Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series about the 1907 death near Hesperus of Secret Service agent Joseph Walker and his great-granddaughters’ quest to see that his deeds don’t go unrecognized. The second part will appear Nov. 1.
HESPERUS – We struggle up the hillside until the dense oak brush chokes off the possible routes.
Sisters Robynn Thomas and Sharon Stackhouse of Denver have come in search of history, to learn more about the life and tragic death of their great-grandfather.
Secret Service agent Joseph A. Walker was gunned down not far from here on Nov. 3, 1907. We have passed the ruins of the Hesperus Coal Mine, whose owner, Porter Fuel Co., Walker was investigating for land fraud.
We won’t reach the air shaft where Walker died. The path is too steep and brushy, the air shaft probably too far and unrecognizable. But the sisters take some satisfaction in getting just a little closer to the heart of what happened that day 103 years ago.
They’ve come a long way in just a few months, digging up old newspaper clippings and statements and photos. They’ve unearthed a murder mystery, a tale filled with deceit and heroism. What they’ve accomplished undoubtedly would make their great-grandfather proud.
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“It’s turned into a lot bigger endeavor than we imagined,” Thomas says as we hike up an old road partly obliterated by time and landslides on private land just southwest of Hesperus.
The quest began around Memorial Day, not long after the death of their sister, Patty Knox. While visiting the family sites at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver, their 89-year-old father, Robert Walker, commented on his long-time wish to find Joseph Walker’s grave and have it marked. He also wanted the government to acknowledge the significance of his death. Joe Walker was the first Secret Service agent to be killed while on an investigation.
The sisters went to work.
By July, they’d found the gravesite – it was still in cemetery records. But they didn’t stop there. They contacted the Secret Service, whose association of former agents offered to pay for the headstone. They looked through old newspapers and found stories about the killing and the trial. They talked to historians and archivists.
They learned a lot about Joseph Walker. And the Old West. And the rift and mistrust between rural Colorado and the government.
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Joseph A. Walker was born in 1856 in Buffalo, N.Y. He earned a law degree and at age 32 joined the Secret Service. He was assigned to President Grover Cleveland in 1894.
Later he moved to the service’s office in Denver, and that’s where he lived in 1907 with his wife, Alida, and their son, Robert. His investigation of land fraud brought him to Southwest Colorado.
The government believed that the influential Porter Fuel Co., a major employer in the Durango area, was taking federally owned coal illegally. Walker was building a case. The theory: Citizens in cahoots with Porter would buy homestead land, then allow Porter to take the government-owned coal under their land for a kickback.
Homestead claims were available to citizens for a homesite or agricultural use.
“Dummy entrants had been secured by the Porter Fuel Company to file homestead claims (and) get hold of the valuable coal and timber lands in that section of the country,” agent Thomas Callaghan wrote in a 1939 Secret Service memo during which he recounted the 1907 incident. “The dummy entrants would be paid a certain amount for filing on the land by the Porter Fuel Company.”
Porter would end up with the land, and the government would lose its coal plus the difference in value of homestead land vs. commercial land.
On Saturday, Nov. 2, 1907, Walker, joined by Callaghan and two other men, traveled up to the head of Hay Gulch to investigate closer. It appeared they were followed.
The next morning, they ventured onto private land to the site of an air shaft used to ventilate the Hesperus Mine. While Walker stayed on the surface, Callaghan, engineer John Chapson and local miner Tom Harper, who’d tipped them off on the possible illegal mining, dropped a rope 65 feet into the air shaft and climbed down.
They crawled along a tunnel about 3 feet high for about 25 feet and, as Callaghan later wrote, “We were very much surprised to find ourselves in the main workings of a large coal mine.”
They’d found the damning evidence. The land above, they knew, had been purchased as a homestead claim by William R. Mason, superintendent of the Porter Fuel Co.
The plot continued to thicken, and not in a good way. When they returned to the bottom of the air shaft, they were dismayed to find the length of rope – their lifeline to the surface – in a pile.
Something was horribly wrong.
The three men quickly wrote reports and pinned them to their undershirts. If harm befell them, these dead men would, indeed, talk.
Meanwhile, that same William R. Mason had confronted Joseph Walker on the surface.
johnp@durango herald.com John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.