the following term.[6]

She became a teacher in Boone County schools until 1903, when the Chicago & Northwestern named her stationmaster at the new Moingona depot,[10] the original having burned down in 1901.[11]

Later in life[edit]

In 1890, a Chicago newspaper revealed that the Shelley home was mortgaged for $500 at 10% and was near foreclosure. An Armenian rug, woven in the display window of a Chicago furniture store, was auctioned for $500, retiring the mortgage, and other Chicagoans donated an additional $417 before the state of Iowa voted Kate a grant of $5,000.[6]

In July 1896, it was reported that Shelley had applied to the Iowa Legislature for employment in the State House as a menial, because she was destitute and had to support her aged mother and invalid brother.[12]

Although there were apparently men interested in her, including the switchman in the yard at Moingona,[13] Kate Shelley never married, and continued to care for her mother until Margaret died in 1909.[6]

Kate Shelley grew sicker and, in June 1911, doctors at Carroll Hospital removed her appendix. After a month in the hospital, she stayed with her brother John,[11] and was reported a little better by September, but died on January 12, 1912 from Bright's disease (acute nephritis).[14]

Years later, the Chicago and North Western began operating streamlined passenger trains, and named one the Kate Shelley 400. It operated from 1955 to 1971, although the name was officially dropped in 1963.[1]


Original steel on the left; new concrete/steel on the right.

The Boone County Historical Society maintains the Kate Shelley Railroad Museum on the site of the Moingona depot. The Shelley family donated a collection of letters and papers of family members of Kate Shelley, 1860–1911, to Iowa State University. The timetable accents for Metra's Union Pacific/West Line are printed in "Kate Shelley Rose" pink.[15]

The original high steel bridge is currently being replaced with a modern concrete and steel span that will also bear her name.

The Iowa poet and politician, John Brayshaw Kaye, wrote a poem in her honor called, 'Our Kate', in his collection Songs of Lake Geneva (1882).[16]

Margaret Wetterer wrote a children's book called "Kate Shelly and the Midnight Express" in 1991 telling the story of Kate Shelly, a book which was featured in an episode of the children's television program Reading Rainbow.


  1. ^ a b Scribbins, Jim (2008) [1982]. The 400 Story. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 9780816654499. OCLC 191760067. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Irish Midland Ancestry
  3. ^ Kate Shelley: Railway Heroine
  4. ^ U.S. Census Year: 1880; Census Place: Worth, Boone, Iowa; Roll: T9_328; Family History Film: 1254328; Page: 155.1000; Enumeration District: 10; Image: 0394.
  5. ^ Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express by Margaret K. Wetterer Copyright 1990
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Kate Shelley story
  7. ^ a b The Kate Shelley Story
  8. ^ Burlington Hawkeye, Burlington, Des Moines, Iowa March 30, 1882
  9. ^ Kate Shelley bridge
  10. ^ Daily Iowa State Press Iowa City, Johnson, Iowa October 17, 1903
  11. ^ a b Kate Shelley, Railroader
  12. ^ The Batavia [Illinois] Herald, 22 July 1896
  13. ^ Burlington Hawkeye, May 4, 1882
  14. ^ Washington Post, January 22, 1912
  15. ^ "Did you know?". On the Bi-Level: 3. June 2009. 
  16. ^ Songs of Lake Geneva (1882) and other poems, G.P.Putnam's Sons, New York [1]

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