Two wonders of the railroad world

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, October 30, 2009
Kate Shelley BridgesTalk about awesome. Talk about vertigo. I’m at the side of a dirt road in Iowa, looking straight up. And what I see is weathered spider steel on the right and massive concrete superstructure on the left. Engineering wonders, a century apart. Either one is enough to take your breath away. And here they are, side by side, reaching toward the sky. This is what I’d set out to see this morning, only much better than I’d imagined.

I was in Omaha for the Missouri Pacific Historical Society’s annual meeting and had an extra day to kill. What to do? I decided to head east across Iowa on U.S. Highway 30 and keep going until I got bored or reached the Kate Shelley Long Bridge — whichever happened first.

I didn’t get bored. Here’s what you see in western Iowa: Oceans of cornfields. Prosperous-looking farmhouses (there must not be any poor farmers left in Iowa, nor any poor bankers who loan them money). Neat, handsome villages and small towns, kept that way by the wealth that agriculture spawns. And a whole lotta trains.

Union Pacific in these parts impressed me even more than those farms and towns: Concrete ties on both main tracks, 50-mph crossovers on switches with movable-point frogs, track good for 70 (79 if it’s a business-car train). The railroad was busy this day, too. I met 10 westbound freights in the 30 miles between Missouri Valley and Denison, Iowa. Say what you will about Union Pacific, but it is not afraid to spend money on its infrastructure. And speaking of infrastructure. . .
Kate Shelley BridgesThe Kate Shelley bridges, one of them 109 years old, the other two months new, soar into the sky above the Des Moines River about four miles west of Boone, Iowa. I’ll give you directions: In Boone, cross the UP tracks heading north on Marion Street, take your first left and stay on that road. You will cross the Des Moines on a long, one-lane wood-plank bridge that makes your heart stand still. Good luck.

The real Kate Shelley one stormy night in the summer of 1881 witnessed the collapse of a bridge over Honey Creek, taking a Chicago & North Western freight train with it. Knowing that an eastbound passenger train was soon due to pass, and with only a lantern to light her way (it quickly blew out), she crossed the existing wood bridge over the Des Moines River on hands and knees and ran another half-mile to the station in Moingona, where she warned the night operator of the bridge collapse. He stopped the oncoming train, and a legend was born.

The Kate Shelley Long Bridge named in her honor by C&NW is believed to be the longest (2,685 feet) and highest (185 feet) double-track bridge in the world. It takes your breath away when you come upon it. But in August the rails were cut at each end and high fences erected to keep trespassers off. The new bridge that went into service adjacent to the old one is even more awesome, though slightly shorter and five feet lower. To call it massive is almost inadequate. Its steel deck plates are supported by huge concrete columns, five of which are braced towers. This is infrastructure as only Bill Wimmer, recently retired as Union Pacific’s VP-engineering, knows how to do.

Was it worth driving three hours in each direction to reach these bridges? Oh gosh, yes. To see two wonders of the railroading world one beside the other, the most productive farmland in North America and a parade of UP freights. . . what’s not to cherish?
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