Some legends are based on tall tales embellished over the years yet others are very true and based on facts.
Reports show July 6, 1881 started out as a clear day but by dusk thunderstorms were rolling into the area. The storms became heavy as high winds blew through the valley and lightning lit the sky. Honey Creek, already high because of recent heavy rains, continued to rise threatening a family stable. Seventeen year old Kate Shelley threw a cloak over her shoulders and waded through the mud to the stable to release the animals and let them fend for themselves. Kate and her mother continued to keep an eye on the creek as the night wore on.
Kate knew the dangers that a flood could create. When she was 12, tragedy struck her family. Her father, a section foreman for the railroad, was killed in a railroad accident and shortly afterward Michael, Jr., the older of two boys, was drowned while swimming in the Des Moines River.
At about eleven o’clock Kate and her mother heard engine No. 12 cross the nearby Des Moines River Bridge. As the train crossed the Honey Creek Bridge, Kate heard it’s bell and then, as she told reporters later, “came the horrible crash and the fierce hissing of steam” as the engine plunged into the swollen stream below.
Kate ran out into the storm to investigate. She saw two of the four men trapped in the water, but she could not reach them. Then another thought raced through Kate’s mind. Another train was due. The midnight express from the west would soon try to cross the same bridge.
A trestle bridge with a tiny catwalk was nearby over the flooded Des Moines River. Kate ran to the bridge and crawled on hands and knees across the catwalk. As soon as Kate reached the other side of the river, she ran towards Moingona Station, trying to beat the clock. She burst into the station, wild-eyed and warned the station agent of the wash-out. The station agent ran out into the storm with a red lamp to halt the express, whose headlight was bearing down upon the station. A rescue party was being assembled to go after the men from Old No. 12 and Kate was able to guide the rescue party to the west bank of the creek where the survivors of the wreck could be helped.
Kate was worn down by the ordeal and was confined to her bed for three months. In the meantime, word of the amazing story of the rescue and warning was sent nationwide and eventually internationally, first via the railroad’s telegraph wires and then by the news media. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to help the young lady who had saved the train. The passengers of the train she saved collected a few hundred dollars; the school children of Dubuque gave Kate a medal; the state of Iowa gave her another and with it an award of $200; the Chicago and North Western Railroad presented her with $100, a half barrel of flour, half a load of coal and a lifetime pass. A gold watch and chain came from the Order of Railway Conductors.
As the years passed, North Western railroad offered Kate a job and she accepted their offer assuming the post of station agent at Moingona, the same station to which she had carried the news of the bridge washout. The bridge she had crossed was replaced in 1900 by a new iron bridge, named the Kate Shelley High Bridge. Kate never married, her full attention was taken by her work for the railroad where she stayed until just before her death on January 21, 1912.
Kate’s legacy lives on through the Kate Shelley Railroad Museum in Moingona, Iowa and in 1991 Margaret Wetterer wrote a children’s book called “Kate Shelley and the Midnight Express” telling the story of Kate. It was featured in an episode of the children’s television program Reading Rainbow.