July 2018 Song of the Month
The Ballad of Kate Shelley
Copyright 2018 by Nancy Stewart
This song may be downloaded for free and used for any purpose that is not for profit.
CLICK HERE to print the words. PDF)
CLICKHERE for the sheet music  (PDF)
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This song celebrates the amazing story of Kate Shelley, a seventeen year-old American hero. In my women’s history concert I tell the story of Kate (under the lyrics), and then sing the song with the children. The song is a simplified version of her amazing adventure both before and after the night of the storm, and easily sung by younger children. Imagine an age without Internet where a story was so amazing it was shared around the world! Check out your local library for one of the easy non-fiction picture books about Kate. Then sing the song! Here’s a LINK to a more detailed article that will astound you.

You can modify it for the ages you work with, and it’s great for homeschooling, too.

The Ballad of Kate Shelley

On a stormy summer night on the 6th of July
Kate Shelley saved the train
On a stormy summer night on the 6th of July
Kate Shelley saved the train.
Though she was only seventeen,
That night a hero she would be
As she ran into the darkness and rain
On a stormy summer night on the 6th of July,
Kate Shelley saved the train

She was standing at the window looking out at the rain
The night Kate Shelley saved the train
When she heard the awful sound
And knew the pilot train went down,
Kate Shelley saved the train
She ran out into the darkness and crawled out on the trestle
Had to make it to the station in time
She said you gotta get word to the Midnight Express
The bridge is out, they’ll have to stop on a dime.

(repeat first verse)

  The Story of Kate Shelley


Kate Shelley was seventeen years old on July 6, in 1881. She lived with her mother and three younger brothers and sisters on a farm on Honey Creek, in Iowa. Her father had helped to build the railroad that passed in front of their house.

That July had been especially rainy, and the ground was saturated . That night it was raining hard, with thunder lightning. Kate was standing in front of the window at eleven o’clock, when she saw the headlight of the pilot car coming. The pilot car was often sent ahead to check bridges after a storm, to make sure they were o.k. As she was watching, the headlight suddenly disappeared, and she heard a terrible crash.

Kate took an old lantern and went out into the stormy night to check the crash site. She saw that the bridge had broken, and the train had crashed into the river below. She climbed down the bank and yelled out. Two of the crew had already drowned, but the other two were clinging to trees along the banks. Kate yelled that she would go for help, but would first have to warn the railroad that the bridge was out. She knew that the midnight express would be coming within the hour, carrying 200 passengers. She would have to get word to the engineer, or they would all die.

The nearest station was at Moingoyna, across the river. Kate would have to cross an old trestle bridge, as the main bridge was now out. The railroad had removed many of the planks years earlier, to discourage kids from walking out on the dangerous bridge. So Kate held the lantern, and carefully crawled across the bridge on her hands and knees. It was raining hard, and the wind was blowing; the river was raging below. When Kate was part way across, a strong gust blew out her lantern, and she was left in the dark. Only the lightning lit her way. The bridge was slippery, and she could easily have fallen off, and into the river below.

Finally, she made it to the other side, and ran the half a mile further to the station. She told the stationmaster the bridge was out, and he was able to alert the engineer on the midnight express, so he could stop the train in time. Kate then led the men to the crash site, where they were climbed down the riverbank and saved the two crew members who were still clinging to the trees.

Kate had risked her own life, and saved 200 hundred people that night. Her story was told around the world, and she was given gold medals and plaques. Some wealthy men later paid her way through college. When the railroad finally rebuilt the bridge, they named it after her- the Kate Shelly Bridge. There have been poems and songs written about her, and there are four books about her too! If you go to Des Moines Iowa, you might see parks, and streets, and schools named after her. Kate Shelley was a true hero!