Monday, October 05, 2009

UP ensures heroism will live on

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There was something poetic about the pouring rain when Union Pacific and Iowa state officials gathered Oct. 1 to dedicate the new Kate Shelley Bridge across the Des Moines River west of Boone, Iowa, The Omaha World Herald reports. It was, of course, a stormy night when the young teenager crawled across a rickety bridge in the dark and rain to stop a train filled with hundreds of passengers from plunging into a creek. That was 1881.

On Oct. 2, in a nod to railroad history, Union Pacific said that the new railroad bridge would retain the name of the railroad legend.

Spanning the Des Moines River, the new bridge -- 2,813 feet long and 190 feet high -- was designed for two trains to cross simultaneously at 70 mph. The new bridge runs parallel to the 1901 Kate Shelley High Bridge, where trains were limited to 25 mph.

For one of the world's busiest rail corridors with 60 to 70 trains passing daily, the new bridge is a much-needed improvement.

"There's lots of history there," Union Pacific Chairman and CEO Jim Young said at the commemoration. "That's one of the great things about our business. When you've been in business almost 150 years, there are some great stories, and I think the story with Kate Shelley is one of the best I've heard in our business here."

In July 1881, 15-year-old Kate Shelley was at her home near the Moingona railroad station when she heard a horrible noise over the din of a violent storm. A bridge across Honey Creek had washed out, and a train traveling westbound on the tracks had plunged into the creek.

Grabbing a lantern, she ran to the scene, finding the wreckage. Kate knew an eastbound Chicago & North Western Railway train was headed toward the washed-out bridge around midnight.

The storm had extinguished her lantern. Guided only by the light of sporadic lightning, she took off. Crossing a rickety wooden bridge over the Des Moines River, Kate crawled on her hands and knees. Across the bridge she ran another half-mile to the station to inform the station agent. The train stopped before reaching the washed-out bridge, and Kate was credited with saving hundreds of passengers.

When a new steel bridge was constructed across the Des Moines River in 1901, it was named in her honor. More than a century later, the bridge was in dire need of replacement. In 2006, Union Pacific announced plans for a new bridge.

"When we sat down to design this bridge, we knew that we had to make it something truly magnificent in terms of what it was replacing," Young said.

The bridge cost Union Pacific more than $50 million to construct and took more than three years to complete. John Jerome, Union Pacific special projects manager, said the project has been difficult but rewarding.

"It's been a long road," Jerome said. "Mother Nature had a lot of doozies in store for us while we were out here."

At the ceremony, Iowa Department of Transportation Director Nancy Richardson said the bridge would provide economic benefits for all Iowa residents.

While the economical benefits were highlighted in speeches, much of focus was placed on the bridge's past and the story of Kate Shelley. As a nod to the bridge's history, the old bridge will remain in place, although closed at both ends.

"We're very excited at the DOT about the new bridge and what it means to transportation because we're going to have trains moving a whole lot faster and safer across here," Richardson said. "But we don't want to lose touch with that wonderful story of bravery that Kate Shelley brought to us."

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