In today's post, we'll take a look around the Catholic Cemetery at Central City. I believe it's the largest, at least in terms of space, on a hilltop full of cemeteries in this old mining district.
What I really find moving in these old mountain cemeteries is the sense of lonesomeness that I would not equate with loneliness. There are plenty of other graves around and many of the cemeteries are regularly visited, and there is the glorious mountain backdrop, but I love the way they are spaced out in the "wild" unmanicured landscape — in the meadows, in the aspens, beside the pines.
The first day that we took time to get out of our vehicle, instead of driving by as we have for years as we come out of or go into a network of 4x4 roads, was a late-autumn day.
We were actually a little stunned to see how far this cemetery stretched once we started walking around. Photos in this post are from that day and subsequent visits in spring.
Like all the other 19th-century mountain cemeteries, there seem to be a disproportionately high number of graves marked for children. Below are three girls, sisters who never knew one another. Two died at about two years of age and another at about six months.
Another memorial of three children born to the same parents. They lasted about 11 months, 1 year, and 13 years. The parents, Ignass Gundy and his wife, were both born in France, and must have had such high hopes for 13-year old George as he outlived his younger brothers. But then that life was snubbed out, too. I always presume, rightly or wrongly, that very young children died from illness of some sort or birth complications if very young. But I'm more intrigued by young teenagers, wondering if they were already working in dangerous mines or also contracted an illness or were victim of some other type of accident.
Another infant grave below, Julia Keyes was the daughter of Andrew and Mary. Mary died one month before her daughter died, who was only 2 months 24 days old at death. It must have been pretty hard on Andrew to lose both his wife and child in such a short span of time. Mary clearly didn't die in childbirth, but I wonder if complications from a difficult delivery could have been a factor. (See how these cemeteries set the curiosity on fire!)
Another babe, Emma Schneider, was laid to rest at nine months old. It's sad see the tombstone sinking into the ground into the indifferent jaws of native the plants. Obscurity for Emma lies just around the corner.
As it does for Mr. Gleason, one of the many who immigrated here from Ireland. During the years of the potato famine, it's said two million Irish sailed to America. Gold wasn't discovered in Colorado until 1858, so a lot of those buried here may have actually traveled to Central City from elsewhere in America. So many of them were imagining they would escape the hardships of mid-century Ireland, only to end up with potentially harder lives here in the mines.
I don't know as much about what situations other Europeans might have been trying to escape (speaking on a broad scale), or if their passage here was motivated purely by the sparkle of gold in their eyes. There are a notable number of Italians, Germans and Austrians. Two epitaphs are written in Italian below.
Michael Egger was born in Austria and married a girl from north Carolina.
A handful of other souls in their mountain peace.....
James Curran was born in Ireland. In this same cemetery, there is an Ellen Curran Flynn born in the same county (Waterford) of Ireland, one year apart from James. Are they siblings perhaps? Ellen’s husband, John Flynn, is also from Waterford, and another woman with the maiden name Curran born in Ireland (county not specified) is buried. She married a man who immigrated from Germany and became part owner of a couple mines in Gilpin County. Are all the Currans related? It's apparently a common surname in Ireland, so they could certainly be unrelated. But are they? Haha, these little mysteries always strike me.
But back to Ellen and John Flynn, who have really tickled my imagination … there are newspaper clippings referring to deaths of three of their sons who preceded themselves in death. Three very curious deaths. Their son, Joseph, died at age 22 when, according to the newspaper, he fell under a moving train in Idaho Springs (just over the mountain from Central City) and died of his injuries. Now how does that happen? Even in that time, I don’t think many people just randomly fell onto railroad tracks. Maybe he was drunk? Or maybe he was pushed?
That newspaper article mentions that the bereaved parents (John and Ellen) lost another son a few years earlier to “strangulation in the Brooklyn mine” (a gold mine in the district). There is no further explanation given for “strangulation,” and I so far haven’t found any articles about this incident. Does this mean another human killed him? Or perhaps a mine accident in which he was crushed in a way he couldn't breathe? Asphyxiation from toxic fumes, like he forgot to take a canary with him that day as a warning bell? The word choice is so cryptic, though it could have been used more commonly in that day, I don't know (like "apoplexy" is not commonly used now but was back then to indicate a stroke). Strangely, his name is not on the Flynn family tombstone with all the other children of these parents even though he apparently died there in Central City. Why? The mystery is killing me.
Yet another son, John (“Jack”) died in the Queen-of-the-West Mine at age 18. He was stooped over cleaning up a shaft after a detonation when a rock fell loose from above him and hit him on the back of the head near the base. According to a newspaper article, “Flynn commenced bleeding at the ears.” His partner placed him in the bucket and called for it to be hoisted up. He reached the surface and passed away shortly thereafter “without uttering a word after being struck by the rock.” No inquest was held; apparently all the other miners in the area felt there was nothing suspicious. But I dunno … one rock falling precisely on a fatal spot — three accidents for these brothers resulting in three suspicious-sounding deaths.
