Friday, May 4, 2012

Life in the Two-Mile-High City

With such an inconclusive search through the city directories for Leadville, Colorado, perhaps it is time to take another approach. Especially since spelling is all over the board—Flanagan, Flanigan, anything but the right Flannigan—there is no way sans a census roll or other online resources to tell for sure. Unfortunately, sources for online documentation in this state during this time period are rather slim.

Complicating the matter—and which you have already observed for yourself if you make a habit of following the hyperlinks—is the fact that our Mrs. Mary Flannigan has her very own listing in the 1900 census. That listing, if you noticed, is not in Leadville, but in Denver.

So let’s take a moment to think this over. What could be the setting here? We know that John Flannigan is listed in his brother’s will in 1907 as residing in Leadville. However, we don’t know when John’s brother, Father Patrick Flannigan, had actually drawn up his will. Perhaps, like many a procrastinator today, the good Father had put off updating his will and the document was showing dated information.

Or perhaps we just need to learn more about life in mining communities.

Think about it: Leadville was situated in the county containing the highest natural point in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Elbert, earning it the moniker, The Two-Mile-High City. Ever since the discovery of gold in land just outside Leadville in 1860, mining had been a focus of that town and county seat of Lake County. By 1876, the focus had switched from gold to silver, making Leadville a boom town up until a change in federal legislation—and isn’t that the way it always is?—in 1893. Despite the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, causing the price of silver to take a tumble, after 1893, the region’s economy still got its biggest boost from mining. Lead, zinc, copper and—later—molybdenum all contributed to a thriving, though transient, mining community.

Now think about this: with the flux of discoveries of gold and silver, plus the influx of fortune-seekers ready to make their “millions,” what type of community might have sprung up around that industry?

On the bland side of prosperity, there were the infrastructure builders. Interestingly, a key figure from the Flannigan family’s past, J. J. Hagerman, whose industrial mining prowess stood him in good stead back in Norway, Michigan—the hometown of John's lawyer brother Richard—became instrumental in both provision of railway transportation and mining in the Rockies from Colorado Springs northward to Leadville. J. J. Hagerman actually became a central figure in mining strikes in nearby Cripple Creek, a scenario which was repeated further north in the 1896 Leadville miners’ strike, bringing that century’s workplace violence—and the deplorable working conditions behind the discontent—close to home for the Flannigans.

On the more colorful side of prosperity, Leadville claimed front row seats to a constant stream of traveling notable—and notorious—characters. From the likes of “Texas Jack” Omohundro of Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling revue fame, to outlaw Doc Holliday on the heels of his gun fight at the O. K. Corral, to a lecturing Oscar Wilde speaking at the city’s Opera House, Leadville history was peppered with the dangerous and the world famous. Swindlers and intrigue swirling around the fortunes of the mines ringing the city borders completed the ebbing and flowing picture. Even the “Unsinkable Molly Brown” got into the act, having roots in Leadville during this time period.

Set that all against a backdrop of the facts of life in a city whose altitude is over ten thousand feet above sea level, and whose cumulative annual snowfall amounts to over twelve feet. Considering the working conditions endured by the miners—the ten-hour workday was a point of contention in the miners’ strikes—I wonder about rethinking the day to day life of families like the John Flannigan family.

Thinking about all this brings me more questions than answers. For instance, did the miners put in their ten hour days, then commute home to catch dinner and some shut-eye? Or, in the 1880s and 1890s, did they just camp out in the area surrounding the mine, itself, perhaps only returning home on days off—or even possibly only at the end of the season?

That brings us to another consideration: was there an end to the mining season? At ten thousand feet, in the middle of January, say, would miners remain in camps at the mines? Would they even remain in what surely would have been poorly-insulated shanties back in Leadville? Or would there be a seasonal retreat to lower altitudes, such as the merely one-mile-high city, Denver?

And, nearing the age of sixty just after the turn of the century, would John Flannigan still be able to keep up the rigorous life that workers surely had to endure, just to make their living?

All this musing to say: Could that be the explanation for separate locations for John and for “Mrs. Mary” Flannigan during all those years of city directory listings for Leadville?

And could that be the link that finally brought at least “Mrs. Mary” to move down to Denver permanently?

For, as we will see again tomorrow, Mrs. Flannigan has set up her residence in the city of Denver in time to be counted there in the 1900 federal census.

Photograph: Four miners at the Garbutt Mine, a gold mine east of Leadville; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I find it interesting to see that J J Hagerman also suffered from tuberculosis. He had enough money to go to Switzerland to recuperate, but was never the same afterwards.

    I don't want to harp on the theme, but boring a tunnel through granite, back in the day, was an arduous task and it took years - as many as 5-6-7 of them to "dig the bore". They used temporary track and trains to bring supplies to the tunnel diggers - who were often of "mining stock" (read: Irish or Chinese). Whatever John Flannigan did, could well have taken him away from home for extended periods of time. Even prosaic locomotive "driver" might be on the (rail)road for days on end.

    As you noted, the workdays (and work weeks) back then were "endless."

  2. There is one note that I found touching. Patrick the Priest obviously kept in touch with his far-flung family, never forgetting them in the process of building a large Church in Chicago. One is left to wonder how much he saw of them - he left home to go to Cincinnati, came home for a few short years and off he went.

    I found this: showing a Thomas Flannigan (spelled that way!) working as a RR laborer. Pitkin County is the home of Aspen, CO.

    Also, I found this:

    Charles Flannigan, born 1850 in Ireland... could he be a missing brother?

  3. It must have been never ending work for the women in those days also. Many of them ran boarding homes for the miners, cooking on those iron stoves and doing laundry on washboards! I know that many of the men were gone for long periods of time moving from mine to mine. Redcliff nearby was another mining town and many traveled back and forth from Leadville. Drinking and gambling were also common in the mining camps. Many miner's wives ended up raising their children alone!


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