The story of the Leadville Irish Memorial
Leadville, Colorado, at 10,200 Feet in Elevation, is the highest town in North America. It’s also the site of the largest and most politically important Irish immigrant community in the Rocky Mountain West, consisting of approximately 20% of the population during the early 1880s. This working class immigrant community occupied the most difficult jobs, struggled unsuccessfully to improve their working conditions, many died very young from harsh winters, sickness, mining accidents, and epidemics. The Catholic Free section of Leadville’s Evergreen Cemetery holds the remains of thousands of Irish immigrants, buried in sunken, unmarked graves. The average age of death was twenty-three and nearly half of them are children. Today, a major memorial to these 19th century Irish immigrants is under construction, naming those in the unmarked graves and standing as a visual reminder of the human toll that industrial labour took on Irish immigrant communities across North America.
Jim Walsh is an historian and researcher at Colorado University in Denver. When he was working on his doctoral thesis, he decided to focus on the Irish in Colorado.
Following a visit to a local graveyard in Leadville, his life was about to change forever.
In a section that is recognisable by what looks like snowdrifts, are 1,400 people, of different denominations, whose stories of trial and triumph had been lost to time. That was until Professor Walsh came upon them.
The City of Leadville is a former silver mining town that lies among the headwaters of the Arkansas River within the Rocky Mountains.
In the late 19th century, Leadville was the second most populous city in Colorado, after Denver.
Mining in the Leadville area began in 1859 when prospectors discovered gold at the mouth of California Gulch.
In 1876, black sand, once considered bothersome to placer gold miners, was discovered to contain lead carbonates, leading to a rush of miners to the area and the founding of the town in 1877. By 1880, Leadville was one of the world’s largest and richest silver camps, with a population of more than 15,000.
However, The Kilkenny Observer wishes to concentrate on Leadville for a different reason.
Professor Walsh has spent nearly two decades unearthing the stories of the people in those sunken graves, the people who made it out of Leadville and on to places like California or Montana, and the history of Leadville during the silver boom of the late 1800’s.
The graves, discovered by Jim, belong to people who were too poor to be buried in a different section or with a headstone. Walsh found their names and ages, thanks to Church records. He discovered the average age of the people in the pine boxes was 23 years old, and half of them were children under 12.
Based on their surnames, he was able to determine that 70 percent were from Ireland.
The Irish fled Ireland in the second half of the 19th century first because of the potato famine in the 1840s and 50s.
“They arrived hungry and desperate and unskilled and uneducated and were ostracized,” Walsh said. “Many fled to places like Leadville because they knew there was a job here for them.”
This amazing story caught the attention of Castlecomer man Donie O’Neill.
Researching the story for himself, Donie discovered that of the hundreds of people, now buried in the Leadville cemetery, some graves hold bodies that came from the North Kilkenny village of Castlecomer and surrounding areas.
Immigrants came to the U.S in coffin ships, a name given because of how many people never made it to their destination.
Donie recounts stories of coaches running from ‘Comer to Carlow with over thirty people on board. These people were sometimes on their last legs and would have travelled in rags, such was the poverty they were enduring.
Donie has been researching those from North Kilkenny who made that incredible journey that brought them from The Castlecomer Coalmining village to America and Canada. Some to the Silver mines of Leadville.
Names such as Boyle, Brennan, Brophy, Carthy, Connors, O’Neill, Delaney, Flynn, Dillon, Lynch, Meally, and Walsh. The list runs to hundreds.
And was there any incentive for them to go we queried of Donie?
“Well, apart from sheer poverty, it would be best described as assistant emigration”, said Donie.
A number of assisted emigration schemes were available for those who could not afford to emigrate. Between 1856 and 1906 the Irish Poor Law Boards of Guardians financed the emigration of about 25,000 paupers, primarily to the United States and Canada.
MEMORIAL TO THE FORGOTTEN DEAD
Donie is delighted to report that thanks to the work of Jim Walsh and his committee a memorial is being planned with an unveiling hoped for in September of this year.
Irish Ambassador to America, Dan Mulhall visited Leadville in May and spoke on the site of a new memorial which will recall the thousands of Irish who died in the city’s silver mines in the late 19th century.
The new memorial will recall the names of the Leadville Irish.
Speaking ahead of his visit to Leadville Ambassador Mulhall said:
“The Leadville Irish were among the earliest Irish in Colorado and the western US. Through hard work in extreme working and weather conditions, many prospered, but so many also died in a remote location, far from family and loved ones, and lay forgotten until recently. I am delighted that the new memorial will name and remember those Irish who lie in Leadville and give them the dignity they deserve, and highlight to future generations the history of Irish in Colorado and the western US.
In the centre of the Evergreen Cemetery will be a memorial. A spiral pathway will lead to the top of a mound where a sculpture will sit. It’s reminiscent of ancient Irish burial mounds. The names of each person in the plots will be carved into glass walls or onto plaques.
“The sorrow of that journey is lost. It was so traumatic that it was not passed on in oral tradition. “So this Memorial is pausing that narrative for just an instant, to turn around and just look at from whence we’ve come and that offers us our humanity back, maybe.”
Anxious to spread the news and indeed the history of the Irish who travelled to Colorado in the 1800’s, Jim Walsh is undertaking a tour of Ireland to impart his knowledge.
One of the venues will be the Library in Castlecomer on June 7th at 6.30pm.
Booking to attend this talk can be made by phoning the library on 0564440561.