The Kate Shelley Story
 Part Two

On a stormy summer night in 1881, 17-year old Kate Shelley crawled across the Des Moines river bridge in the dark to warn the approaching Midnight Express of the collapse of the Honey Creek bridge. She became a legend. This is part two of her story. Part One is here.
Building the High Bridge, 1900 (Chicago & North Western Historical Society Photo)

A New Mainline

Some 18 years after the dramatic events of July 6th, 1881, the Chicago & North Western Railway began construction on a new high tech mainline located several miles north of the Shelley Homestead, near Moingona, Iowa. This new cutoff was part of a multi-year project to rebuild the highly important mainline between Council Bluffs and Chicago. Construction of the portion through the Boone area began in 1898, and work on a new viaduct over the Des Moines River began in 1899.

Likely the first train on the bridge, 1901 (Chicago & North Western Historical Society Photo)

In early 1901, the new cutoff opened to traffic. The highlight was a half mile long, 185-foot-high viaduct over the Des Moines River. Originally referred to as the Boone Viaduct, it gradually became known as the Kate Shelley High Bridge, as a tribute to the young girl who saved the Midnight Express in Moingona. The viaduct was engineered by famed engineer George S. Morrison, and was one of his final projects. Both American Bridge Company and Union Bridge Company supplied the structural components for the bridge. At 2,685 feet long; it is still regarded as one of the largest double track railroad bridges in the world. Soon after the new line was opened, the Moingona line was downgraded to a branch line.

Newly Completed Bridge, Ca. 1902 (Chicago & North Western Historical Society Photo)

Despite the constant attempts by the railway to hire her, Kate oftentimes had other jobs; working at the Iowa State House as menial labor, or as a school teacher in the area. However, Kate finally took the job of station agent in Moingona. She remained unmarried through her life, despite the interest of coworkers in the area. Her mother died in 1909, and she stayed with her brother, John, who also worked for the railroad. In 1910, Kate’s health began to fail. She had some brief stints in hospitals, before returning to Boone County, where, in September of 1912, she succumbed to Bright’s disease.

Moingona Bridge Ruins, March 2013 (John Marvig Photo)

In 1930, the Moingona line was removed in preference of the Chicago & North Western route north of the area. All traces of the line were removed, including the Honey Creek Bridge that had collapsed and set in motion the events of that night in 1881, and the Des Moines River bridge that Kate Shelley crawled across in the dark to save the Midnight Express. The remaining artifacts included the 1901 depot, which replaced the original structure that burned the same year, a stone arch in Moingona over Mill Creek, and several miles of railroad grade.

Mill Creek Stone Arch near Moingona Depot, Built 1881, March 2013 (John Marvig Photo)

Over the years, Kate Shelley became a legend in the area. The Chicago & North Western designated a train from Chicago to Omaha as the Kate Shelley 400. The name was created in 1955, and removed from service in 1971. Boone County created a museum at the Moingona station, called the Kate Shelley Railroad Museum. The portions of the rail bed around Honey Creek and the Des Moines River are footpaths for those seeking to follow in the foot-steps of Kate’s heroic run in 1881. The Boone Viaduct, while never officially renamed the Kate Shelley High Bridge, still stands and can be visited very easily. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In addition, a number of documents pertaining to Kate and her family are in a special collection at the Iowa State University Parks Library.

The Kate Shelley High Bridge

Kate Shelley High Bridges, July 2012 (John Marvig Photo)

In 2006, after 105 years of use, a project began to replace the High Bridge near Boone. Chicago & North Western was purchased by Union Pacific in 1995 and the Union Pacific continued to use the line to full capacity. The new bridge opened in 2009. At 190 feet high and 2,813 feet long; it is larger than the old structure. This bridge was officially christened as the New Kate Shelley High Bridge. In 2016, the old structure is closed to trains, while the new concrete and steel structure carries the traffic. Side by side, the two bridges create one of the most impressive spectacles in Iowa.

Kate Shelley High Bridges, July 2012 (John Marvig Photo)


While Kate passed away over 100 years ago, her legend and story is one of the most inspirational and common stories passed to children in Iowa. At college in Ames, Iowa; I was hard pressed to find a student who grew up in Iowa not knowing the story of Kate Shelley. The two high bridges off Juneberry Road between Boone and Ogden attract tourists, rail fans and history buffs alike. While the new bridge oftentimes serves over 100 trains a day, the old bridge has been closed since 2009. It is hoped that it can someday become part of a memorial walkway. One would find it very difficult to visit Central Iowa without at least a glimpse of the legend of Kate Shelley.

