Sisters search for answers about their fallen ancestor

I am working on a new book called “Notorious San Juans,” which tells turn-of-the-last-century stories from Durango, Silverton, and Ouray and outlying regions. The book should be out in the early summer of 2011.

One of the stories that jumped out at me right away when I began my research was the tale of a Secret Service agent who was shot while on duty in November of 1907. I have had the pleasure of meeting two descendants of the fallen agent, who shared with me many photos and  documents about what happened to their ancestor.

Joseph A. Walker had been an agent with the U.S. Secret Service for 18 years, nearly half the agency’s history. His specialty was hunting down counterfeiters. However, stories of land fraud in the west had angered President Theodore Roosevelt and Walker was one of the agency’s men ordered to investigate it.

The gist of the fraud was this: Lands owned by the government could be homesteaded by anyone, as long as they met certain requirements that proved they meant to settle on the land and farm it. Big companies such as coal and mining interests wanted that government land but they didn’t want to pay the higher prices for mineral rights. They got around this by bribing people to file homesteads and then eventually turn the land over to the companies.

Joseph Walker headed out to Durango, Colorado to investigate such cases. The result of his work was more than 1,400 indictments. Although universally regarded as a gentleman who treated everyone with a fair hand, Walker must have made a few enemies along the way.

Joseph Walker, Secret Service agent

Joseph Walker in his Denver office, shortly before his death. Courtesy of Sharon Stackhouse and Robynn Thomas

On a quiet Sunday in November 1907, Walker and several others were investigating an airshaft they’d found on a “homestead.” While his companions used a rope to lower themselves down into the airshaft, Walker, who suffered from asthma, stayed above to stand guard.

As the men suspected, a tunnel connecting to the airshaft lead directly into the Hesperus Coal Mine.  When they returned to the airshaft, they found the rope coiled in the dirt and the opening at the top had been covered with brush. One of the men, Tom Harper, somehow managed to climb up the 60 foot shaft free-hand. At the top, he found Agent Walker lying in the dirt, his body riddled with buckshot.

Two local men were subsequently arrested for the killing — a Hesperus miner named Vanderweide and the Hesperus superintendent, William Mason. The investigation and trial of these men was one of the biggest stories of the decade for the region and had far-reaching implications. The two men were eventually acquitted by a Durango jury and all the indictments handed down by Secret Service investigators were dismissed. Attempts by the government to retry them in federal court failed.

Over a hundred years later, Walker’s grandson, Robert Tunstall Walker Jr., and his two daughters began their own investigation into the fate of their ancestor. There were no widow’s pensions for Secret Service agents in those days, and Walker’s widow, Alida, had not been able to afford a tombstone on his grave at Fairmount Cemetery in Denver.

Sharon Stackhouse and Robynn Thomas not only wanted to put up a marker to honor their fallen ancestor, they wanted to know exactly what happened to him and where he was killed.

The sisters traveled to Durango and, with the help of many generous locals, searched the beautiful hillsides around Hesperus, trying to find the spot where Joseph Walker was killed by a shotgun blast. They know he was killed somewhere around Dead Men’s Gulch at the head of Hay Gulch but they were unable to find the airshaft described in the stories. They plan to return and try again.

Sharon Stackhouse and Robynn Thomas

Sharon Stackhouse and Robynn Thomas in front of the ruins of the main entrance to the Hesperus Coal Mine

On November 3, 2010, just over a hundred years after the death of Joseph Walker, his descendants and members of the Secret Service held a special ceremony at Fairmount Cemetery, during which they unveiled Joseph Walker’s new marker. Walker was the second Secret Service agent to be killed in the line of duty in the history of the agency; the first to die by homicide.

grave of joseph walker

Grave of Joseph Walker at Fairmount Cemetery. Courtesy Sharon Stackhouse and Robynn Thomas

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