If you haven’t heard of Moingona, Iowa, then you’ve probably never heard of Honey Creek, along which Moingona was built. During temperate weather, Honey Creek was plenty rapid, but during the rainstorms of early July, 1881, it rose higher and higher, becoming a torrent of swirling brown water, carrying with it trees and debris.
As the Creek swept downward to meet the Des Moines River, this debris came smack up against the bridges which crossed Honey Creek; twenty one in all. The wooden bridges quickly succumbed to the creek’s relentless assault; only those with stone abutments stood firm.
At about midnight on July 6, 1881, orders came from the headquarters of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway to send out a “pusher” (a engine which pushed trains up steep grades) to check and make sure that the Railway’s bridges over the Des Moines River and Honey Creek were still standing. Ed Wood and his crew of three men crossed the Des Moines River Bridge just fine, and as they approached the Honey Creek Bridge, they could dimly make out through the raging storm that it was still standing. It would not be for long; the pusher had just reached the center when the bridge began to crumble, sending Wood’s crew into twenty five feet of water, killing his fireman, and sweeping the tender downriver.
Kate Shelley, her mother and sisters had heard the crash from their house overlooking the bridge. Shelley’s eighteen years of life had given her enough misery and toil to last a lifetime; her brother had drowned while swimming in the Des Moines River, and her father, former night watchman on this particularly dangerous stretch of railroad, had died, worn out by the constant exposure to the elements that his duties commanded. At age 15, Shelley took the night watchmen job over after his death, and already friends remarked that exposure and hard work had given her the appearance of a woman of twenty-five.
Shelley had just returned from letting the livestock out of their barn, which was rapidly filling with water, when she heard the engine bell of Ed Wood’s pusher; almost immediately thereafter the crash had followed and the sound the hissing of the hot boiler striking the water came through despite the wailing of the wind. The family was so poor that family didn’t own a proper lantern, Shelley improvised one out of a miner’s helmet, and started off alone to the bridge, where the two men cried for help. It was normally tough going climbing down the hill to the banks of Honey Creek where pusher lay, through inundated fields, and in the middle of the tempest it took Shelley a good twenty minutes to get there.
Wood shouted out through the pouring that the express train was almost due; never mind them, she must get to Moingona and warn the station master that the bridge was out. Shelley set off once more through inundated fields and marshland, the mud sucking her downward with every step. Between her and Moingona the only bridge still standing was that over the Des Moines River, already it too was showing signs of strain as floating debris battered against the trestles and piers. Shelley walked step by careful step from one railroad tie to another River. There was nothing solid beneath her, and the railroad ties were three feet apart, necessitating a jump from one to another with the howling wind all around her and the muddy waters of the River thirty five feet below. She’d almost made the other side when her lamp went out, the remaining steps and the journey to Moingona were made in pitch black darkness. She barely made it in time, the passenger train, filled with 220 men, women, and children was stopped at Boone, Iowa; few minutes more and it would have been too late.
Now came the task of saving Wood and his fellow crewman, and Kate Shelley proved up to it once more, she guided a rescuing party, and thanks to her intrepid nature, the men were saved.
Shelley’s exploits earned her celebrity status; a subscription was taken up nationwide, and enabled her to go to Simpson College for a year, and later earn a teaching degree. Her $35 salary barely met expenses, and Shelley had to mortgage the family’s farmhouse. When a Chicago paper discovered she was in danger of losing the home because she couldn’t make the mortgage payment, another subscription was raised to pay it off; and the Iowa Legislature awarded her $5000 for her service to the state. In 1903, Shelley accepted a job with the railroad as station master at Moingona; but by now she had a new bridge to watch; the Kate Shelley Bridge, which had gone up in 1900. Shelley passed away in 1909, and is buried in Boone County’s Sacred Heart Cemetery. Her grave stone reads:
Here is a deed bound for legend. . a story to be told until the last order fades and the last rail rusts. On the night of 6th July 1881, Kate Shelley, then a girl of 15 years crossed the Des Moines river bridge at Moingona Iowa, in tempest and flood and prevented a C. and N. W. passenger and express train from plunging into rain-swollen Honey Creek where two men had died when a bridge collapsed under their locomotive. Her heroism saved the train and those aboard and led to rescue of survivors from the Honey Creek disaster.