Kate Shelley Bridge

99 Counties | FIND Iowa
Jul 19, 2024 | 03:18

How can ordinary people become heroes?

Explore how Kate Shelley, an ordinary young girl did an extraordinary thing.


[Abby Brown] On a stormy night in 1881, a young girl braved the weather to crawl across a very tall railroad bridge across the flooding Des Moines River. Her mission: to save a passenger train from disaster.

This bridge is named the Kate Shelley Bridge in honor of Kate Shelley. It's a newer railroad bridge, built in 2009, and can handle two trains going each Direction at 70 miles an hour. It's one of the tallest railroad bridges in America.

The story we're telling you today isn't about the new, concrete, Kate Shelley Bridge, it's about the iron bridge just next to it. That's the bridge that was here in Kate Shelley's day. 

Kate Shelley lived near this bridge, but it's not the one she crawled across; that bridge was in a different location and it's gone now. 

The reason this bridge is part of the story is because after Kate saved all those lives by running in a rainstorm to warn people, the locals nicknamed this iron railroad bridge after her.It was officially called The Boone Viaduct but, because everyone knew that Kate Shelley was a hero, they called it the Kate Shelley Bridge.

On that night in 1881 Kate, who was just a teenager, knew that the rain was causing flooding. She also knew the train schedule so, when the railroad bridge near her home washed away, causing a train to crash, she knew that the midnight  passenger train which is on its way was in danger. 

Kate grabbed a lantern and ran out of her house into the storm. She was headed to the train station nearby to warn them. To get there, Kate had to cross the Honey Creek Bridge. It was only a railroad bridge so the tracks were set far apart, with nothing in between them. Kate crawled on her hands and knees with the river flooding below her and lightning flashing above her to get to the train station.

She made it! The station sent a telegram to the train stopping it in time and saving  the passengers on board. Kate also told the rescuers where the first train had crashed, so they went there together and they were able to save some lives. Kate was a national hero. The railroad presented her with a gold medal, two barrels of flour, a car full of coal, and a lifetime train pass.

And now an amazing train bridge is officially named after Kate Shelley.

Every County in Iowa has a brave story to tell. I hope you learned something new exploring Boone County.