Remembering (the real) Kate Shelley
“Late in the afternoon of July 6, 1881, heavy, black clouds rolled up from the horizon and the gloom, presaging a violent storm, swept over the Des Moines River Valley. Farmers hastened their evening chores while anxious housewives hurried to bring in their washing and see that the chickens had found shelter. As the dense cloud-well spread over the sky, twilight deepened into the darkness of night, which was made blacker in contrast to the vivid illumination of the lightning flashes. Nearer came the ominous rumble and crash of the thunder until it made the windows rattle. Then down came the rain in sheets.”
That’s how the story of Kate Shelley begins, in an especially dramatic version published by the Boone Chamber of Commerce. And most Iowans know how it ends, with the brave 17-year-old crawling across the train trestle to stop a passenger train from plunging into Honey Creek.
But the legend has been stretched and twisted over the last 135 years, so it’s worth another look to separate the facts from fiction. No one knows this better than author Misty McNally, who has been researching the facts vs. the fiction of Kate Shelley’s life for the past six years and who will be releasing a book “Kate Shelley, Heroine of the High Bridges” soon. While working on her research at the State Historical Research Center in Des Moines, she set the record straight on a few points of the story that you might not know:
1. Shelley wasn’t everything the media made her out to be. As the story spread among the Chicago and East Coast press, reporters and illustrators filled their stories and depictions of Shelley with increasingly melodramatic details. By her own account, however, Shelley was an ordinary Iowa farm girl who did what needed to be done. “I felt I had to go. I believe that God makes strong the weakest and makes the poorest of us able to endure much for his merciful purpose,” she told a Dubuque crowd in 1888, according to a speech the railroad magazine “The Conductor & Brakeman” published in 1955.
2. Not everyone survived. A “pusher” engine carrying a crew of men crashed into Honey Creek when the storm swept away the Honey Creek bridge near the Shelley homestead earlier that evening. It was that noisy crash, in fact, that prompted Shelley to crawl across the much longer Des Moines River bridge nearby to alert the Moingona depot. Many sources report that two of the crewman survived, one drowned in the creek and was found downstream, and the last man was never found, dead or alive.
3. The passenger train had already stopped. Although it’s tempting to believe that Shelley saved the train in the nick of time, the history suggests otherwise. “The resolute teenager finally reached the west end of the (Des Moines River) bridge and proceeded to the Moingona depot,” according to a 1995 account in the Palimpsest. “Finding that the North Western had already halted its trains at the perimeter of the storm and no impending disaster existed, she turned her efforts to saving the survivors at Honey Creek.”
4. Shelley received support to attend Simpson College. Shelley received financial assistance to attend Simpson College, most notably from temperance activist Frances Willard. She studied during the 1882–1883 academic year, but it wasn’t a good fit and she returned home to live with her widowed mother. If you’re wondering why Kate left college you’ll have to wait for the book.
5. Kate was 17 years old. On the day she crawled across the Des Moines River bridge and led a crew to rescue the survivors of the Honey Creek crash Kate was 17. It is commonly misreported that she was 15 years of age and the birth year on her gravestone (1865) is also engraved incorrectly. Kate is believed to have been born December 12, 1863, in Ireland according to her baptism record and emigrated to America with her parents in 1865.
6. The current Kate Shelley High Bridge isn’t the one she actually crawled across — and neither is the older one next to it. 1. The $43 million bridge the Union Pacific completed in 2009 replaced the 1901 Boone Viaduct next to it, which was for its first 11 years the tallest double-track bridge in the country. (Its 200-foot height was surpassed by the Kentucky River High Bridge across a 308-foot-deep valley near High Bridge, Ky.) Contrary to popular belief, the 1901 Boone Viaduct was not named after Kate Shelley, much to the dismay of many locals at the time, but it became known as the Kate Shelley High Bridge regardless. Both high bridges are upstream from the bridge their namesake crossed on that famous night 135 years ago.
Learn more about Kate Shelley by visiting the Kate Shelley Railroad Museum in Moingona, where you can follow the hiking path to the location of the Des Moines River bridge that she crawled across that night. Also, plan to visit the Boone County Historical Society in Boone for a look at Kate Shelley’s lantern that she carried that night and her medals of honor.