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Column: When you’ve seen it all, you might want to stop in Boone

Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared Nov. 27, 2004.

WORTHINGTON — The telephone rang and a woman said my name, wondered if she was talking to me. “You are,” I said. She said, “Well.” That was all I heard. Actually, it was more like a question. “Well?” “Is someone there?” I asked. Then I heard it again: “Well?” I was close to hanging up — I was guessing this is some new telemarketer’s gimmick. Probably next I will hear, “Well? How much are you going to give to the Minnesota Peace Officers’ Fund for Orphans with Leprosy and Tonsillitis?”

Then the woman began to explain. She reminded me I had written in one column that summer is past and we now have to think about places that can be visited on a weekend. The woman said she and her daughter went to Kingsley, Iowa, and the old Quorn cemetery to “get a taste of” Herbert Hoover’s boyhood, as one column suggested. They went to West Bend, Iowa, to see the famous grotto.

“Well? What’s the next suggestion?” She is having a long weekend, Thursday through Sunday.

She put me on the spot. Boone came to mind. Do you know Boone, Iowa, north of Des Moines, just west of I-35?

First off, Boone has a rarity — the Mamie Dowd Eisenhower Birthplace Museum. Most first ladies have only a party dress and some enlarged photos in one alcove of the presidential museums. Mamie Eisenhower’s birth home at Boone has been restored with original Dowd family furniture.

There even is the bed in which Mamie was born. There is a 1949 Chrysler that Ike and Mamie gave to Mamie’s uncle.

There is a second reason to visit Boone. There is a story — I was told lately every school kid in Taiwan reads this story. I first heard of it 20 years ago. Glen E. Eggleston called me after a fierce, unforecast storm blew 40 semi-trailers from a freight train and plunged them into the Des Moines River while the train was crossing a high bridge near Boone.

“That’s a famous bridge,” Glen said. “Look that up — the Kate Shelley Bridge.”

It is a famous bridge, indeed. My information is that it remains the highest and longest double-track railroad bridge in the world. Yes, in all the world — in Iowa. It is a towering structure, lifting 184 feet above the Des Moines River valley. It is 2,685 feet long. Union Pacific still uses the bridge, and there are enough freight trains crossing every day that you almost certainly can lift your camera while your palms begin to sweat and make a picture of a train “way up there.”

The story the school kids read is of Kate Shelley, a 15-year-old girl in 1881 whose family lived along Honey Creek, a tributary of the Des Moines.

Kate’s father was dead. She was the oldest child and she had plowed fields, planted and harvested crops.

On the night of July 6, 1881, there was a storm that made a gushing deluge of Honey Creek. Kate was herding livestock to higher ground when she witnessed, imperfectly, a steam locomotive plunging into the water. The Chicago & NorthWestern’s Honey Creek bridge had been torn from its moorings.

Kate and her mother realized a Chicago-bound train that often carried 200 passengers, sometimes more, was due within an hour. Unless there was warning, the passenger train would plunge into the Honey Creek maelstrom. To stop the train, it would be necessary for someone to cross the high bridge and make it to the Moingona station.

The wind howled. The rain fell. Kate set out with a lantern. That soon blew out.

She came to the high bridge — it was necessary, first, to climb the bridge. Kate did that. Then she had to make the trip across. Minutes were ticking off.

There was no floor on the bridge and the cross ties were a yard apart. Kate Shelley fell to her hands and knees and felt her way. Flashes of lightning gave her views of the flood waters raging beneath her.

She made the desperate crossing and she ran and stumbled over cinders along the roadbed to Moingona. As it turned out, the train had been stopped. A warning had been sounded. For all of this, Kate Shelley came to have international fame — and an awesome, newer Kate Shelley High Bridge still can be visited.