Thomas F. Walsh: Progressive Businessman and Colorado Mining Tycoon
by Christine Nierenz
My father spent his career working for a company that manufactured mining equipment and other stuff that went into the dirt. Beyond that, I had no other connection to the mining industry. However, as a born-again Colorado history buff, and having recently camped in the Ouray region, I was particularly interested in this book, despite being a bit reluctant about reading about Colorado mining history. I was familiar with two of the three biggest names in Colorado mining (Horace Tabor and Winfield Scott Stratton), but not Thomas Walsh. After reading this book, not only was I educated on one of the most respected miners in Colorado, but I also learned about the impact he had on an international level. John Stewart, the author of the book and a Denver attorney, did a superb job researching the life of Thomas Walsh and presenting it in an easy-to-follow biography.
Thomas Walsh was born in Ireland in 1850, and originally started out as a millwright and carpenter in Ireland. At age 19, Thomas emigrated to Worcester, Mass., along with his siblings and father. Later, in 1871, Thomas came to Colorado, and appeared to be a latecomer to the mining rushes and booms of earlier years, such as Central City and Leadville. After a stint in the railroad industry building track, Thomas returned to the carpentry industry, and unsuccessfully mined on the side.
Eventually, an opportunity presented itself and Thomas traveled to the Black Hills on a gold prospecting adventure and turned down an opportunity to participate in the Homestead Mine, which went on to produce millions of dollars worth of ore. Accounts of his stay in the Black Hills are varied; the author suggests that the Black Hills experience was a learning experience for Thomas Walsh and the beginning of his wealth, which would lead to far greater riches.
In 1878, Thomas left the Black Hills for Leadville, Colo., where he ventured into running and eventually owning the Grand Hotel. The hotel was sold in 1880 and Thomas began his full-time mining career, initially investing in small mining properties and various mining partnerships. The year 1893 brought the Silver Crash to Colorado, which was the beginning of the demise of Horace Tabor’s reign as Leadville’s Silver King. However, luck was on Thomas’s side; at this time he was successful in the Cripple Creek area while others across the state were less lucky.
In the early 1890s, Thomas began exploring potential mining areas in the San Juans. The Imogene Basin, just below the Imogene Pass between Telluride and Ouray, began attracting attention as a potentially fruitful mining area. Various mining ventures met with little success in this area though. In 1896, Thomas ventured into the Imogene Basin in efforts to find success where others had failed. With a little more persistence, though, Thomas realized that he had stumbled on an area with great mining potential. In 1896, Thomas began developing the Camp Bird mine, which would lead to millions of dollars of profit.
With his newfound wealth, however, Thomas did not take the hard work of the laborers for granted. In fact, Thomas earned a reputation treating his workers quite well and going to great lengths to ensure that their working conditions, both on and off the job, were the best anywhere that could be found. This respect helped Thomas avoid any strikes, which at times plagued the Colorado mining industry. Thomas also earned a reputation as a philanthropist. However, he was not immune to the attention that wealth created, where unsavory characters attempted to extort money from Thomas in various schemes.
Thomas also became a popular nominee for political office, although he never made a run for office, to the dismay of others who favored him. He did maintain close friendships with U.S. Presidents, including Howard Taft, who made a visit to Littleton, Colorado to rechristen Thomas’ estate from the Wolhurst Estate to the Clonmel Estate.
From there, Thomas enjoyed international gigs, including a nomination from President McKinley to serve as a U.S. Commissioner to the International Exposition held in Paris in 1900. Thomas’s friendships did not stop at U.S. Presidents, as he eventually became a friend of the unpopular King Leopold II of Belgium, who came into disfavor as a result of the Belgian venture into the Congo, where atrocious human rights violations were committed under his rule. Under fire for his controversial friendship with the King, Thomas remained steadfast in his friendship.
From there, Thomas encountered some personal tragedies in his life, and succumbed to illness on April 8, 1910. In the wake of his death, Thomas was remembered for his great respect for his workers and for being generous, loyal, and honest. Interestingly, a year later, Thomas’s daughter Evalyn acquired the infamous Hope Diamond, which seemed to bestow bad luck on anyone who came into possession of it (Evalyn was no exception). After Evalyn’s death, the Hope Diamond (for allegedly $1 million) was sold to a New York jeweler who in 1958 donated it to the Smithsonian.
Well documented and sprinkled with other tales of Colorado lore, if you are a fan of state history, this book will not disappoint.