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LEADVILLE — As Jim Walsh strolls through the pine forest that envelops Evergreen Cemetery on a brilliant late autumn morning, he flashes back to the day 18 years earlier, when he first set foot on what he has come to regard as sacred ground.

Then, as now, gentle ridges in the landscape outline the mostly unmarked pauper’s graves of people — overwhelmingly Irish immigrants and their children — who perished in the late 19th century while struggling to carve a new life from the hardrock mines where the promise of silver beckoned.

As a graduate student exploring Irish-American history, he acknowledged an intense personal connection born of what he’d learned about the tragic demise of his own forebears, many in industrial accidents. Two killed by trains. Another, a brakeman, maimed in a rail accident. Another dead from an industrial fire. 

Here, he felt kinship.

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“That really changed the way I see my own identity and my own roots,” Walsh says, passing a green, white and orange Irish flag tacked to a tree by a previous visitor. “It was the perfect time in my life to see the value of this place. I felt like I was seeing my own ancestors, famine refugees, a chapter in Irish America that’s not been told fully. And this space tells it in a very profound way.”

That day, Walsh — now a 55-year-old University of Colorado Denver assistant professor specializing in the history of both the Irish in the U.S. as well as labor and immigration — became, in a sense, the narrator of an often-overlooked chapter of the state’s past.

More than that, his drive to unearth the stories of those buried in this section of the cemetery has been joined by a chorus that extends across the Atlantic Ocean to the town of Allihies on Ireland’s west coast. The copper mining center was home to many who fled the Irish Potato Famine and took their skills to the Rocky Mountains; an estimated 1 million people emigrated between 1846-51. 

Today, Leadville and Allihies are officially “sister cities” that share common heritage.

Bringing the stories to light also ignited Colorado’s Irish-American community, which rallied to raise money for a memorial to the men, women and children whose time in Leadville — often tragically brief — nonetheless played a significant role in the state’s mining and labor history. The Irish Miners’ Memorial, to this point a spiral walkway that leads to a larger-than-lifesize bronze statue surrounded by placards listing the known dead, celebrated its dedication last month.

But the visceral connection to the past still lies in the section of cemetery stretching to the west, the “Catholic free” section  — “free” designating that those interred could not afford a $15 burial, then the equivalent of about a week’s wages for a miner — where so far more than 1,300 graves have been identified. (All the “free” sections together encompass about 6,000 graves.) As their stories have emerged, descendants have trekked here and, in some cases, placed markers to honor the distant relatives no longer lost.

A map shows the layout in the “Catholic Free” section of the cemetery, organized into blocks that are 4 rows of 17 graves. A subset of blocks may be 6 rows, for children. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Other than some stakes that Walsh and his students have placed to mark the numbered blocks for easier reference, the section retains the character of sunken resting places where pine caskets long ago rotted and collapsed, creating the ground’s subtle rippling.

“We haven’t messed with them or altered them in any way,” Walsh says of the graves that cover a portion of the more than 130-acre property that sits at the northwestern edge of the town limits. “And we don’t plan to. We really want the landscape to speak in the way it does. The forgotten, you know?”

But remembrance lies at the heart of the miners’ memorial. The project began with procuring an easement from the private landowner, using ground-penetrating radar to make sure the site held no surprises and designing a statue that would capture a spirit that, while centered on the Irish, also spoke to universal themes.

The figure depicts a miner on bended knee, a pick ax in his right hand while his left steadies a harp — the national symbol of Ireland. His head tilts back slightly, directing his gaze past a slab of rock striated with molybdenum, in recognition of the region’s mining history, and to the east. 

Toward Ireland, yes, but also to what its Irish designer calls “a place beyond.”

“Instead of swinging his pick, flexing, he’s looking up,” Walsh says of the sculpture. “And he’s imagining a better world. The future. Or maybe since he’s looking toward Ireland, he’s remembering. We really wanted pensive reflection, because the issues that these immigrants’ lives represent — class, economic inequality, displacement — all of those directly relate to the present. 

“That’s what we’re after here. This is not just a nod to history but to critical thinkers about the world today and how history matters.”

