In Colorado's high country sits a relatively new memorial dedicated to the nearly 1,400 immigrants, predominantly Irish, who were buried in unmarked graves.

It honors the hopes and dreams, struggles and sacrifices of those who settled on Leadville's east side, seeking a better life after silver was discovered in the 1870s. Nearly half of the unmarked graves are occupied by children.

Designed by Irish artist Terry Brennan, the Leadville Irish Miners’ Memorial at Evergreen Cemetery is laid out with beautiful spiral-shaped walkways. At its center is a bronze sculpture of a miner, facing Ireland. Panels surrounding the sculpture depict the names of those who’d been, up until recently, lost to history.

These immigrants were a tough bunch who had escaped poverty and hardship, including the Irish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1852, on their home island, only to take risky sea voyages across the North Atlantic. They started all over again in a new land, facing discrimination and more hardship.

In the 1880s, some 3,000 people born in Ireland were living in Leadville at an elevation of 10,000 feet. But many of them brought along mining skills from Ireland, hoping to turn their fortunes around.

Working conditions were horrific. Miners were exploited and had no rights. They died young and were buried in pauper’s graves, which are still visible in the pockmarked acres at the cemetery. Numerous strikes eventually led to labor unions, setting a template for the rest of the country.

Dr. James Walsh, a political science professor at CU Denver, spent some two decades, with the help of students, researching the names of those buried at the cemetery. Walsh’s research eventually got the attention of the Irish government, which made a commitment to memorialize all of the people who were buried in those unmarked graves. The memorial was completed in 2023, thanks to the Irish Network Colorado and the Consulate General of Ireland, and celebrates the larger story of immigration whether those seeking the American Dream were Irish or not.

You can learn more about the miners at History Colorado Center's exhibition, Unearthed: Voices of Leadville's Shanty Irish, at the Healy House Museum & Dexter Cabin in Leadville.

The memorial is open 24 hours a day. Leadville, the highest incorporated town in the U.S., is a two-hour drive from Denver and makes a great day trip to the high country. In addition to visiting the Leadville Irish Miners’ Memorial, you can try endless outdoor activities, take in the stunning views from Mount Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado, and Mount Massive, and check out various history museums. 

Photos by Kathleen Fitzsimmons

Ways to Experience Irish Culture in Denver

Some Irish immigrants did strike it big and helped improve Denver by starting businesses and philanthropy organizations and building schools and churches. They established the first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in 1885. The modern Denver St. Patrick’s Day Parade has been going on each March since 1962.

There are several Irish pubs where you can celebrate year-round.

Learn about the positive impact Irish immigrants had on what is now the Highland neighborhood. 

Margaret Tobin Brown (a.k.a. Molly Brown of the Titanic fame) was the daughter of Irish immigrants. Learn all about her fascinating life story at the Molly Brown House Museum.

And for international travelers, there’s never been a better time to travel between Denver and Dublin, Ireland, thanks to the new nonstop flight on Aer Lingus beginning May 17, 2024.