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Kate Shelley and the Great Train Rescue of 1881

On 6 July 1881, a massive storm in Boone County, Iowa caused a flash flood. The flood washed out the support trestles for the train bridge over Honey Creek, a tributary to the Des Moines River.  The Chicago and North Western railroad, which used the bridge, sent out a pusher engine (“Old No. 12”) from Moingona to check the tracks.  When it reached the bridge over Honey Creek at around 11pm, the bridge collapsed, sending the train and the four men riding it into the swollen creek below. 

Kate Shelley (1865-1912), a 15-year-old Irish immigrant girl living with her family near the creek, heard the crash. She recalled with horror that an express passenger train was due to cross the Honey Creek Bridge around midnight.  She ran out to the collapsed bridge and located two of the men clinging to trees in the river.  The other two men were lost in the waters. 


As she could not help the men at the time, she made her way to the high bridge over the nearby Des Moines River, almost 200 feet above the flood waters below.  Pedestrian traffic was largely discouraged by the railroad, and walkways on the Des Moines River Bridge had been dismantled.  Kate initially attempted to use a lantern, but it failed, and she was required to make the nearly 700 foot journey over the bridge to the Moingona station on her hands and knees, using the lightning of the storm to navigate her way across the span. 


When she reached the Moingona Station, Kate was recognized by the station agent. After hearing the situation, he immediately issued orders to halt the midnight express train.  He then sent out a rescue party for the men lost on the Honey Creek Bridge.  The express train stopped safely in Ogden, Iowa with all 200 passengers.


Kate was hailed as a hero; she received a gold medal from the state legislature, and funds were raised to send her to college and clear the family’s mortgage.  Kate went to college for one term before returning to help her family’s homestead.  After her death in 1912, the train bridge over the Des Moines River was renamed the Kate Shelley High Bridge, and a passenger train line was later named after her, as well – the Kate Shelley 400.  She is one of the first women in the U.S. to hold those honors.  


Dana Rovang


Idea Contributor:

Philip Rovang

Lindenhurst, IL



Primary Sources

Burlington Hawkeye, Burlington, Des Moines, Iowa (March 30, 1882).

Burlington Hawkeye, Burlington, Des Moines, Iowa (April 6, 1882).

Burlington Hawkeye, Burlington, Des Moines, Iowa (May 4, 1882).

Daily Iowa State Press, Iowa City, Johnson, Iowa (February 17, 1899).

Washington Post, Washington, D.C. (January 22, 1912).


Secondary Sources

Iowa Gen Web Project

John Hafnor, Strange But True, America: Weird Tales from All 50 States (Fort Collins, CO: Lone Pine Productions, 2009), 46.  Google Books.

Margaret K. Wetterer, Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express (Minneapolis: Millbook Press, 2006). Google Book, Reading Rainbow.


Advanced Reading

Bridge Engineering Handbook, Second Edition: Construction and Maintenance, Wai-Fah Chen and Lian Duan, eds. (Boca Raton, FL: Taylor and Francis Group, 2014).

Kate Shelley

Kate Shelley

The bridge Kate Shelley crossed

over the Des Moines River


Currier & Ives

American Express Train, 1864

Kate Shelley Bridge

Photo: Dan Wilson, WikiCommons

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