I really want to know who this John Flynn, their father, was who left Ireland. I feel like he was somebody against whom someone else had a vendetta for him and his family! Haha. Or who had been dealt a curse back in the homeland and fled to America to try to escape the curse! The news article about Jack’s death states that the grieving parents “have the sympathy of a large circle of friends.” So likely, it was just an unfortunate set of circumstances. Many circumstances and fates of miners of that era were, after all, quite unfortunate. It would have been more suspicious if it said the parents “kept to themselves” or were not well-liked, then I could imagine enemies who might push, strangle and clobber their family.
So one of my goals now in returning to these cemeteries is to count the number of nationalities I see. I think there are probably a wider variety in the Catholic and Central City cemeteries than in those of fraternal orders (which outnumber the non-fraternal ones). And another goal is to find the gravestone of Sebastian Zang in the Catholic Cemetery and of William Vine in the Central City Cemetery. There are photos of them on Find-a-Grave, so I know they are still standing. Why these two men?
First I’ll just say what can be divined about them from their gravestones. Vine was an immigrant from Cornwall, married a wife from Cornwall, and drowned in the Bates Hunter Mine in 1885 just a few months after a son was born to him. His first son had died already at 2 years old. His second son went on to outlive him by many years, and his widow remarried another Cornish man. Zang drowned along with Vine in the mine. I haven’t found any info on him, but the name had me curious. Zang is a surname in Mandarin. Many Chinese people assume English names because English people cannot pronounce their Chinese names. But according to a report from one of Colorado's public radio stations, KUNC, "Chinese population in Colorado from 1860-1890: at the time, there were only about 125 Chinese people in Gilpin County. They were considered the lowest ethnic group and relegated to the scraps from abandoned mines to find gold. They used a method called placer mining, commonly referred to as panning." So it seems unlikely he was Chinese. A little Googling revealed that it is also a surname in German, which I wouldn’t have guessed. This makes much more sense. There is even a town in Germany named Zang. His gravestone also includes another Zang, Adam, and from the birthdates I presume they are brothers.
As to my interest in these men … well, I read a ghost story about them. I first read the story in a book, then I found it online pretty much verbatim. But the two texts have different authors and neither one cites the other, so I don’t know who copied who, or if they both copied someone else. So I don’t know the true source but the story goes essentially like this: Zang and Vine drowned in the Bates Hunter Mine after an explosive charge inside the mine caused the shaft they were in to flood. [The two texts both misstate the death date; they say August 7, but the actual tombstones of both men say July 31.] After their demise, there were claims that their ghosts had spared two miners from certain death — one man from an explosion and another from an accidental fall, but it isn’t explained exactly how the ghosts interacted with the men to save them. Then there was a cave-in at the mine that endangered several miners. They all managed to escape alive, and supposedly they each said they had seen Zang and Vine holding back the crumbling walls and roof of the tunnel until the miners were able to run out unharmed. So they were not only helpful ghosts, but superhero-strength ghosts! As to why none of the other miners who died in the mine over the years were so benevolent in the afterlife, I can't guess.
I don't know why Zang and Vine gave up their heroic escapades after that when there were surely many subsequent accidents in the mine, but there are no further references to their ghosts. I guess holding up those walls was a lot of work and they became tired enough to rest in peace afterward.
So I mentioned in an earlier post that we recently spoke to a miner currently working in Central City who told us about the water that needed to be pumped out of the old shafts. That mine he’s working in is the Bates Hunter. I started looking more into it after reading this ghost story and remembering our conversation. This isn’t meant as a plug for the company reviving the mine, but what I found is quite interesting to me. The company has produced a whole series of videos on the reopening of the mine and the mill — work still in progress as of 2023, including interviews with all the workers at these sites. Honestly, they make good PR for the company coming across as running a very “wholesome” and environmentally conscious kind of operation. And maybe it is, but I think judgment will be reserved until they are up and operating to see what kind of impact they’re really having on the area.
According to them, the Bates-Hunter is the second oldest mine in the Central City mining district, which, I’ve mentioned in many of my posts, has been called “the richest square mile on earth.” They also say that only 15% of all the valuable minerals have been extracted from the area. So while I’m ambivalent about the idea of new industrial work intruding into what has become a rather peaceful old town (Central City more peaceful than the adjacent Blackhawk who has utterly sold its soul to casinos, while Central City maintains a more historical presence in spite of casinos), it is kind of cool to see a piece of history being resurrected. Not just any piece, but the history that settled this region and brought all these East Coast and European folk to end up living here and dying here in these cemeteries.
As romantic a vision as it is of the old miners toiling in the mines with their candles and canaries, this area and huge swaths of the Colorado Rockies were exceedingly noisy, dirty, bustling places most people would not want to live in now.
Anyway, these are a couple of the videos I found most interesting showing the old mine tunnels they are restabilizing and the old mill they are restoring.
I’m going to tack on here some photos of a tour we recently took on a random outing to Idaho Springs of the Argo Mill and Tunnel (we didn’t intend to end up here, but there we were and a tour was about to start, so in we went). Since I have just mentioned what noisy places these old mining towns were in their heyday, and also the persistent issue of water in the mines, it’s a relevant topic. If you are driving down I-70 by Idaho Springs you will see the tall red mill building on the side of the mountain from the interstate.
So more than 100 hard rock mines were being worked between Idaho Springs and Central City in the late 19th century, a spread of a little over four miles. As the shafts were dug steadily deeper, the mines of course filled with water to where eventually the cost of pumping water was the primary mining expense, sometimes too costly to continue production.
A Mr. Samuel Newhouse conceived of building a slightly inclined tunnel under the mines of the Central City district with a pipe to carry water away from the mines and empty at Idaho Springs, thereby eradicating pumping costs and letting gravity do the work instead. Additionally, the tunnel would be fitted with tracks to allow mining carts to carry the ore out downhill to the mill that would be built at the mouth of the tunnel in Idaho Springs, again sparing the cost of hoisting the ore out in shaft houses, and utilizing gravity instead. This was pretty revolutionary work for the time, a veritable technological wonder, and beginning in 1893 the Argo Tunnel took 17 subsequent years to complete. It was (they say) the world’s longest tunnel at the time of its completion in 1910.
Here are some historical photos inside the tunnel. The first one shows how there is both the water pipeline above and the ore cart tracks below. I had a hard time finding any source that would explain exactly the water system. One source called it a “flume” rather than a pipeline. This is only photo I saw online that illustrates both the pipe and the tracks. I can’t tell if the top of the piping is open like a flume or if it’s a closed pipeline.
The mill was in full production processing 300 tons of ore per day by 1913. People from all over the world came to tour the tunnel and mill complex. A narrow gauge railroad came right up to the mill and high-grade ore was loaded directly onto the train for transport to smelters and the rest went into the Argo mill. The tunnel is now sealed about 150 feet from the entrance but water continues to drain from the mines it connected to. Although the water is pumped through a water treatment facility before being released into Clear Creek, it’s still a Superfund site. The tunnel today still drains 700 gallons/minute! It’s closely monitored to ensure there is never another flood, which is what closed the tunnel in 1943 when some miners working in the tunnel blasted into an unused shaft that hadn’t been drained of water. All that water dropped down in a mighty wave, killing those miners and flooding the tunnel. The water blasted out of the tunnel like a fire hose for some hours. The flooding was so substantial that it caused Clear Creek to shift across the valley.
So the site lay abandoned until about 1970 when restoration of it began and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Today the Argo Mill is a museum with guided tours, and I believe there is more coming in the way of tourist attraction. It’s noted in the intro film of the tour that this is the only place in the USA that is both a Superfund Site and a National Historic Site.
Part of what is notable about Argo Mill is that because it was taking ore from so many different mines, this diversity of ore meant many different types of equipment were necessary for optimal processing.
Several varieties of ore crushing, vibrating and grinding machines were employed. One brute-force method was the twenty 1,050-pound stamps that pulverized gold-bearing ore so the “wheat” could be easily separated from the “chaff.” The noise from the mines and the mill, in particular these stamps, gave the valley a reputation as “Thunder Valley.” No earplug on earth could mitigate the noise of the stamp mill, and our tour guide told us that the men who worked nearest the stamps would go deaf within days.
Another type of extraction process used chemistry rather than physics. Different chemicals, notably mercury and cyanide, could be used in different processes to separate gold from other metals.
So, following are some photos I snapped inside the mill. My history lesson has been a little long in this post, so I'll spare you also an ore mill lesson! Even without explanations, I think the space inside the mill is pretty cool and the machinery is still impressive, and most of it is actually the original machinery, not reproductions, and you still get a feel for what a loud and bustling place it must have been.
This is a compressor outside the tunnel.
At the end of the tour, you get a little bag of river sand and a special pan like the placer miners used, and taught how to pan for gold. Unfortunately Erik and I didn’t stay to pan, as this whole afternoon had not been planned, we just ended up here via meandering and by the time the tour ended, it was past our kitties’ feeding time and it was the better part of hour’s drive home. But we got to take the sand home, so now we just need to find one of those pans somewhere! I bet there is a Youtube video to instruct us in the technique. I suddenly have a memory of when I was a kid, my family and I used to picnic at the Poudre River in Colorado and we used our frisbees to pan for fool’s gold. As a kid I thought that was pretty darn fun.
An endnote here that I got a lot of the info on the Argo complex from https://www.goldrushtradingpost.com/argo_mine___mill.