Kate Shelley - Railway Heroine
In the state of Iowa, U.S.A. just over one hundred years ago Kate Shelley won nationwide acclaim by a deed of heroism which averted a railway disaster and saved the lives of hundreds of passengers. Kate Shelley was born in Loughaun in December, 1863. Her parents Michael Shelley and Margaret Dwan were married on 24th February 1863. Fr M. Spain, C.C. officiated at the marriage and the witnesses were William Nicholson and Bridget Lewis. Michael Shelley's father was a tenant of 15 acres on the estate of Rev. William Minchin in Cloncannon. The ruin of the house has been known as 'the widow Shelley's'. James Dwan, Margaret's father occupied three acres in Loughaun from Henry Prittie. Catherine (Kate) Shelley was baptised by Fr Daniel Cleary, P.P. on 12th December 1863 and the sponsors were John Dwan and Hannah Camphil (Cantwell).
While Catherine was still a baby the family emigrated to the United States and joined some relatives at Freeport, Illinois. Moving west they settled on a quarter section of over a hundred acres at Honey Creek near Moingona in Iowa, where Michael built a new frame house and out-buildings for the stock and poultry. To augment the family income he got a job on the Chicago and North-Western Railway which ran near their home, and he was promoted to be foreman of a section crew. Four more children were born to the family, James, Mayme, Margaret and John.
Michael Shelley died in 1878 leaving his widow to look after the farm and rear five young children. The mother was in poor health and the weight of the work fell to Catherine who was now called Kate. She ploughed, planted and harvested the crops and went hunting to help provide food for the family. The night of July 6th, 1881 was to change Kate Shelley's life.
A fierce storm with torrential rain swept over the countryside and as evening approached floods swelled the Honey Creek, it overflowed on to the farm, and rushed to join the Des Moines river which was already a raging torrent. Kate moved the stock to higher ground before nightfall as they were threatened by the floods.
The midnight express train from the west was due to pass over the long Des Moines river bridge and the shorter bridge on Honey Creek on its way to Chicago. According to regulations a pusher engine was sent forward from the little Moingona station to test the track as far as Boone, the county capital. it got safely over the 671 foot long Des Moines river bridge. The Honey Creek bridge shaken by the storm collapsed under the engine which was hurled into the raging torrent 25 feet below. Hearing the horrible crash Kate and her mother realised that the Chicago bound train carrying over 200 passengers was due within an hour, and that it was doomed to destruction at Honey Creek if a warning was not given.
Kate made up her mind. She would try to get to Moingona station to have the express stopped. Setting out through the flooded land with the lantern her father used to carry at night she reached the Des Moines river bridge. She had to crawl up the ascent to the bridge which was 50 feet above the river. The long span had no floor and the cross ties were a yard apart leaving gaping spaces with nothing beneath but the raging river. Crawling on her hands and knees from one tie to another by the light of the lantern when suddenly she was left in darkness as the light went out. Inching forward she at last reached solid ground and the cinders of the track.
She was almost exhausted when she reached Moingona station. They thought she was crazy when she shouted Stop the express, Honey Creek bridge is down. As she insisted an urgent message was telegraphed to Ogden and the train was stopped. When she told of the fate of the pusher engine a rescue party set out on a freight engine with Kate on board, to see if any of the four who were on the pusher could be saved. Two were clinging to the branches of a tree which was caught in the broken bridge and they were hauled to safety. The other two were drowned.
Next day when the story was flashed throughout the country Kate was a national heroine. Money was raised to help her and her family and many awards were presented to her. She was granted a scholarship to Simpson College at Indianola where she graduated as a teacher. She taught for a number of years in schools in Boone county until 1903 when she accepted a post as station agent at Moingona. She continued to live at home with her family. Her mother died in 1909 and a few years later on 21st January 1912, Kate Shelley died of Bright's disease. But her story has lived on and the places associated with her name have developed into a tourist attraction which brings hosts of visitors each year. Poems and articles have been written about her. A granite stone with a bronze plaque were placed over her grave in the family plot at the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Boone. The inscription on the plaque reads:
The original spelling of the family name was Shelly but the spelling Shelley was later adopted although Kate often wrote it as Shelly. Her age at the time of the heroic deed is given as 15 years but one of the poems written in her honour gives it as 18; her correct age was 17.
Kate Shelley's name has been perpetuated in a number of ways. A new train called 'The Kate Shelley Express . . . 400 runs from Chicago to Boone. The old bridges over the Des Moines River and Honey Creek have been abandoned and the railway line takes a new route and a new iron bridge spanning the Des Moines river is named 'The Kate Shelley High Bridge'. The old railway station at Moingona was abandoned years ago and became derelict but it is now the site of 'The Kate Shelley Memorial Park and Museum.
One volume in a set of ten American Folk Legends published a few years ago for children is titled Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express.
A nephew of Kate Shelley's, Professor Jack Shelley, lives in Ames, in the State of Iowa.
I wish to acknowledge
assistance which I have received from the following in tracing the story
of Kate Shelley: Rev. Fr O'Meara, P.P., Dunkerrin for details from the
Parish Registers; Fr Donal 0 Carroll, Lowell, Ohio, a native of Dunkerrin;
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