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Lost Irish of Leadville: How the Colorado silver rush drew thousands of emigrants high up the Rocky Mountains

Thousands of migrants from Ireland toiled as precious metal miners in the Rocky Mountains in the years after the Famine

Crouching on one knee, “Liam” has a helmet on his head and a miner’s pick in his right hand. In front of him is a white four-tonne rock showing veins of molybdenum, a metal found in the surrounding mountains.

His left hand clutches a harp and his eyes gaze past the stone – through the pine forests, mountain passes and peaks of up to 14,000ft – towards the northeast and Ireland, some 4,500 miles away.

“Liam” is the name given to a bronze statue, the centrepiece of a memorial co-funded by the Government. It remembers about 1,400 Irish people who died and were buried nearly 150 years ago in unmarked paupers’ graves close to the silver mines of Leadville in the Rocky Mountains, people now referred to as the “lost Irish” of Colorado.

They were the children of the Famine and the subsequent years. Many were brought across the Atlantic as toddlers or babies and drifted westwards. Some worked in coal mines in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, where President Joe Biden’s ancestors lived about this time.


However, in the late 1870s, the discovery of silver in the Rockies near Leadville prompted one of the largest silver rushes in American history. The area’s population soared from a few hundred to 35,000 within a few years.

James Walsh, assistant professor in the political science department at University of Colorado, Denver, says there were about 3,000 Irish-born people in the town at any one time during the rush. Walsh, who has spent 20 years researching Irish history in Leadville and is publishing a book next year, says life for those who came was harsh, with the Irish at the bottom of the social ladder.

“They were a very working-class, desperate community,” he says. “Uneducated, they found mining jobs here for $3 per day. They were working 10-12 hours, six days per week.”

Leadville is at an altitude of some 10,000ft and experiences snow from November until May.

“They had inadequate clothing, inadequate housing and healthcare,” Walsh adds of the Irish. “They did not have a way up the ladder. When they arrived, they just could not leave the next day. They tried to make a go of it, but the winters were beyond what you could imagine.”

Short lives

Life was short for many. The average age of death for those in the paupers’ graves was just 22. In a regular Catholic graveyard developed in later years, the average age was 32. The poorest were dying much younger.

Some families lost seven or eight children. Two brothers called Slavin, believed to be from Co Sligo, between them lost 11 children, all under the age of three. All are buried together in the graveyard.

There were doctors in the town, but the poor could not afford quality healthcare. There were also fires and deaths in accidents. Many women died in childbirth. There was a smallpox epidemic and an outbreak of scarlet fever. Violence, murder and suicide were not uncommon.

Not a lot has been written about what this Irish community endured high up in the Rockies, Walsh says. When he first arrived at Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville, he expected to see headstones, but the pauper section was just acres of unmarked sunken graves.

“That was a life-changing moment for me,” he says. “I was learning about my own Irish ancestors. I saw my own people. I knew this was going to be a big part of my life and I wanted to tell their stories.”

In the beautiful sunshine of a September morning, a few days ahead of the unveiling of the memorial this weekend, the gravesite stretches as far as the eye can see. Among the pine trees, tall, thin wooden sticks stand in neat rows, part of the effort to highlight the final resting place of the hundreds of men, women and children who lie beneath this field.

Time and weather have erased virtually anything that may have been inscribed on small pieces of wood peeping out of the ground. In a few spots, graves have been identified by families and are surrounded by lines of rocks or railings, sometimes marked by a simple cross or stone.

As part of the research programme, Walsh and his students have gone through the burial records and names of the 1,400 Irish in the unmarked graves who will now be commemorated on glass walls that will surround the bronze statue.

“This is a sacred space. An important part of the story of the Irish diaspora that needs to be told,” he says.

Cultural influence

The Irish influence was strong in the area. Mines were named after O’Donovan Rossa, Robert Emmet and Theobald Wolfe Tone. About one-third of the Irish who lived there came from west Cork, around Allihies. More were from Mayo, Waterford and Tipperary. Some came from parts of Ireland with a mining history, but they generally were labourers rather than experts.

Walsh says that during the peak mining years of the 1880s, the area became an Irish cultural centre. Michael Davitt, the founder of the Land League in Ireland, spoke in the town on two occasions.

Oscar Wilde showed up and delivered a lecture on the aesthetics and ethics of art, quite high-brow for a rough-and-tumble mining town. However, Leadville also had an artistic side and was home to an opulent opera house built by silver magnate Horace Tabor. Local legend has it that Wilde endeared himself to the miners by drinking them under the table.

By the early 1890s, the price of silver had crashed and 90 mines closed in the area, leaving thousands out of work. The boom was over. Many left, some for Denver about 100 miles to the east, others to the mines around Butte, Montana.