Professor Jim Walsh discusses Leadville history near the headstone of James McDonald, whose location was recently discovered by a descendant living in Ireland. (Steve Peterson, The Colorado Sun)

“Your work chooses you”

On this visit to the cemetery, Walsh seems particularly energized. He has brought some former college classmates who, while scattered across the country, still meet annually for a reunion. This year, Walsh hosted them here, in Leadville, to share what has become his life’s work.

He shows obvious joy introducing this special place to such close friends. It remains a touchstone of his academic career.

“Sometimes you don’t choose your work,” Walsh says. “Your work chooses you.”

It chose him in 2004. Walsh was working on his dissertation on the history of Leadville’s Irish immigrant community, at one time the largest Irish community between the Midwest and West Coast and important to the region’s labor history. Leadville native Kathleen Fitzsimmons met him when he delivered a presentation in town and first took him to Evergreen Cemetery.

(Left) Kathleen Fitzsimmons and Professor Jim Walsh, instrumental in creating the Irish Miners’ Memorial, standing in the Evergreen Cemetery. (Right) Child mortality was high for the poor in Leadville in the 1800’s. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Walsh figured she would show him a historic headstone. Instead, she walked him into the maze of lodgepole pines where the undulating earth only hints at what lies beneath.

“At first, I didn’t know what I was looking at,” Walsh recalls. “Then it slowly dawned on me that all the sunken holes I was surrounded by, that stretch for acres and acres in a pine forest, were people. And I never forgot that.”

Fitzsimmons, who had been studying Leadville’s mining history and later served alongside her husband, Luke, on the memorial’s design committee, prompted Walsh to set in motion a project that wouldn’t really gain traction until years later.

“This is a very kind of forgotten area,” she says. “I mean, even Leadville locals will say, ‘You know, I didn’t even know this was out here.’” 

Walsh found records kept by the local Catholic parish and also relied on city directories, census data and digital newspaper archives to identify those buried there. He also heard about a professor at the National University of Ireland in Galway with a rare collection of about two dozen letters from Irish immigrants in Leadville to relatives back home. When Walsh reached out last summer, the professor shared digital copies.

He began incorporating the history of the pauper’s graves into his teaching, prompting one student to suggest that he should advise the Irish government of their existence. Outreach to the consulate general’s office led to another visit to Leadville and, ultimately, strong support from the Irish government when the memorial project began to gain momentum in 2016.

The records, Walsh says, “really sent the project over the top” as names and ages confirmed that as many as 70% of the graves suggested Irish heritage. The average age was 22, underscoring how harsh mining conditions, disease and the weather posed danger for all — but particularly the very young. Roughly half of the graves belong to children, with about 45% of those under age 5. In the winter, snow often piled waist high, meaning that burials first required bonfires to melt the snow and soften the ground for grave digging.

A wooden grave marker leans against a stump. Some of the writing remains visible, due to the paint being lead-based. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

70%

The percentage of graves that suggest Irish heritage.

“So that was the horror of everyday life,” Walsh says. “Slowly it began to come into focus that entire swaths of the cemetery are nothing but babies and stillborns. We’ve uncovered a lot about the people. Some pieces of the story we’re still trying to understand fully. It’s like learning a new language and reading a new text. These pauper graves are like their own texts. They reveal their stories slowly.”

In the summer of 2019, Walsh visited the town of Allihies in West Cork (home to about one-third of Leadville’s Irish-born residents in the late 1800s), and shared his research about those interred at Evergreen Cemetery. It came as a surprise to residents of the Irish mining community, says Tadhg O’Sullivan, the director of the Allihies Copper Mining Museum who became instrumental in forging the sister city relationship with Leadville.

Allihies had long known of its connection to Irish miners in Butte, Montana. But the Colorado thread was a revelation. As O’Sullivan and others visited Leadville and researched further, they discovered that many of their descendants who fled famine in the late 19th century made Leadville their first stop before moving on to Montana. During that visit, O’Sullivan says, they formalized the “twinning” of Leadville and Allihies that will embrace the cultural connection with an educational component in both Ireland and Colorado.

“So it’s a very important part of the whole story for us,” O’Sullivan says, “because it’s new compared to the Montana story, a whole new dimension. It’s a fantastic story. And the interesting part is we didn’t know anything about the Colorado-Leadville connection until Jim brought more attention to it.”

From records, a memorial rises

Walsh’s focus on the “Catholic free” section emerged because it represented an overwhelming majority of Irish deaths. He estimates that more than two-thirds of those buried in this section were Irish, but the undesignated free section goes on and on.

Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.S., and his wife visited the site in 2019 and, Walsh recalls, “were very moved by the space.” Fundraising took off, and of the more than $200,000 raised so far, at least half has come from the Irish government. Finishing touches like benches and a donor garden will require additional money. About $100,000 “would get us to where we need to be,” says Tess Julian of Irish Network Colorado, the organization that has been central to the planning and fundraising effort.

And while completion of key elements of the memorial — the sculpture, spiral walkway and placards listing the names and ages of the dead — was celebrated this fall, what Walsh calls “the grand unveiling” has been scheduled for next September. Among the improvements, he notes, will be replacement of the current aluminum placards with glass.

Irish Miners’ Memorial at the Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Last year, supporters celebrated the groundbreaking, with a gathering that highlighted not only a remembrance of Irish history, but also the common cause that binds marginalized people, from Indigenous to immigrant.

It marked the culmination of more than six years of effort.

“We just started scratching and clawing and trying to raise awareness and support, and it just caught fire,” Walsh says. “And it’s now a sacred Irish space. But it’s not just an Irish space. A third of these people are not Irish. It’s working class. And I think that’s as it should be.”

People of color are buried here, often with bare minimum acknowledgement in official records. Walsh found evidence of both Black and Mexican burials appearing within the “Catholic free” section, usually nameless. One that struck him reads: “Unknown — Mexican — killed on railroad.”

“That’s the one entry that stayed with me more than any other,” he says, “because it’s like the Tomb of the Unknown Worker.”

Another entry in the records reads: “Unknown — black — 48?”

“And he’s buried with babies and stillborns,” Walsh notes. “I don’t know why they buried him as an adult with babies. A lot of 19th-century cemeteries have segregated areas for people of color, but this does not. So it’s a multiracial space.”

As planning proceeded for the groundbreaking last year, Walsh made two gestures aimed at recognizing the larger scope of the memorial. He asked the cultural director of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe to bless the grounds. And he invited Nicki Gonzales, history professor at Regis University and also Colorado’s state historian at the time, to speak to the gathering.

Gonzales recalls the humanizing power of personal connection to the past in her own life through the story of her great-grandfather, Paul Lujan Sr. As an 11-year-old boy, he made his way through the southern Colorado coal fields at the time of the infamous Ludlow Massacre, headed toward the coal fields in Boulder County. 

“They were coming for the same reasons that the Irish did,” Gonzales says, “and with the same hopes and dreams that the Irish did, and willing to take those risks. Jim Walsh was trying to bridge that older history with more contemporary issues by inviting speakers who can bring those perspectives to a dedication of the Irish who are buried there, who have been there over 100 years.

“The Irish talk about their history, and then here we are reminded that these same issues are continuing today.” 

Walsh notes that when interpretive kiosks are added along the path between the memorial and the “Catholic free” section, he hopes that the text will be printed in English, Gaelic and Spanish. Many of those living in Leadville today are immigrants from Mexico, particularly the state of Chihuahua, and he would like them to see their own stories reflected here.

“Any time the poorest of the poor are remembered in this way, it helps to put the world a little more right-side up.”

– Jim Walsh, Denver history professor

(Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In addition, History Colorado has planned an exhibit in Leadville’s Healy House Museum that will not only tell the story of the town’s Irish immigrants, but will also feature photos from 21st-century immigrants “to showcase that community and connect the dots between the centuries,” Walsh says. 

The only improvement to the area that includes the gravesites might be gravel pathways to guide visitors through grounds that, unlike other sections of the cemetery, offer few markers beyond the landscape’s burial depressions. 

“We’re not going to try to pretty up the space,” Walsh says. “We’re not going to disturb any graves. We’re not going to plant grass. We’re just going to leave it as is, because the value of it is that you can see how class worked in 19th-century America.”

When Walsh spoke at the celebration last month, he noted with irony that on a day tens of thousands of people were lined up in England to honor the queen’s death, “we’re here to honor the poor.”

“And people appreciate that this memorial really is a radical act,” he adds. “Any time the poorest of the poor are remembered in this way, it helps to put the world a little more right-side up.”

The radical acts of the miners themselves loomed significant in their day. They organized some of the largest labor strikes in state history seeking better wages and working conditions in the mines. But their efforts ultimately proved futile. Authorities declared martial law, cast the Leadville strikers as violent and dangerous subversives and crushed the movement. When the silver market crashed in 1893, many miners drifted away to wherever they could find work.

Their generation, Walsh figures, has never been fully memorialized, as the Irish American narrative favors celebrating achievement, often culminating in the rise of the Kennedy political dynasty.

“The Irish American story tends to jump from the famine straight to the climbing of the social ladder all the way to the White House,” he says. “That narrative sort of skipped over the human toll that industrial labor represented.”

The bronze sculpture in a clearing among the pines, created more than 4,000 miles away, has helped set that record straight.

Irish Miners’ Memorial at the Evergreen Cemetery in Leadville. (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A statue named Liam

Terry Brennan, a 67-year-old designer who works in 3D production, lives in a rural area halfway up a mountain called the Sugarloaf in County Wicklow, just south of Dublin on Ireland’s east coast. Brennan’s longtime friend, Denver pub owner Noel Hickey, texted him to ask if he would design the statue for the Leadville memorial.

Brennan knew the story. He’d visited Leadville 25 years earlier and, in conversations with locals, learned why Irish surnames were so common. He’d also spent part of nearly every year on holiday in Allihies, where he absorbed the history of the miners who, during the famine, took their skills extracting copper in County Cork across the water and to the western U.S.

Feeling honored when he received a text with the request to design the statue, Brennan set to work sketching out a few concepts over the course of about a year. Each idea seemed to elicit still more suggestions from the local design committee until he realized that a final decision was becoming more and more elusive.

“So I flew over to Denver with three drawings and asked them to make a decision on one or the other,” Brennan says. “What I thought would be a good expression, would be to have a figure carving his culture into and out of the Rocky Mountains.” 

Brennan dabbled in sculpting when he was in college but as an artist he considers himself more a painter than a sculptor. So to take on a piece of this scope and scale, he first familiarized himself with the bronzing process and then worked backward to determine how to proceed.

It took seven months to make the original — a design sketched onto four sides of a block of polystyrene and then fashioned into three dimensions with a chainsaw. Molten clay was then poured over the rough figure, creating the medium on which Brennan carved the details.

The miner became known as “Liam O’Sullivan.” Liam after Liam McHugh, the 29-year-old boyfriend of one of Brennan’s daughters who volunteered as a model for the initial sketches; O’Sullivan because it’s such a common Irish name. The original model cost only about $600 for materials — the polystyrene plus some plywood to fashion the harp — as Brennan offered his services without charge. 

The finished original then began its own migration. Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs posed with it at Dublin Airport for some publicity photos before the freight headed on its two-week journey to Belfast, then London, then Los Angeles and San Francisco before it landed in Denver. COVID travel restrictions prevented Brennan from following his creation overseas.

Two men pose with the statue
Left to right, Liam (the name given to the statue), designer Terry Brennan and Simon Coveney, the Irish minister for foreign affairs send the piece off at Dublin Airport as it begins its journey to Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Susan Kennedy)

Once in Colorado, the piece was delivered to Bronze Services, a Loveland foundry, where it was cast in bronze, creating the full-size work that would be installed at Evergreen Cemetery. For scale, the figure of Liam would stand 7-feet tall if he weren’t resting on one knee.

Brennan plans to visit Leadville next September, after the finishing touches have been added around his work, and bring about 10 friends and family with him. Many people have asked him if this piece has special meaning for him, including an interviewer with Ireland’s national radio broadcast. 

“My answer to them was the last time this happened, the French put a statue in the Hudson River,” Brennan chuckles. “I know the scale is different, but that’s a different day’s conversation.”

A grave marker for “Edwin Slavin 1882” in the “paupers” section of the Evergreen Cemetery (Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Healing separation and loss

Every time he returns to Evergreen Cemetery, Jim Walsh sees a new visitor, or a newly placed grave marker. He points to a cross marking the spot where one of his students discovered a long-lost relative.

Word of the emerging stories discovered by Walsh and his students has spread across the water, where national radio interviews and stories in The Irish Times, the country’s newspaper of record, have rekindled hope for many families who lost track of family members.

