Dark clouds covered the Iowa sky. Loud claps of thunder echoed over the Des Moines River valley. Lightning flashed. Rain began to fall in torrents, slashing against the Shelley cottage.
That evening the five Shelley children clung to their mother as the storm continued. The wind bent the trees, pulled fence posts out of the ground, and tore gates from their hinges. From their cottage window, the family saw the waters of Honey Creek overflow and flood the barnyard.
“Mamma, I’m going to set the animals free,” said Kate. “They’ll drown if I don’t.” Throwing a shawl over her head, she waded through the farmyard to the barn and freed the horses, cows, and pigs. When Kate returned to the cottage, she was drenched.
Despite the raging storm, one by one the children fell asleep. Only Kate and her mother remained awake. Kate’s father had been a section foreman on the railroad before he died three years ago and so Kate knew the schedules, the locomotives, and the crewmen of the railway using the tracks that passed only a few feet from their house.
As the night wore on, the wind and rain continued to thrash against the cottage. Kate thought of the overflowing Honey Creek nearby and of the swollen Des Moines River that ran only a short distance from their cottage.
“Mamma, do you think the water will take down the bridge over Honey Creek?” Kate asked.
“I’m afraid it will, Kate,” her mother replied, her face etched with worry.
“Then it will wash away the railroad trestle too,” Kate said. She thought of the weak old wooden trestle over the Des Moines River as she strained to hear the sound of a locomotive slowly battling its way against the storm.
“Mamma, listen! It’s the pusher,” Kate whispered. “They’re checking to see if the tracks are safe.”
As Kate and her mother listened, they heard the bridge collapse, dropping the locomotive and the crew into the swiftly flowing swollen waters.
“The crew will drown,” Kate cried. Her face showed the horror of what could happen if the Midnight Express with all its passengers were to come later. “I’ve got to warn the Express,” she said.
Pulling on a coat and hat and grabbing an old lantern, Kate ran out into the storm. The water was deep and every step was a struggle.
When Kate reached Honey Creek, she saw two of the crewmen of the locomotive hanging onto a fallen tree while the river swirled around them. “Hold on,” she called. “I’m going for help.” But her words were lost in the sound of rushing waters.
Kate made her way along the tracks until she reached the trestle. The lightning flashes outlined the catwalk beside the tracks, revealing that the planks had been torn away and the bridge was left swaying in the raging wind.
Kate began to cross the catwalk. The wind blew out her lantern, leaving her in total darkness. She thought of the crewmen clinging to the tree in Honey Creek and the people on the Midnight Express. Falling to her knees, she began to creep from tie to tie across the 500-foot bridge. As the bridge swayed beneath her, she prayed for strength and guidance.
Lightning flashed, and a tremendous tree was uprooted by the wind and water, and came hurling through the air, headed for the exact section of bridge where Kate knelt. She waited for the crash to sweep her into the river. But it did not come. The tree swerved in the air and hit two piers.
Kate continued crawling from tie to tie until she reached the other side of the bridge. She ran the rest of the way to the railway station. Her clothing was torn and dripping with water. Gasping for breath, the words choking in her throat, she called out, “Stop the Express. The bridge is down!” Then she fell to the floor.
The agent grabbed a lantern and ran. He reached the tracks just in time to flag down the Midnight Express. A rescue train was quickly sent to help the men who still hung onto the fallen tree in Honey Creek.
The strain and terror of the night caused Kate to become ill. When she recovered, she found that stories and poems had been written about her. And when the new iron railroad bridge was built over the Des Moines River, it was named in honor of her.
When Kate Shelley grew up, she became the station agent at Moingona—the same station she rushed into that night in July 1881 to stop the Midnight Express.