It was 11 p.m. on July 6, 1881, when 15-year-old Kate Shelley heard a terrible noise amid a violent storm that was raging in central Iowa.
Kate quickly realized the noise was the result of the collapse of a railroad bridge that spanned nearby Honey Creek. The bridge gave out when a work locomotive carrying four men passed over. Any train that followed would careen over the edge into the swollen creek—and Kate knew that a passenger train, the Midnight Limited, was due in less than an hour. The only way to get to the other side in time to warn the depot was to cross a 50-foot-tall wooden trestle bridge that was hundreds of feet long.
Undaunted, Kate grabbed a lantern and started crawling. The storm was still raging, and some of the railroad ties on the bridge were up to 3 feet apart. To make matters worse, as Kate made her way inch by inch, her lantern blew out. Nonetheless, the teen persevered—but even when she reached the other side, her job wasn’t done. After her harrowing experience on the bridge, Kate had to run a half-mile to reach the Moingona depot.
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She was successful, saving the lives of more than 200 passengers on the midnight train—and she still had more left to give. The exhausted girl managed to lead a rescue party to the site of the crash, where two men from the locomotive that had crashed were still clinging to trees in the water. The body of a third worker was later found in a cornfield, washed there by the swirling flood waters. The fourth man was never found.
Her incredible tale spread quickly. People wrote poems about her. Donations rolled in to pay off the Shelley mortgage. Gifts included a lifetime rail pass, $200 cash, a gold watch, a gold medal made by Tiffany & Co., and even a job—years later, the Chicago & Northwestern (C&NW) Railroad made her station master at the depot she had raced to that stormy night [PDF].
Sadly, though Kate survived that night, she died at the young age of 47, succumbing to Bright’s Disease in 1912. While her health was failing, the C&NW division superintendent provided his private railroad car so Kate could travel in comfort. In 1956, the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen donated a plaque to honor the 75th anniversary of her deed. It was erected behind her tombstone at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Boone, Iowa.
A new bridge replaced the old trestle 20 years after that stormy night; still-grateful citizens named it after her, if unofficially. And while Kate may have died more than a century ago, her deed is still the stuff of legend: In 2009, Union Pacific opened a more modern bridge that runs parallel to the now-decommissioned one named after Kate in 1901. The company insisted on honoring the namesake of the original, and thus, the Kate Shelley Bridge still stands today. Check out this cool drone footage of the dual bridges: