c 2019 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in The Colorado Gambler magazine in 2000.
Between 1891 and 1900, an estimated 403,496 Irish immigrants arrived in America. A good percentage of them were miners whose ancestors had toiled in the copper and tin mines of Ireland. Mining was a transient occupation, relying on the newest, biggest and best strike. The Colorado goldfields provided ample income in districts such as Leadville, Central City and Blackhawk, and Cripple Creek.
Work for the Irish miner was easy to find since they were regarded as highly skilled. Like miners of all races, the men usually came ahead to scope out the prospects. If the boom was big enough, family and friends followed. As a result, the city of Cripple Creek was predominantly white, Irish and Catholic. Names like O’Hara, Sullivan, Murphy and McKenna were common around town. During the labor wars of 1894, one Colorado Springs minister went so far as to predict the strikes would end if only the predominantly Episcopalian mine owners would just hire Catholic superintendents.
Hundreds of Irish patented land in and around Cripple Creek beginning in 1893. Many have their names emblazoned in history. Jimmy Burns and Jimmy Doyle were two Irishmen whose mine, the Portland, was the largest producing mine in the district. The Mary McKinney Mine was also a big producer. Jim Daily, another Irishman, is said to have saved millionaire investor A.E. Carlton from a gunshot meant for him at McKillip & Doyle’s Grand View Saloon at Midway.
At least five Irishmen were among the district’s top millionaires. Mollie O’Brien was the only female broker to ever hold a seat on the Cripple Creek Mining Stock Exchange. And while Irish prostitutes ran rampant in other cities around the state, only two are recorded as shaming their upper-class counterparts in Cripple Creek.
Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was an Irish-American whose actions ranked high above many women. By the age of 74, Jones had overcome the deaths of all four of her children and her husband to become a powerful force in the United Mineworkers of America. Authorities tried to kick her out of Colorado during the strikes of 1904, but were unsuccessful. Incidentally, one James Murphy was a saving grace after the depot at Independence was blown up during those same strikes.
True to their heritage and folklore, the Irish produced many a lively tale in the Cripple Creek District. The infamous Tommyknockers of the mines in Ireland accompanied the immigrant miners to Cripple Creek. These mischievous, invisible little characters were said to dwell in the working mines. Tommyknockers were considered to be of a friendly nature, warning miners of danger and allegedly saving many a man’s life. They also served as the perpetrator whenever a tool was misplaced or unusual noises in the shaft were heard.
Occasionally, the Tommyknockers were blamed for eating
another man’s lunch or wreaking vengeance on the miner who dared to curse him.
If a Tommyknocker wasn’t to blame, the Irish could always accuse their enemies,
the “Cousin Jacks” who had migrated from Cornwall, England. Their dislike for
each other ran deep in their respective native lands, and the two never worked
together if they could help it.
Hard rock miner and poet Rufus Porter wrote many a vignette about the Irish in the district. The very real characters he portrayed included Angus McGurk, who threw himself down his own mine shaft because he’d eaten the last of his beans. Then there was drunken Pat McCain, who became a hero after rescuing a crew of men at the Lucky Ten Mine.
Porter’s most famous character was probably Dynamite Dan O’Hara, a fictional person based on several Irishmen Porter knew in the district. Among other things, O’Hara is credited with building Johnny Nolon’s and other saloons, knocking boxing great John Sullivan out for insulting his heritage, and being a favorite among the dance hall ladies.
It is true that many an Irishman found wealth in the Cripple Creek District. But the tales behind the success are now more priceless than the fortune made. An example is two Irishmen who had a claim on the east slope of Bull Hill. Three months went by with nary a result. The story goes that the two were down to their last dollar one morning and decided that if nothing came of the day’s work they would sell the non-producing mine for the going rate of $100.
On a whim, the pair decided to see what their pet mongrel had to say about the situation. “We’ll wait until the pooch lays down,” one of them declared, “then we’ll kick him off and dig there.”
Sure enough, upon ousting the dog from his chosen spot and digging, the men hit a rich vein of ore by noon. Three weeks later they sold out for $100,000 and their discovery, the Last Dollar, became one of the best producers in the camp. The end of this story is unfortunate, if typical; the pair headed back east, prepared to return to their homeland. By Chicago they were broke, and at least one of them returned to the district to finish out his years hard rocking.
Other tales include the one about the Irishman who was single jacking in some tough ground one day. When he came out of the hole that night, his boss asked how it had gone that day. “Begorra,” he replied, “I drilled all day on one hole and the ground’s so hard that when I quit the hole stuck out two inches.”
By 1930, the Cripple Creek District’s heyday was well over. Even so, the census that year showed 34 Irish still calling Cripple Creek home. Among them was Danny Rind, who lived to be over 100 years old. Rufus Porter recalled Danny was still sinking shafts and hauling his own ore in the 1930’s. When asked his secret to longevity, Rind replied, “You’ve got to have an interest in life, son.”
These words of wisdom might have been followed by an evening of tipping pints of ale and singing one of the best of all Irish toasts:
“May the wind always be at your back,
May the road you take not be so steep
And may you be in Heaven half an hour
Before the Devil knows your dead.”