John MarvigPhotographs and text Copyright 2016
See more of John’s work at John Marvig’s Railroad Bridge Photography

The Kate Shelley Story

Kate Shelley – Photo Courtesy of the Boone County Historical Society


On a crisp July afternoon in 2012, I stood on the dried up banks of the Des Moines River near Boone, Iowa, watching a train fly overhead on the Union Pacific’s famed Kate Shelley High Bridge.  The train was traveling on a portion of the Overland Route, a highly trafficked rail route from Chicago to San Francisco.  The massive structure the train crossed stands nearly 190 feet above the river valley, and is a half-mile long.  While this certainly was a breathtaking scene for a 14-year-old bridge-hunter from Minnesota, it cannot compare to the story of the young woman for whom the bridge is named.  Upon starting Civil Engineering School at Iowa State University in August of 2016, I began to understand the true impact this legendary heroine had on generations of Iowa residents.

A Railroad Family

Katherine Carroll “Kate” Shelley was born in Ireland in December of 1863 to Michael and Margaret Shelley.  With four additional children the family immigrated to the United States when Kate was one year old.  At first, they lived near Freeport, Illinois,  but later moved to Boone County, Iowa.  The family settled on a large tract of land, which was unsuitable for farming, but the land was near the Chicago & North Western Railway mainline between Chicago and Council Bluffs, near Moingona. Michael took a job as a section foreman for the Chicago & North Western. Their land overlooked the Honey Creek Bridge.

When Kate was 12, sudden tragedy struck the family.  Her father was killed in a railroad accident shortly after her brother drowned.  Kate was suddenly thrust into control of the household, as her mother’s health declined.

The Beginning of a Legend

On the 6th of July in 1881, a particularly muggy and sunny day led to a series of heavy thunderstorms that came rolling out of the west in the evening.  Honey Creek was already running very high from previous storms, and the heavy rains of this night would increase the swell.  Kate and her mother kept a close eye on the stream, and at 11 PM heard a train with a four-man crew returning from Moingona to Boone.

Diagram seen on the Moingona Depot – Photo Courtesy of the Boone County Historical Society

The next thing they knew, tragedy struck.  As Kate later recalled, there “…came the horrible crash and the fierce hissing of steam”.   As the train attempted to cross the Honey Creek Bridge, the wooden trestle gave way and sent the engine, and its four-man crew plunging into the creek.  Despite the initial shock of the accident, another thought came through the 17-year-old girl’s mind.  Another train, The Midnight Express, would be coming eastbound in about an hour, and Kate decided it was time to race into action.  Running to Honey Creek in an old dress and a tattered overcoat, she noticed two of the men clinging to branches.  Ed Wood and Adam Agar had escaped the tragic accident with their lives, clinging to trees to prevent that from changing.

Moingona Bridge 1882 – The Des Moines River bridge she crawled over, Pictured Ca. 1882. Photo Courtesy of the Boone County Historical Society

In the meantime, Kate knew she had to get to Moingona to stop the train.  She left the men in the perilous safety to prevent another tragedy.  The biggest obstacle was crossing the Des Moines River Bridge, a bridge that sat about 30 feet off the ground.  However, to discourage trespassing, the railroad removed some of the boards.  Kate would be in for quite a challenge as she crossed the bridge, literally on hands and knees.  With lightning and wind still fiercely surrounding her, she fought off splinters and ripped clothing to make it to Moingona, before collapsing.

When Kate regained consciousness a short time later, she was told that the stationmaster had recognized her as the daughter of Michael and suddenly realized the express must be stopped.  Kate insisted that a rescue party must be formed, and she returned with them to the Honey Creek Bridge.  Ed Wood was tossed a rope and helped to safety, while Adam Agar was rescued once the waters receded.  The other two crew members perished in the accident.

The news of the young heroine spread around Iowa, and eventually even made news internationally.  Reporters from all corners of the United States traveled to Iowa to interview her.  The ordeal, however, kept her bedridden for three months after the incident.

Site of the original Honey Creek Bridge, which collapsed in July of 1881 under the weight of a train. New bridge was built Ca. 1900, and remains are of that. John Marvig Photo

A World Waiting

When Kate regained her strength later that fall, the whole world was waiting.  Passengers from the train she had saved pooled together a few hundred dollars for her. School children in Dubuque gave her a medal, and the State of Iowa contributed another.  The railroad gave her a lifetime pass, among other supplies.  A gold watch came from The Order of Railway Conductors.  In addition, she instantly became a sensation with poems and songs written about her.  Some were so impressed with her quick thinking, they raised enough money to send her to Simpson College in Indianola.  Even the college president was raising money for her to come, being so enamored by her bravery.  However, she came back home after one year, feeling that she belonged in Moingona.

As the years passed, her fame faded.  She became a schoolteacher in Worth Township, making $35 a month.  However, this money was not enough for ends to meet.  In 1890, it was discovered that her home was mortgaged, and she was in danger of losing it.  The public response for Shelley was nothing short of amazing.  The mortgage was paid off by auction of a rug in Chicago, and she was granted a large sum of money by the State of Iowa.  She was even written about for a grade school textbook.

Even in 2016, many children in Iowa learn about this figure from 135 years ago.  However, her fame was far from over; and her biggest rewards were yet to come…

This is Part One of  The Kate Shelley Story. Click here to read Part Two.

John MarvigPhotographs and text Copyright 2016
See more of John’s work at John Marvig’s Railroad Bridge Photography