Walsh says that, with the memorial, “Leadville is waking up to this Irish history for the first time.“

His research is throwing light on the rich cast of characters who wove their way through the story of the Rockies’ silver boom. Not all were poor by any means.

In 1886, Margaret Tobin arrived from Missouri to join her brother who was a $3-a-day miner. She worked as a seamstress and met and married James Brown, an engineer who purchased stock in a successful mining operation that made them incredibly wealthy.

In 1912, Molly Brown, as she was known, was rescued from the Titanic after it sank in the Atlantic. The “unsinkable Molly Brown” worked tirelessly to help survivors of the tragedy and, in 1914, was the first woman to run for the US Congress.

Among the Irish there are some whose activities sound like material for books or films. Buried in the paupers’ section is Philip Nash, the self-proclaimed “king of Leadville”.

He was one of the Irish who travelled to the Rockies from the Pennsylvania coal mines, but his story was slightly more dramatic than most. He was on the run having been arrested in Pennsylvania for alleged involvement with a secret Irish immigrant society known as the Molly Maguires, which was involved in the assassination of mine foremen and supervisors.

Nash escaped prison and fled to Colorado pursued by agents of the Pinkerton detective agency, which had been hired by business leaders to infiltrate the society. He changed his name to elude his pursuers but was eventually killed in a personal dispute and buried in the Leadville pauper cemetery.

Dublin-born Michael Mooney seems like an earlier version of Joe Hill, the Swedish-American workers’ rights activist who the Irish labour movement celebrates in song. The low pay, harsh conditions and high death rate in the Leadville mines were always likely to lead to a reaction. In 1880, Mooney, then 28, was chosen to lead a strike. The miners demanded a $4 daily wage, an eight-hour day and union recognition.

Records at the cemetery say Mooney kept his men “peaceful and sober” throughout the strike. However, not for the last time in labour history, the strikers were denounced by sections of the media, with newspapers declaring that the Molly Maguires had taken over the state.

Shortly after the strike began, the governor of Colorado declared martial law. The national guard occupied Leadville with orders to arrest striking miners and to put them to work building roads on a chain gang. Mooney was threatened with lynching by vigilantes and went into hiding. After three weeks the strike was crushed. Mooney left Leadville and eventually died in Los Angeles, aged 72.

Mooney’s famous quote during the 1880s strike was “I may not have the whole American flag, but I think I have earned a corner of it.”

In 1896, as the silver mines began a recovery after the crash, there was another Irish-led strike with largely the same objectives of increasing pay and securing union recognition. This dispute was more violent, as the mine owners brought in outside workers to replace those on strike.

News reports suggested up to two dozen may have been killed in fighting and buried quickly along the railway tracks. The attacks again led to martial law being declared and, eventually, the strike being broken.

The new research also illustrates the itinerant life of some of the poor Irish in the US at the time. Mary Agnes Burns was born in Wisconsin in 1847 to Irish parents and married Irishman Thomas Flannery in 1863 at the age of 16, a year after they had their first child.

By 1880, when they arrived in Colorado, they had had at least 11 children and had lived in Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri and Texas. Her husband worked as a miner for several companies and they lived in at least nine different addresses in Leadville. Upon arriving in Leadville five of her children would die in the 1883 smallpox epidemic. She and nine of her children are buried in the paupers’ section of the graveyard.

A historical notice in the cemetery also tells the story of eight-year-old Patrick McCarthy, who paid for his books and tuition by working in the mines and routinely sat in class smoking his pipe.

Brought to fruition

Kathleen Fitzsimmons, a teacher, played a key part in bringing the plans for the Leadville memorial to fruition. Her family has lived in the town for generations. She explains that, on Saturday, as part of the first phase of the Leadville Irish miners’ memorial, the sculpture of “Liam” – designed by Terry Brennan from Co Wicklow – will be formally unveiled. It stands at the top of a mound, accessed by spiralling walkways. The names of the 1,400 dead in the paupers’ graves will be etched on temporary glass walls at the site.

Next September, it is envisaged that the full site will be completed with landscaping, footpaths and permanent glass walls. Information kiosks will tell the story of the site in Irish, English and Spanish. Organisers hope Joe Biden will visit.

Walsh says the story of the Leadville cemetery is an immigrant one. There are plans to invite representatives of new waves of immigrants to the area – largely Hispanic – to attend the ceremony. There will also be representatives of Native American communities.

Fitzsimmons says funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs, involving three payments of between $50,000 and $80,000, was absolutely pivotal for the project. The Irish Network of Colorado also played a key role in planning and fundraising.

There will also be a website,, in the near future which will allow families to determine whether any missing ancestors are buried at Leadville.

“A lot of folks buried here went west of the Mississippi and their families never heard from them again,” Fitzsimmons says. “Already we have people able to find ancestors who died here and their families had lost touch with.

“It makes people who were ghosts now concrete. It completes a circle.”