Walter Black Stewart: Cadavers, Catapults, and a Lost Piece of American History

miners in leadville

Many pieces of family history are passed down through oral tradition.  As with this story, there are no longer any family members alive; however, I have “compared notes” with the first generation to hear the tale and looked up a few historical facts.  My Great-Grandfather, Walter Black Stewart, led a very memorable life.  His tale is worth repeating.

Born in 1879 in Roslyn, Nova Scotia, (while I have no records, I would guess that he was several generations separated from the families who were sent to Canada after the Highland Clearances), he attended McGill University in Montreal, and this is where we hear of his adventures.  Walter must have enjoyed a good practical joke because on the eve of his graduation from medical school, he and his entire graduating class were expelled for building a catapult and launching the class cadaver into the dean’s back yard.  I was told that the severity of the case against them was only magnified because the dean’s wife was entertaining guests at the time.

I have no knowledge if he ever graduated, but I do know that he eventually ended up in Leadville, CO, where he married Anna Gertrude Whiting in 1905.  His medical training made him one of the unofficial physicians of the rough mining town.  His daughter (my grandmother, born in 1909) used to tell me stories about what life was like in that rough town.  Granaw remembered her father being called out in the middle of the night many times to tend the massive injuries that occurred from mining accidents.  In fact, one particularly violent night, my grandmother remembered an explosion that shook the house.  Walter just told his wife, “Take the shotgun, take the children in the back room, and do not come out until I get back.”

Walter found work as an engineer in Leadville, working with the owner of the local grocery.  Over a few drinks at the local saloon, they agreed that Walter would work for a reduced wage in exchange for a share of the profits, which they sealed with a handshake. He went to work, looking for the mother lode in the Saint Louis Mine.  Through the hard work of Walter and his mining crew, they discovered one of the largest deposits of free silver ever found in the US at the time.

My grandmother remembers the nightly entertainment when the men would gather around the dining room table and measure the day’s haul.  Granaw’s job was to sweep up the silver flakes, which she was allowed to keep.  She saved her flakes in a vial and eventually gave them to a friend who needed money.

After the miners established a routine, Walter went to his partner and explained that he was going to take his share and treat his family to a trip around the world.  The grocery owner looked at him and explained that he was just a well paid engineer, and he did not own the Saint Louis.  Producing the papers, he told Walter to get back to work.  My Great-Grandfather went back to work and for months continued making a living for his family.  He redrew maps, collapsed tunnels, and explored new veins.

One day, he visited his employer and shared these powerful words, “I found the Saint Louis, and you will never find her again, you son-of-a-bitch!”  

I don’t know much about what happened to Walter after leaving Leadville, nor do I know if the silver was ever located again within the mine.  As was common among the old miners, he did eventually succumb to miner’s lung in his 50s. While among the family he had a reputation as a stubborn, cranky Scot, I wish I had to opportunity to meet my Great-Grandfather.  In my more adventuresome moments, I also wish those Saint Louis Mine maps would turn up again.

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2 thoughts on “Walter Black Stewart: Cadavers, Catapults, and a Lost Piece of American History

  1. Shana says:

    A stubborn, cranky Scot? Hard to believe! 😉 I love hearing stories like this. Stories of our ancestors are always so interesting to me. Anything from the way my parents lives were when they dated or married to the stories of how my great-grandpartents made their way to America…I love hearing them and I love telling them to my kids (and they hang on every word!). Thanks for sharing, Maggie!

    • maggiemurphy says:

      Thanks Shana! I need to talk to Aunt Carol and write a post about the Murphy family that came over from Roscommon, Ireland. Patrick and Kate?

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