Catherine Carroll "Kate" Shelley (December 12, 1863 – January 21, 1912[1]) was a midwestern United States railroad heroine and the first woman in the United States to have a bridge named after her, the Kate Shelley High Bridge. She was also one of the few women to have a train named after her, the Kate Shelley 400.[2]

Kate Shelley


Catherine Carroll Shelley was born at Loughaun, a crossroads near the village of Dunkerrin and the town of Moneygall, in County Offaly, Ireland.[3] Dunkerrin Catholic Church records show that her parents, Michael and Margaret Shelley, married on February 24, 1863, and she was baptized on December 12, 1863.[citation needed] Her grave marker says she was born on September 25, 1865, and died January 21, 1912. The family name was originally spelled Shelly, which is how she wrote her name, but the spelling Shelley was later adopted.[4]

Michael was likely a tenant farmer in Ireland. The family emigrated to the United States when Shelley was 1+12 years old.[3] They first lived with relatives near Freeport, Illinois, then built a home on about 163 acres (0.66 km2) near Honey Creek, a perennial tributary stream to the Des Moines River in Boone County, Iowa located to the east of Moingona.[3] Michael became foreman of a section crew, building tracks for the Chicago and North Western Railway.[3]

Michael died of "consumption", in 1878. Shelley had to help support the family by plowing, planting, harvesting crops, and hunting.[3] In 1880, the family consisted of Margaret, Shelley, Mary, Margaret, and John, living in Worth Township.[citation needed] A fifth child, James, was also born in Iowa, but he drowned while swimming in the Des Moines River when he was ten.[5]

Des Moines River bridge collapseEdit

1908 map showing the Chicago and Northwestern route through Moingona, the southernmost community on the map. The railroad crossed the Des Moines River between Moingona and Honey Creek. (Red dots on the map are coal mines.)

Shelley gained fame due to her "heroic" actions in the aftermath of the collapse of the Des Moines River Bridge.

On the afternoon of July 6, 1881, heavy thunderstorms caused a flash flood of Honey Creek, Iowa, washing out timbers that supported the railroad trestle. A pusher locomotive sent from Moingona to check track conditions crossed the Des Moines River bridge, but plunged into Honey Creek when the bridge fell away at about 11pm, with a crew of four — Edgar Wood, A.P. Olmstead, Adam Agar, and Patrick Donahue.[6]

Shelley heard the crash, and knew that an eastbound express passenger train was due in Moingona about midnight, stopping shortly before heading east over the Des Moines River and then Honey Creek. She found two surviving crew members, Wood and Agar, and shouted that she would get help, having to cross the Des Moines River bridge along the way. The lantern she brought with her went out, and she crawled the span on her hands and knees, with only lightning for illumination. Once across, she had to walk approximately two miles to the Moingona depot to sound the alarm.[7] She then led a party back to rescue Wood and Agar.[6] Wood was pulled to safety by a rope,[6] while Agar couldn't be reached until the floodwaters began to recede.[6] Pat Donahue's body was eventually found in a cornfield a quarter mile downstream from the bridge, but A.P. Olmsted was never found. The passenger train was stopped at Scranton, with about 200 aboard.


The passengers who had been saved took up a collection for Shelley. The "little girls" of Dubuque gave her a medal, and the state of Iowa gave her another one, crafted by Tiffany & Co.,[8] and $200. The Chicago and North Western Railway gave her $100, a half barrel of flour, half a load of coal, and a lifetime pass. The Order of Railway Conductors gave her a gold watch and chain.

News of Shelley's bravery spread nationwide; poems and songs were composed honoring her. The Chicago and North Western Railway built a new steel bridge in 1901 and named it the Boone Viaduct, but people quickly nicknamed it the Kate Shelley Bridge or Kate Shelley High Bridge. It was the first and, until the Betsy Ross Bridge in Philadelphia was opened in 1976, perhaps the only one in the country named after a woman. A second viaduct was built alongside the old one by the Union Pacific Railroad from 2006 to 2009. It can accommodate heavy trains, features two tracks, and can handle two trains simultaneously at a speed of 70 mph. It was opened on October 1, 2009, as the new Kate Shelley Bridge, and is one of North America's tallest double-track railroad bridges.[9]

In the early 1880s, Frances E. Willard, a reformer and temperance leader, wrote Shelley's friend, Isabella Parks, who was the wife of the president of Simpson College at Indianola, offering $25 toward an advanced education for her. Parks raised additional funds for her to attend during the term of 1883–84, but she didn't come back the following term.

