This is the home of Edgar Wood, railroad engineer.

His obituary tells his story: “Edgar G. Wood, 85, retired North Western Railroad engineer and hero of the bridge washout near Boone in the 1881 flood, died at his home after his third paralytic stroke. Mr. Wood drove a pilot engine over the tracks near Boone after the big flood in 1881 to discover the track could be unsafe for travel. His locomotive crashed through the washed out bridge over the Des Moines River and he clung to a tree all night after sending Kate Shelley to flag the passenger train. The girl’s act saved the lives of all on the train.”

And this is the story of Kate Shelley, in whose honor the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad named the highest double track trestle in the US the Kate Shelley High Bridge.

Kate (Catherine) was born in Offaly County, Ireland in December of 1863 – the first of five children of Norah and Michael Shelley. When she was nine months old, her parents and many of their neighbors immigrated to the United States, settling with relatives in Freeport, Illinois. A short time later, they relocated to a quarter section of land in Boone County, which was not fertile Iowa farm land. Michael got a job as a section hand on the railroad and the Shelleys built a small house on the farm which was near Honey Creek, a tributary of the Des Moines River. The family grew, with the addition of Margaret, Mayme, Michael Jr. and John.

When Kate was 12, her father was killed in a railroad accident and shortly after, Michael Jr. drowned while swimming in the Des Moines River. Mrs. Shelley’s health declined, and Kate took over as head of the household.

On the evening of July 6, 1881, heavy thunderstorms rolled into the area and bolts of lightning lit up the sky. Honey Creek was already high because of recent heavy rains. The waters continued to rise, threatening a stable nearby, and 17-year-old Kate waded through the mud to release the animals.

Around 11 p.m., Kate and her mother heard Old No. 12 with four people on board crossing the nearby Des Moines River Bridge. The four men on board – Ed Wood, George Olmstead, Adam Agar and Patrick Donahue were to make a run from Moingona to Boone and then return to the Moingona station. As the train crossed the bridge, Kate and her mother twice heard its bell and then the crash and the hissing of steam as the engine plunged into the water.

Kate knew that the midnight express was due to cross the same bridge and must be stopped when it arrived in Moingona. Wearing an old skirt, jacket and straw hat, and carrying one of her father’s railroad lanterns, she made her way to the washed-out bridge. In the light of the lightning, Kate spotted Wood and Agar clinging to the branches of a tree caught in the flooding. She could not see the other two men.

There was no way she could help the men, so she headed for the long, high Des Moines River bridge. The railroad knew of the danger of walking on the high bridge and prohibited anyone from walking on it. To discourage trespassers, the railroad removed some of the flooring– leaving large gaps between the ties. A gust of wind nearly blew her off the trestle, and her lantern had gone out in the downpour. With only the lightning to light her way, she crossed the span on her hands and knees. Finally she felt solid ground. When she reached the station in Moingona, she heard someone say, “The girl is crazy.” She fainted.

When she came to, she was told that, despite the misgivings of one person, the station agent had recognized her and was assembling a rescue party to go after the men from Old No. 12. She insisted on going with them, crossing the river on the rescue train en route to Honey Creek, and guided the men to the left bank. A rope was thrown to Wood, who fastened down the line and came ashore hand-over-hand. Agar couldn’t be reached until the waters began to recede, but he, too, was rescued. The midnight express was stopped, and the passengers were safe.

The amazing story spread nationwide and, eventually, internationally. The passengers on the train collected a few hundred dollars, the school children of Dubuque gave her a medal, the state of Iowa gave her another and $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. Simpson College president Isabella Parks helped raise funds for Kate to attend Simpson during the 1883-84 school year.

Kate attended Simpson for one year and then returned home where she felt she was needed. She eventually earned a teacher’s certificate and taught at a small school near her home, earning a monthly salary of $35. In 1890, a Chicago newspaper discovered that the Shelleys were threatened with the loss of their home. The public response to the news was immediate, with cash gifts coming in. The Iowa Legislature gave her a grant of $5,000 and a publisher of school textbooks included her story in a “Third Reader” used in Iowa schools.

The North Western Railroad had several times offered Kate a job and in 1903 she accepted the post of station agent at Moingona. The track that went past the Shelley homestead was removed when the route was moved several miles north. The bridge was replaced in 1900 by a new iron bridge, named the “Kate Shelley High Bridge”.

Today, there is a Kate Shelley Museum in Moingona.

Edgar Wood and his wife, Clarissa, had seven children: Dora, Eva, Prudence, Clara, Helen, Edgar and Frances. They had moved to Council Bluffs by 1900 and purchased the property at 329 N. Second St. from the Pottawattamie County Investment Co. in 1905.

The Foursquare house, built in 1903, features a full-width front porch with a round window above the porch roof, and a hipped roof with a front-facing dormer.

Edgar Wood died in 1927 and is buried in Fairview Cemetery.

Kate Shelley died in 1912 and is buried in Sacred Heart Cemetery in Boone.

– Mary Lou McGinn can be reached at mlmcginn@cox.net. The Kate Shelley Story can be found at iagenweb.org/boone/history/kateshelley.htm

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