by Jeff Stein
In today’s world, if a storm is in the distance, a 15-year-old girl can turn to devices such as a radio, television or computer to see how bad the weather will be. And if she wants to alert someone of the storm, she will likely use her cell phone to place a call or send a text.
But in the summer of 1881, no such devices existed, and a 15-year-old girl living near Moingona, Iowa, risked her own life to save others, gaining national fame and lasting gratitude from a railroad company.
On July 6, 1881, Kate Shelley lived with her mother and three younger siblings on a farm; her father, Michael, had died three years earlier. Michael, his wife Margaret, and baby Kate had immigrated to the United States from Ireland. Michael Shelley found work as a section foreman for the North Western Railway in Iowa, but became seriously ill in 1878. The family spent all the money they had on treatment for Michael, and when he died, all that was left was the farm that was designed to supplement his railroad income.
The farm had little land that could be used for planting, since it was made up mostly of steep hills and timber; the homestead was on the side of a hill with a view of two railroad bridges that spanned Honey Creek, just to the east of the Des Moines River.
Normally, Honey Creek was calm. But on July 6, 1881, a dinner-time storm dropped heavy rains into streams and rivers that were already bank-full. Honey Creek turned into “a raging” and began to overtake the Shelley family’s stable. Kate went out into the storm to release the family’s livestock from the stable so they could move to higher ground and be saved.
The rains kept coming, and the Shelley home itself was in danger, due to torrents of water cascading down the hill at the rear of the home. Mother Margaret and daughter Kate watched through the window as driftwood washed up against the timbers of the nearby bridge trestle, causing water to back up into their oat field located between the railroad tracks and their home.
Kate expressed concern about the safety of the railroad bridge, but her mother assured her that no trains would be sent out in such wicked weather. As midnight approached, however, Kate’s fears were realized.