To save the lives of strangers, young Kate Shelley braved crossing a railroad bridge on a stormy nig

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Midnight Heroine ImageLightning ripped across the night sky and thunderclaps shook the farmhouse windows where Kate Shelley sat watching the summer storm. Kate and her mother were the only people awake at the Shelley home that July night in 1881. Nearby, floodwaters of Iowa's Honey Creek and Des Moines River swirled dangerously beneath the railroad bridges stretching over them.

Kate was fifteen. She loved the trains that passed by her house, and she knew their schedules by heart.

The Midnight Express might be late tonight, Kate said to her mother. Old Number 11 will probably be by. Number 11 was the pusher engine that helped trains up the steep curve near Kate's home. Sometimes it was sent out during storms to see if the tracks were safe before other locomotives were allowed through.

Kate was right. Number 11 was chugging toward Kate's home, pushing through the storm to inspect the tracks. The engine slowed near the Honey Creek Bridge, and the section boss held his lantern high to see if the bridge was intact. The track and timbers seemed to be in place. He signaled to the engineer to continue.

Number 11 rang its bell and lurched forward. Then came the terrible cracking of wooden beams. The weakened bridge collapsed under the engines weight.

Back at their farmhouse, Kate and her mother jumped, startled by the sudden crash. A moment later they heard cries for help and the loud hiss of steam from the engines hot boilers, which had plunged into the cold creek water.

Mrs. Shelley asked Kate to stay inside, but Kate pleaded for a chance to help the downed engine. Together they fixed up an old railroad lantern, filling the oil cup and making a new wick from a piece of flannel. Mrs. Shelley lit the lantern and gave it to Kate, sending her off into the night.

Traveling a familiar wooded path, Kate followed the cries for help. Past the shattered bridge timbers she spotted two men in the water clinging to large branches. Kate knew she wouldn't be able to save them alone. It was then that she remembered the Midnight Express. It would be carrying hundreds of passengers toward the broken bridge. To find help, Kate would have to cross the long Des Moines River railroad bridge to the nearest station.

Running hard, she reached the bridge and suddenly slipped and fell on the wet wooden ties. The lantern banged against the wood, broke, and went out.

The night suddenly became very black and frightening, but Kate did not stop. Rain and wind lashed her face as she crawled blindly from one slippery tie to the next. Every lightning flash lit up the swirling, muddy water far below. The spaces between the ties were wide she could easily fall through and be swept away.

But Kate knew she must not think of that now she must get across. Lightning flashed, illuminating a large uprooted tree that was barreling downriver toward her. She froze in fear, imagining that the huge tree would destroy the bridge. But, at the last moment, the mammoth swerved and darted underneath, spraying her with mud and foam.

Kate clutched the rails and steadied herself, then continued on. Her skirt tore on the railroad spikes. Her hands and knees grew bloody and filled with splinters from the wood. She gritted her teeth and inched along for what seemed like hours.

Finally Kate felt the mud and cinders of the far bank under her. She scrambled to her feet and ran to the station. Breathless, she stumbled inside. The group of men inside were startled by the sight of the wet, white-faced girl who had burst through the door.

Stop the Express! she exclaimed. Honey Creek Bridge is out! Then, pale and exhausted, Kate fell to the floor.

Unknown to Kate, the Midnight Express had already been stopped. But now, with help, Kate revived and told about the two survivors of Engine Number 11 trapped in Honey Creek.

An engines whistle roused the villagers around the station. Volunteers with shovels and ropes boarded a nearby locomotive. Kate rode along and guided the rescuers down a path to the stranded brakeman and engineer.

Because of her heroic efforts, Kate was rewarded with a beautiful gold medal, a long gold chain, and a free train pass to last her lifetime. Trains even stopped at her house whenever she wanted to ride.

The old bridge that Kate crossed that stormy night of July 6, 1881, is gone now. Today, the Chicago & Northwestern trains ride over the Des Moines River on a sturdy iron bridge. Its called the Kate Shelley Memorial High Bridge, named after the girl who risked her life to save the Midnight Express and the men of Engine Number 11.

The author lives near the village where Kate Shelley grew up. She discovered Kate's story by talking with Kate's nephew, Jack, who lives nearby. She also read old newspapers and visited local museums. What stories could you find in your town?