September 15, 2023
Tomorrow, in a pauper's cemetery in Leadville, Colorado, folks will unveil a memorial to hundreds of Irish Americans who died during the 1880's silver boom. A boom that left mine owners rich and workers dead and buried in unmarked graves.
Long-time readers will not be surprised this event caught my attention. To mark Labor Day a year ago, I wrote about my connections to the labor
movement, women's contributions to the Mine Workers' Union and my books on the subject.
In the 1880s, thousands of Irish, both immigrant and native-born strived for a scrap of the American dream in Leadville and the surrounding gulches. Their labor was cheap, their lives short, and their stories forgotten.
Many of the Irish miners had fled Anthracite mining fields of Pennsylvania after twenty labor union activists, alleged Molly Maguires, were hanged. Unfortunately, Colorado showed them no better hospitality. Here's the story of one man's effort to keep their stories alive.
Forgotten People in Sunken Graves
Thirty-thousand people lived in the boom town of Leadville, CO in the
Leadville, CO. Photo courtesy of Rocky Mountain Irish Roots Collective.
Today there are more dead souls than living. The "Catholic Free" section of the Evergreen Cemetery has been called a "Celtic ghost town."
University of Colorado Professor Dr. Jim Walsh, himself descended from Irish who fled the Great Hunger in the mid-18th century, made it his life's work to uncover and preserve the struggles and stories of uncounted Celtic ghosts.
It all started the first time he visited Evergreen Cemetery. "I was excited," he says. "I thought I was going to see a normal cemetery and I was stunned to see sunken unmarked graves that stretched for acres. The pine forest just went on and on and on. It was eerie and it was moving.
Graves of Irish men, women and children in Evergreen Cemetery, Leadville, CO.
Photo courtesy University of Dever News.
Digging into Catholic Church records at parishes in the region, Jim matched names to
1,339 people buried here. The average age of death was 23 years old, and 48 percent were children under 12.
In many ways it's a children's cemetery," he says. "There are some parents who lost up to 6 or 7 children, some of them in
childbirth. There are so many women who died in childbirth, in some cases the child as well, they died together...
Everyone I know who knows anything about Evergreen Cemetery has told me there's hundreds more who are not in
the records. These names we'll never know. There's no way to know where they are or who they are."
The memorial to be unveiled Saturday, September 16, will include a plaque listing all 1,339 names Jim Walsh confirmed. The sculpture
itself portrays a miner holding a pick and an Irish harp. Irish American groups funded the memorial through donations and help from the Irish government to the tune of $80,000.
Leadville Irish Miners’ Memorial, Sculptor Terry Brennan. Photo courtesy
The sculpture is meant to symbolize the humanity, lives and struggles of these, poorest of the poor, Irish families and workers who were at the bottom of the social structure. Irish miners were the lowest paid in the district, their families without the money for cemetery plots or headstones.
Among them, some were worse off than others, according to Jim Walsh. About 8%, almost one hundred of the names are listed as stillborn. This is something that we've had to decode because when you say stillborn in the 21st century it's easy to know what
that means. The term stillborn in the 1880s means something different. The red-light district in Leadville used to be 2nd street and there were 39 brothels, I think, and the alley behind the brothels was commonly known as stillborn alley.
Cross-referencing some of the surnames of the stillborn infants, Walsh discovered they matched those of prostitutes.
Despite the hard-scrabble poverty, families did give their loved ones pine coffins and dignified Church
burials. The graves are arranged in straight rows, and they originally had wooden markers carved or inked with names.
When the silver boom went bust, families were forced to move on to find work in mining areas like Denver, Cripple Creek and
Butte, Montana, leaving the graves untended.
Graves of Irish men, women and children in Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville, CO.
Photo courtesy University of Dever News.
Kathleen Fitzsimmons, a Leadville native, used to play in the paupers' section as a kid, but didn't recognize its significance until she left and came back as an adult. Her relatives are buried elsewhere in the cemetery, but she's a staunch
supporter of the memorial project.
“If I get to the philosophical level of where this goes and why this story can speak to so many people, I think it's the continual search for something that's better that drew somebody either to a place or pushed them out of a place. That push and pull is a story that we read about throughout history,”
Pioneer Leadville residents pose in front of their early homes in 1879, Colorado. The man and woman in the center, dressed in their finest, stand with their baby girl
on a wood chair. Included is a
nursing burro and its mother and a loaded pack mule. Photo courtesy of the Denver Public Library Digital Collections.
Irish immigrants carried traditions of agrarian resistance and retributive justice with them from the old country and tried to carve a place for themselves. They built Colorado’s early Catholic infrastructure. Many of the early orphanages and hospitals in the state were run by Irish nuns.
They organized and struggled desperately for better wages, leading two massive strikes, walking out of the silver mines and crippling Colorado's economy. They demanded a raise from $3 to $4/day, an eight hour workday, better safety codes, and the right to organize a union.
Both strikes were met with martial law and the Colorado National Guard was called in to crush the strike," says Jim Walsh. "This is ironic given that these weren't violent strikes. People weren't committing any acts of violence but simply because they organized, they were treated like
"They didn't have the currency of financial wealth, or the currency of political power, so, all they really had was their emotion and the ability to escalate and to use that for leverage in their
For more on the story, watch the new Colorado PBS documentary, The Lost Irish Miners of Leadville.
Mark your calendar for my next public event! It's free and open to all.
: Wednesday, October 25, 2023Time
: 7:00PM CSTLocation
- ZoomRegister Here
I'll be talking about the Black women who volunteered for the US Army during WWII. They were among the most forward thinking, adventurous and bravest women in 1940s America. They interrupted careers, left friends and
loved ones and ventured into dangerous new territory.
During my research these women transformed from homogenous ranks of nameless women to individuals with their own stories, struggles and victories. The each had their own brand of courage.
This is one of a year-long series of
events commemorating the 75th anniversary of military integration, the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948 and President Harry S. Truman signing of Executive Order 9981.
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