It’s officially springtime in La Plata County, when the rivers run high, calves and foals wobble their way through pastures and the Historic Preservation Review Commission’s annual driving tour is on the calendar.
On Saturday, May 18, the tour will discover “Murder, Mystery and Mining: Hesperus & Mayday.”
The 6th annual driving tour will begin with a walkable tour of Hesperus, starting at the Baptist Church and then proceeding to the Hesperus Mine. The mine opened in 1892 and was the site where Joseph Walker – the first U.S. Secret Service agent killed in the line of duty – was murdered while inspecting the mine for alleged fraud. The walking tour will also see Annie Peutz’s boarding house, where the proprietress famously supplemented her income by selling liquor during Prohibition. That business decision earned her a year in federal prison – time she referred to as her “trip to West Virginia.”
The tour will also stop by the Rio Grande Southern Railroad, the St. Paul Catholic Church (which served as a mission church under St. Columba Church in Durango), and the Hesperus School, returning to the Baptist Church for lunch. Lunch is available for $8/person, so RSVP by May 13 to Cindy Greer at (970) 588-3386.
In the afternoon, the tour takes to the road, heading up La Plata Canyon to Mayday to visit the May Day School and Olga Little Boarding House. Olga ran the boarding house and a burro train, bringing supplies to miners, and she took tourist groups on adventures in the mountains. For nearly 40 years, Olga did what many county residents do today: She pieced together several jobs to make a living, all while enjoying the region’s beauty and rugged terrain.
We can see some of the same themes that existed in the Hesperus of 100 years ago in play today.
The railroad, which used to connect Durango to Ridgway through Hesperus, Dolores, Rico and Telluride, was critical infrastructure from 1890-1952. Along its route, businesses and communities thrived – and convenient access to coal was critical. In places without that infrastructure, life was a lot harder – it took longer and cost more to travel and to get food and supplies to homes, businesses, mines and towns.
Today, when a business or a residential subdivision wants to develop or expand in La Plata County, ensuring that there is adequate infrastructure to support the development, its customers and future residents is an essential first step. In many of the outlying areas of the county, there simply is not good access to potable water or sewer service, and substandard roads limit traffic. These factors have long affected where development can safely and successfully occur.
We have seen that where communities invest in the needed infrastructure and services to support growing populations, there are long-term benefits to jobs, the economy and the community.
The Rio Grande Southern Railroad is a great example of important 19th and early 20th century infrastructures. Visiting some of the sites it connected during its heyday serves as a reminder of some of the enduring lessons of how communities grow and change.
When additional infrastructure became available, and the region’s economy shifted, the Rio Grande Southern and the communities it supported also changed.
Whether looking at the sites on the Historic Driving Tour from a community development perspective or for the intrigue of murder at a mine site, bootlegging at a boarding house and mule trains led by a mustachioed Mayday lady, May 18 is sure to offer a fun-filled and informative Saturday.
The Historic Preservation Review Commission, a volunteer board appointed by the county commissioners, puts together these tours, complete with expert speakers at each site. It is always a great day. I hope to see you in Hesperus!
Julie Westendorff is chair of the La Plata County Board of County Commissioners. Reach her at (970) 382-6219.