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!

  4. JJ Hagerman was my great-great grandfather. I lived with my grandmother (his granddaughter) the last few years of her life and grew up hearing lots of railroad stories. Gigi, as we affectionally called her (Elinor Hagerman), wrote poems and stories about (mostly) the natural environment for hours every day. She was working on a poem when she died at 94 about a part of her life that bothered her very much. The life of the miners was something that she didn’t like to bring up but it was always a source of sadness for her. When she was quite little, she was told about a miner that had died but could not be retrieved. He had fallen on a ledge that was out of reach. Miners would still go down past this man. I think she overheard the description from her father and it stuck with her forever. His body had some sort of amber crystals that had covered him. She thought of it as a sort of shroud that had protected him with a bit of dignity. Apparently nobody knew his name or who his family was—they thought perhaps he was from Mexico. What bothered her more was that a common term for miners were “peons”. Her poem was titled something like, “Peon in Amber”. I’ll re-post if I find it. I have it somewhere special because it was the piece she was revising the day she died. Gigi actually adored her grandfather and said that she hated all of the photographs of him because it never showed the twinkle in his eye or the curve of his smile he often held as he talked. Her favorite memories were going on the “Wildflower Excursions” on the trains with him. She was always aware of the miners’ lives and plights, though. Probably one of the many reasons she did not participate in high society her entire life. My father (now gone) had great memories of eating with the miners when he was a child. He remembered eating outside on long tables put together with everyone and his mother exchanging stories with the miners. In his mind, it was the best food he ever had. The mines influenced his love of geology—he studied the field for eight years and explored the geology of Aspen, Leadville, etc. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned about who JJ really was. I thought of him as a tycoon that couldn’t relate to people without money. In “The Life and Times of JJ Hagerman”, I learned that he grew up as a hard worker on his family’s farm. His father didn’t want him to waste any time in education and wasn’t allowed to complete anything outside of a few years in school. He befriended the Carnegie family through work and had them ask his father to allow him to pursue education. It was a struggle for him to catch up once he was granted permission but he found his way through a degree in business. After I read his history, he finally became a real person to me. His policies on how to deal with striking miners has been hard for all of my siblings because we were brought up with a different mindset. The lesson I teach my daughter is to really examine the life we lead now. What are we doing that in 100 years could be clearly seen as not right? What do we need to change? Do we treat people fairly and equally? There are still a lot of miners’ families in Colorado Springs and I enjoy getting to know their descendants and hearing stories. My favorite stories are about Gigi’s mother—she made it her mission to help especially children that had less than others. One woman wrote a little story about how my great grandmother had given her a bicycle and her very first ride in a car. It’s been important for me to look at all the positive and negative impacts of what people with wealth can have. It’s also important to see how sheer determination and hard work by so many paved the way for us today—from the miners to the farmers that became tycoons. How can we live our lives in a way that would honor the man that fell?


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