Leadville Cemetery

by Rodger Hara

‘Tis the season to be looking for gold in the mountains – aspen gold, that is. If you’re headed for the Leadville area, you might consider spending a few quiet moments in the Evergreen and St. Joseph Cemeteries, the final resting places of many who came from Ireland to Leadville in search of silver – and a better life.

According to the 1880 census, Lake County Colorado had, at that time, the greatest concentration of native-born Irish and Irish Americans of any place between Chicago and San Francisco. Their names echo like roll call at an AOH meeting – Sullivan, Mulligan, Murphy, Moore, Ryan, Kelly, O’Brien, Burns, Reilly, Kennedy, Shea, Powers, Fitzgerald, Harrington, McCarthy, Kehoe and Feehan are but a few of the names found in the Census. One-third of them came from County Cork – likely from the western part of the County on the Beara Peninsula, where the Allihies copper mines in Castletown-Bearhaven once thrived. Others came from Mayo, Tipperary, Waterford, Kerry, Donegal, Cavan, Galway and Kilkenny. Thomas McCullough came from County Monaghan where he was born in 1831 only to pass away in Leadville in 1888. James Cleary was born in County Clare in 1893 and stabbed to death in Leadville in 1913 in a fight over a candlestick that had been made for him by his father, a blacksmith. William Irwin of Limerick, John Dooley of Rusheen, Knockainy, County Limerick, Bridget Shea of Castletown, County Cork and many, many more are interred there.

Many had left Ireland during the famine and worked their way west as miners, soldiers, railroad workers and drifters, occasionally with a family, more often alone. Some had been involved in strikes for better working conditions in Cork and later in Pennsylvania. Most of the men in Leadville were miners – men who had worked the copper mines in Cork and the Knockmahon mines in Waterford and the Avoca mine in Wicklow; most of the women worked as domestic servants. Everyone had to work in order to survive.

The plots in the St. Joseph Cemetery are large and laid out in traditional Irish fashion to allow families to be together in death as they were in life – except in most cases, in keeping with American fashion at the time, they were bordered with wrought iron fences and not the kerbstones usually found in Ireland. Many of the older plots now share space with decades-old pine trees and aspen groves. And many of the gates around the older plots can’t be opened, blocked by the accumulation of a century’s worth of pine needles.

Others, though, are still neatly tended. The Donovan plot is neatly bordered by kerbstones of red sandstone with a patch of shamrocks growing on the threshold. The plot of the Sullivan brothers is covered by a blanket of ground-hugging evergreens. A newer plot for the Kehoes has a marble monument with a small statue of Mary and Joseph holding the baby Jesus.

Many of the graves are occupied by infants and children; the average age of adults appears to be in the mid-30’s. It is the rare tombstone or monument for anyone over 50.

The impact of the Irish Catholic community was manifested by the establishment of a large church – Annunciation – a school – St. Mary’s, St. Vincent’s hospital and St. Joseph’s cemetery in 1879. That impact also showed up in the naming of many of the mines – with names like the Charles Stuart Parnell, the Wolfe Tone, the Robert Emmett and the Letterkenny mines. The presence of so many Irish also led to visits in the late 1800’s by such luminaries as Oscar Wilde, who read poetry to an audience of miners then descended into a mine and drank as much as the miners; John L. Sullivan, who boxed and got drunk and Michael Davitt, the Mayoman who founded the Land League, who came on a fund-raising visit.

The closing of the mines following collapse of the silver market in the mid-1890s after the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and also the failed Western Federation of Miners’ strike in 1896-7 changed the community and most of the Irish moved on to other mines, other cities, other opportunities and only the graves remain. Many who left Leadville relocated to Denver and it’s entirely likely that many of Irish descent living in Denver today have relatives buried in Leadville. The Lake County Library has a list of those buried there that can be found at this link: http://www.lakecountypubliclibrary.org/Cemetery%20Records/NewCatholicCemetery.pdf

You’ll note that it’s called the “New Catholic Cemetery” to distinguish it from the “Catholic” and “Catholic Free” sections of the segregated Evergreen Cemetery across the road and up the hill. Evergreen, was the original cemetery and holds many unmarked graves. It really is, or should be, sacred ground for the Colorado Irish – the average age of Irish buried in the pauper section there is 23! Burial records show that as many as 1,000 people with Irish names rest in unmarked graves known but to God… Those records also show many others with Irish names lie in marked graves. www.lakecountypubliclibrary.org/Cemetery%20Records.htm

Perhaps, using those lists and the various on-line genealogy resources, readers might find a relative and restore their grave – or at the very least, pay homage to those who came before and consider well the price they paid to be here – and what made them leave the soft green hills of Ireland for the hard brown mountains of Leadville.

(James Patrick Walsh, PhD wrote his Doctoral dissertation titled “Michael Mooney and the Leadville Irish; Respectability and Resistance at 10,000 Feet; 1875-1900”, 2010, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, C 305.89162 W166ml and much of the information for this article came from that document. To see more pictures from St. Joseph cemetery, please visit the Celtic Connection facebook page.)

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