Walsh made five stops last June on a speaking tour in Ireland. At each one, people wanted to see the list of names, which they sifted through in hope of finding a particular lost relative. It struck him that these descendants have never stopped searching.

Brian McDonald, a 71-year-old journalist who lives in Galway, a harbor city on Ireland’s west coast, embodies the Irish yearning to connect with his lost ancestors. He went so far as to chronicle his quest in a 45-minute YouTube video titled “Seeking James.”

He had grown curious about his ancestry. His grandparents hailed from Dublin, due east across the countryside, but his research stalled at what he calls a “missing link” — his paternal great-grandfather, James McDonald.

A miner by trade, James left Ireland at the time of the Great Famine in the 1840s for a mining area called Cleator Moor in northwest England. But when the iron ore began to dry up, James sent his family back to Dublin while he hatched a plan to take his mining skills across the Atlantic.

“The family essentially lost contact at that stage, but they never knew where he had gone to in the U.S.,” Brian McDonald says. “My great-grandmother had a big trunk full of clothes and all she possessed in the world, which she essentially kept in one room in inner-city Dublin. She awaited word from her husband, my great-grandfather, that he had struck it rich and the family would jump on a boat and come to America, where they would have a life of plenty.”

That’s where Brian McDonald’s search turned cold. Eventually, he heard from a cousin that James may have headed for the silver mines of Colorado. Brian connected with a Denver-area amateur genealogist who sought to pick up the trail, futile as the task seemed at the time. 

But on an unrelated trip to the mountains, the genealogist wound up in Leadville, where he visited Evergreen Cemetery and noticed many Irish names. Later, he contacted Leadville’s Annunciation Catholic Church to ask if it had any records of a James McDonald who’d lived in the area in the late 1870s or early 1880s.

The needle fell out of the haystack: There was a James McDonald who died on Dec. 26, 1882, age 48. The age and dates lined up. Thrilled to hear the news, Brian McDonald in 2012 made his first-ever trip to the U.S. He rented a car in Denver and drove to Leadville, checked more records and ultimately found the unmarked plot in the “Catholic free” section, beneath two pines that towered above his great-grandfather’s final resting place — which, like many of the pauper’s plots, he shared with five or six others.

“As you can imagine it was pretty emotional,” McDonald says. “The actual record in the library showing where he was buried, as with 90% of the people buried there, they have no marker. So a couple of weeks after we left we had arranged with the undertaker and there’s now a marker on his grave.”

Inscribed at the bottom of the gray granite slab are the Irish words SUAIMHNEAS SIORAI.

Rest in peace.

(Left) Irish Miners’ Memorial. (Right) Headstone for James McDonald. (Photos by Steve Peterson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I think there’s going to be a flood of not just people whose names are on the memorial, but people who want to discover the larger story,” Walsh says. “Every family in Ireland has a lost ancestor, and the trauma of that loss lingers in the landscape. You can feel it in Ireland. It’s just a sense of separation and loss.”

That sense of separation, he figures, is what sent Brian McDonald on his quest — one that echoes so many others. The Irish Miners’ Memorial has taken on life as a symbol representing all the lost Irish who drifted west, never to be heard from again.

“They were hungry and destitute and they died with the families not knowing where they were, where their remains are,” Walsh says. “We’re bringing the light back to those lost Irish. I have so many of them in my family. I feel like I’m not on my own.”

Paul Burson, co-director for service learning at Denver’s Regis University, got to know Walsh years ago, when Walsh told him about his doctoral work studying Irish migration. It struck a chord, because Burson’s grandparents lived in Leadville. He started making trips up the mountain to trace his own lineage.

Indeed, he found at least three relatives buried in the “Catholic free” section of the cemetery. Connecting the dots to his past has reinforced his strong feelings about the class struggles faced by immigrants, both then and now. Burson is married to an immigrant from Mexico and sees parallels to the way his relatives, then “at the bottom of the food chain,” were treated. He can’t help but feel solidarity.

“One of the things that strikes me,” he says, “is you realize real quick that we’re on the shoulders of someone else. That’s the reason we’re here. It’s the story of all of us.”

Kevin Simpson

Kevin Simpson

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists.