Leadville, Colorado and Allihies in County Cork, Ireland have a connection dating back to the 1800s when Irish miners first settled into the Rocky Mountain region. Now, the two cities are looking to form a sister-city partnership to bring more attention to the migration during North America’s largest silver boom, thanks to James Walsh, a political science associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver.
In the mid-1800s, the Irish population in Colorado was small. An 1870 census showed the Irish population in Colorado was only 3.9% of the total population and spread out through the state. Irish population pockets were seen as far north as Gilpin County to as far south as Douglas County. In 1870, only a few dozen Irish men and women were living in Leadville.
It wasn’t until the Colorado Silver Boom which began in 1879 that Leadville saw a rise in the Irish population. By 1880, 2,300 residents in Leadville were Irish natives, making up nearly 10% of the population. Approximately 40% of those who migrated were from Allihies, a small village that mined and exported copper.
Although the Irish came to Leadville for the immense job opportunities, according to Walsh, they were not treated fairly. Working men organized two strikes demanding better pay and working conditions. During the second strike in 1896, Irish miners were replaced by American-born workers to reopen the mines. In September of the same year, the Irish miners decided it was time to reclaim the mines for themselves and attempted to storm two of the occupied mines. Expecting the attack, the company who ran the mining operations had guards at the ready, killing as many as 20 Irish strikers.
Following the strike, and with the decline of the silver market, the Irish population in Leadville, tired and defeated, began to decline as the young began to look for new opportunities in Montana, Cripple Creek, and Denver.
“Leadville became the most Irish place per capita between the West Coast and the Mississippi River,” said Walsh. “The Leadville Irish raised huge sums of money for Irish causes, led two massive miners strikes, and died young as we saw the average age of death in the Annunciation Church internment records for Irish immigrants was 32.”
In 2003, Walsh stumbled upon thousands of unmarked graves in the Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville, Colorado, one mile north of the city. He found that due to the harsh winter conditions, disease, and lack of political and economic capital, many miners along with their families died and were buried in these sunken, unmarked graves. The average age at death of the approximately 1,400 who will be named on the memorial was 23 and half of them are children 12 or younger. Thanks to Walsh’s extensive research and help from the Irish Government and local Irish community, such as the Irish Network of Colorado, a memorial is being constructed in Leadville to honor the Irish people and others who died in the high elevation of the Rocky Mountains.
“I was drawn to this research because I am from a large working class Irish Catholic family in western Pennsylvania,” said Walsh. “My ancestors came to North America desperate, hungry, and in many cases illiterate. I had to dig into church records, microfilm, and census reports in dusty library basements to learn about these roots, but the larger story was lost.”
The design for the memorial was created in collaboration by two designers, one from Colorado and the other from Ireland. The design consists of a large, raised mound, accessed through spiral pathways—one leading to the center and one leading away from the center to the unmarked graves. At the center of the memorial is a statue of an Irish miner kneeling with his pickaxe glancing toward the sky. In front of him, a harp protrudes from a large rock. Surrounding the statue will be four glass walls with the names of the 1,400 Irish lives lost. All of those buried in the unmarked graves, including non-Irishmen, will also have their names etched on the walls.
“One of my biggest hopes is that this memorial reconnects people in Ireland and the U.S. with lost ancestors who died young and were never heard from,” said Walsh. “This project is years in the making and I’m looking forward to making a meaningful connection with Allihies and Leadville.”
The two parties will meet again to formalize the sister-city agreement later in March.