THE LEGEND OF KATE SHELLEY; Congressional Record Vol. 142, No. 82
(Senate - June 06, 1996)

Text available as:

Formatting necessary for an accurate reading of this text may be shown by tags (e.g., <DELETED> or <BOLD>) or may be missing from this TXT display. For complete and accurate display of this text, see the PDF.

[Page S5908]
From the Congressional Record Online through the Government Publishing Office []

                       THE LEGEND OF KATE SHELLEY

  Mr. GRASSLEY. Mr. President, it may have started out like a normal 
day, but July 6, 1881, did not end in a typical manner. In the late 
afternoon, around suppertime, a terrifying storm struck central Iowa. 
It was a terror. Sensible people stayed indoors away from its wrath and 
fury. Creeks and streams became full to overflowing with the rainwater 
as the storm raged on.
  Then there was a crash. It was heard by a family living close to one 
of the rain soaked creeks and the railroad bridge which crossed it. 
With that crash a young 15-year-old Iowa girl from Moingona stepped 
from obscurity into legend.
  As H. Roger Grant wrote in ``The Palimpsest,'' ``the courage of Kate 
Shelley rightfully deserves to be remembered.'' For on that night she 
bravely faced her destiny.
  Engine No. 11 was checking the Chicago & North Western Rail Road line 
for storm damage when it plunged into Honey Creek. The water was deep 
and the current was fast. The crewmen on that train needed help, and 
Kate Shelley knew she had to give that help. Putting all thoughts of 
personal safety aside, she went out into the storm. As she later said, 
``The storm and all else was forgotten and I said that I must go to 
help the men, and to stop the passenger (train) that would soon be due 
at Moingona.''
  Kate put together a lamp with a wick made from an old felt skirt. 
Again in her own words, ``(I) started out into the night and the storm, 
to do what I could, and what I though was my duty, knowing that Mother 
and the children were praying to God to keep me from every harm.'' 
Kate's father, who had been an employee of the Chicago & North Western, 
had died some 3 years before.
  Upon reaching the wreckage, Kate found that of the four-man crew, 
only two had survived. One clung to a tree and the other to tree roots 
as the deadly waters of Honey Creek swirled around them. Kate saw one 
of the men in the flashes of lightning. He shouted at her and she at 
him, but the noise of the storm was go great to be hearing each other 
was impossible.
  Let me again turn to Mr. Grant's ``Palimpsest'' article,

       Shelley (then) began the most perilous portions of her 
     trek. Crossing the Des Moines River bridge, even in ideal 
     conditions, was dangerous. The North Western had studded the 
     ties along this 673-foot-long span with twisted, rusty spikes 
     to discourage trespassers. And the ties themselves were 
     spaced a full pace apart. `I got down upon my hands and 
     knees, . . . and guided myself by the stretch of rail, I 
     began the weary passage of the bridge,' explained Shelley. `I 
     do not know how long I was in crossing, but it seemed an age. 
     Halfway over, a piercing flash of lightning showed me the 
     angry flood more closely than ever, and swept along upon it a 
     great tree, the earth still hanging to its roots, was racing 
     for the bridge and it seemed for the very spot I stood upon.' 
     Added Shelley, `Fear brought me up right on my knees, and I 
     clasp my hands in terror, and in prayer, I hope, lest the 
     shock should carry out the bridge. But the monster darted 
     under the bridge with a sweeping rush and his branches 
     scattered foam and water over me as he passed.

  Kate Shelley made it across that bridge and to the station at 
Moingona. There she found that the North Western had already stopped 
the eastbound passenger train. But that was not the end of her perilous 
night nor of her heroism. Those two men were still clinging to life in 
the tumultuous waters of Honey Creek. A relief locomotive was sent with 
Kate as the guide. Engineer Edward Wood and brakeman Adam Agar were 
  Kate Shelley is an American hero for the ages. She is as much of a 
role model for all of us today and for our children's children's 
children, as she was to her contemporaries.
  Kate Shelley did not have to go out into that ferocious storm in the 
middle of the night in 1886. But she did. She knew that her actions 
would make a difference. Her actions would help people she did not 
know, but that she never the less cared for. Her actions would help to 
prevent destruction, injury, and death. Her selfless actions would save 
two lives. What an example for all Americans to follow.
  Mr. Grant quotes several contemporary newspaper accounts of the night 
in his article. One states,

       Ed Wood says he was well nigh overjoyed when he saw the 
     light approaching the clearing near the end of the bridge, 
     and that he will never forget the sight of Kate Shelley 
     making her way over the twisted and broken trestle work to 
     the last tie yet hanging over the wreck in the boiling flood 

  Another newspaper wrote Shelley crossed the Des Moines River bridge,

       . . . with nothing but the ties and rails (with) the wind 
     blowing a gale, and the foaming, seething waters beneath. Not 
     one man in five hundred (would) have (gone) over at any 
     price, or under any circumstance. But this brave, noble girl, 
     with the nerve of a giant, gathering about her, her flowing 
     skirts, and on hands and knees she crawled over the long 
     weary bridge.

  Yesterday I said that the Iowa spirit was almost too big to describe. 
It is. But I think that I can in all honesty say the spirit of Kate 
Shelley is the spirit of Iowa. And it is a part of the American spirit, 
the spirit of helping others in a time of need and danger without 
expecting something for yourself. I hope that all of us can learn from 
this brave young woman's example.