EAST MACHIAS, Maine — The story of two Washington County cousins — Lyman Hill and Charles Niles — is the stuff of legends. It’s a 125-year-old tale that begins with the men tracking poachers on horseback through the Maine woods for 10 days and ends with their deaths during an armed showdown at a remote logging camp, killed in an argument over a dog.
Their murders in 1886 were the first killings of members of the Maine Warden Service and likely the first of any game wardens in the country, according to Maine Warden Service Maj. Gregory Sanborn.
“Shot by Shackers,” an old term for poachers, screamed the November headlines of Bangor’s Whig and Courier newspaper 125 years ago after Hill and Niles were killed.
On Tuesday morning, 40 people, including Maine game wardens, state troopers, Washington County sheriff’s deputies, schoolchildren, legislators and the 89-year-old granddaughter of one of the victims, gathered alongside the East Machias River to recall Hill and Niles and their sacrifice in the line of duty.
“We haven’t forgotten them,” Warden Joe McBrine said before the ceremony.
Col. Joel Wilkinson of the Maine Warden Service and McBrine related the following story about what happened to Hill and Niles :
Hill, 47, of East Machias, a farmer, joined the newly formed Maine Warden Service upon his return from the Civil War. Having lost an arm in battle, Hill had trouble managing a team of horses so he deputized his cousin Niles, just 25, of Wesley. For 10 days that November, the two men had been tracking two poachers — Calvin Graves, 43, and James McFarland, 57, of Hancock.
On Nov. 8, the two wardens came across Graves and McFarland at a logging camp near Fletcher Brook, about 45 miles north of Machias. The poachers were well equipped with a horse-drawn wagon full of camping supplies and a dog. Hill notified the men that hunting deer with dogs was illegal and said he and his cousin had observed the men chasing deer with the dog the day before. Graves refused to surrender his dog to the wardens and when Hill started to remove his coat to seize the dog, Graves raised a double-barreled shotgun. He first killed Hill with a blast to the neck and then swung around and killed Niles.
The hunters then fled the scene, but the entire incident was witnessed by 16-year-old Ira McReavy of Whitneyville, who had been at the logging camp awaiting his father. Once alerted, local deputies and hundreds of citizens from Machias to Bangor formed a posse and pursued the two men. Six days later, tired of hiding in the woods in below-freezing weather, McFarland surrendered to police, but it would be a full year later before Graves was arrested after being found in California.
“Legend has it,” Warden McBrine said Tuesday, “that Graves escaped by dressing as a woman and boarding a train in Bangor.” McBrine said that Graves made the mistake of sending a postcard to a friend in Washington County who called authorities. The wanted man subsequently was tracked to Oakland. He confessed to the killings upon his arrest, but claimed self-defense.
In court proceedings, McFarland was acquitted of all charges, while Graves was sentenced to life in prison.
The killing of the wardens heightened a controversy at the time that judges were not taking Maine’s game laws seriously.
“Game wardens at the time served solely for conservation,” Maj. Sanborn said Tuesday. “But the new conservation game laws were not very popular.”
Sanborn said hunters had been plying the woods and waters for centuries without restrictions and they chafed under rules and regulations.
Shortly after the killings Washington County commissioners asked the courts to begin imposing higher fines and more serious jail terms.
Standing in the brilliant sunlight during Tuesday’s remembrance ceremony, state Sen. Kevin Raye, R-Perry, said an 1886 issue of the Boston Herald reported that Maine had the most rigid and enforced game conservation laws in the country, and that Niles and Hill were enforcing those laws when they were killed.
“The passage of time so often dims memories,” Raye said, “but we must never forget the humanity of their deaths.”
Raye said today’s game wardens are “intelligent, skilled and well-trained and they do critically important work. But there are no safeguards to their safety. This day reminds us of the bravery, sacrifice and public service of Maine’s game wardens.”
Stephanie Larrabee of Machias, Hill’s great-granddaughter, brought her mother, Flora Hill Dennison, 89, of Whiting to the ceremony. Dennison was born 35 years after her grandfather and his cousin were murdered, but she still owns his Civil War uniform and his military and game warden paperwork.
“This was very nice,” Larrabee said. “A fitting memorial.”
During the ceremony, a rifle volley was fired for each of Maine’s 15 game wardens who have died in the line of duty, including the most recent loss, Warden Pilot Daryl Gordon of Eagle Lake.
Gordon, a 25-year veteran of the Warden Service, was killed in March of this year when his plane crashed on remote Clear Lake in Piscataquis County.