In August of 1899, the engine of the fast mail train failed to the take the Shelley curve close to the Des Moines River Bridge near Moingona. The rest of the train stayed on the track until the engine had passed, then the cars “plunged down the side of the embankment 25 or 30 feet to the river bottom,” the Aug. 4, 1899, Boone County Democrat reported.
The engineer on that day was man named Masterson. It was his first run as engineer on the Northwestern’s No. 9 fast mail train, which left Boone at 5 a.m. Climbing into engine No. 902, Masterson quipped “If you have never been late in Council Bluffs, you may be this time.” It was not expected that the train would break speed records, but as it reached the notorious “Shelley curve,” just below Kate Shelley’s house, it was traveling about 80 miles per hour. Masterson’s words were about to take on new and prophetic meaning.
The newspaper’s description of the scene noted that “one of the cars spun down the track until the east end of the bridge was reached when it tumbled over the north side, tearing a portion of the wood work with it.” The engine lay “about one hundred yards east of the bridge and went off on the south side. It was turned almost half way around.” The tender was torn from the engine and lay on its side. A spring from the tender was thrown 300 feet into a cornfield. “The engine was completely dismantled, the smoke stack being completely gone and the sheeting being ripped off in many places.” Other cars “lay to the west and below the engine. The express car was “totally demolished;” only its floor remained. Debris from the express car landed in a nearby cornfield. The storage and postal cars “lay on their sides and were not as badly demolished as the others.” The fourth car of the train was a mail car. Following the crash, it lay nearest the river. Its top and one side were torn out, “leaving it a total wreck.”
Once again, Kate Shelley became a heroine. Kate and her sister, Mayme, rushed to the scene. They gave survivors and the dying water and bathed their injuries. Seven men were injured and four, including Masterson, died. Communications were delayed because a telegraph pole had been damaged during the accident, so rescue crews did not arrive until about 8 a.m. The cause of the accident was never definitively determined, but it was thought to be due to the high rate of speed that the train was travelling when it hit the curve.