Later in lifeEdit

In 1890, the Chicago Tribune revealed that the Shelley land was mortgaged for $500 at 10% and was near foreclosure. An Armenian rug, woven in the display window of a Chicago furniture store, was auctioned for that amount, retiring the mortgage, and other Chicagoans donated an additional $417.

In July 1896, it was reported that Shelley had applied to the Iowa legislature for employment in the State House as a menial because she was destitute and had to support her mother and invalid brother.[10] She worked at the Iowa State Capitol more than once, but the rumor of an invalid brother was untrue, as John, her surviving one, worked for the Chicago and North Western Railway for most of his life. Ongoing reports that her mother was an invalid or was in ill health, requiring constant care, were also refuted over the years. Her mother died in 1909.

Although there were apparently men interested in Shelley, supposedly including the switchman in the yard at Moingona,[11] she never married and lived most of her life with her mother and sister Mary, known as "Mayme".

Shelley held many odd jobs, including that of second-class teacher in Boone County, until 1903, when the Chicago and North Western Railway gave her the job of station agent at the new Moingona depot,[12] the old depot having burned down in 1901.[13]

In 1910, Shelley's health began to decline. In June 1911, doctors at Carroll Hospital removed her appendix. After more than a month in the hospital, she returned to Boone County and stayed with John.[13] She was reported to be a little better by September, but she died on January 12, 1912, from Bright's disease (acute nephritis).[14]

Years later, the Chicago and North Western Railway began operating streamlined passenger trains, and named one the Kate Shelley 400. It operated from 1955 to 1971, although the name was officially dropped in 1963.[2]


Original steel on the left; new concrete/steel on the right

The Boone County Historical Society maintains the Kate Shelley Railroad Museum on the site of the Moingona depot. The Shelley family donated a collection of letters and papers of family members of Shelley, 1860–1911, to Iowa State University. The timetable accents for Metra's Union Pacific/West Line are printed in "Kate Shelley Rose" pink.[15]

The original high steel bridge nicknamed the Kate Shelley High Bridge (officially called the Boone Viaduct) still stands. In 2009, the Union Pacific Railroad completed a new concrete and steel one next to it and christened it the Kate Shelley Bridge.

The Iowa poet and politician, John Brayshaw Kaye, wrote a poem in Shelley's honor called, "Our Kate", in his collection Songs of Lake Geneva (1882).[16]

Margaret Wetterer wrote a children's book called Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express in 1991 telling Shelley's story. It was featured in an episode of the children's television program Reading Rainbow.


  1. ^ "About Kate Shelley".
  2. ^ a b Scribbins, Jim (2008) [1982]. The 400 Story. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 978-0-8166-5449-9.
  3. ^ a b c d e Kate Shelley: Heroine of the High Bridges
  4. ^ Kate Shelley: Railway Heroine
  5. ^ Boone County Republican, July 16, 1879
  6. ^ a b c d The Kate Shelley Story
  7. ^ arejay54 (January 5, 2015). "The Real Kate Shelly Bridge! (and the story)" (video). YouTube. Archived from the original on 2021-12-22. Retrieved 7 July 2015.
  8. ^ Burlington Hawkeye, Burlington, Des Moines, Iowa March 30, 1882
  9. ^ UP cuts ribbon on new Kate Shelley Bridge in Iowa, Progressive Railroading, October 2, 2009
  10. ^ The Batavia [Illinois] Herald, 22 July 1896
  11. ^ Burlington Hawkeye, May 4, 1882
  12. ^ Daily Iowa State Press Iowa City, Johnson, Iowa October 17, 1903
  13. ^ a b "Kate Shelley, Railroader". Archived from the original on 2006-06-13. Retrieved 2006-06-19.
  14. ^ January 22, 1912, Washington Post
  15. ^ "Did you know?" (PDF). On the Bi-Level: 3. June 2009. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-01-02.
  16. ^ Songs of Lake Geneva (1882) and other poems, G.P.Putnam's Sons, New York [1]

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