Thomas F. Walsh - Colorado Mining Tycoon

Author: John C Stewart, published 2007

Author’s description:
In the first complete biography of Thomas Walsh, John Stewart recounts the tycoon’s life from his birth in 1850 and his beginnings as a millwright and carpenter in Ireland to his tenacious, often fruitless mining work in the Black Hills and Colorado, which finally led to his discovery of an extremely rich vein of gold ore in the Imogene Basin. Walsh’s Camp Bird Mine yielded more than $20 million worth of gold and other minerals in twenty years, and the mine’s 1902 sale to British investors made Walsh very wealthy.

He achieved national prominence, living with his family in mansions in Colorado and Washington, D.C., and maintaining a rapport with Presidents McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, and Taft, as well as King Leopold II of Belgium.

Despite his fame and lavish lifestyle, Walsh is remembered as an unassuming and philanthropic man who treated his employees well. In addition to making many anonymous donations, he established the Walsh Library in Ouray and a library near his Irish birthplace, and helped establish a research fund for the study of radium and other rare western minerals at the Colorado School of Mines. Walsh gave his employees at the Camp Bird Mine top pay and lodged them in an alpine boardinghouse featuring porcelain basins, electric lighting, and excellent food.

Stewart’s engaging account explores the exceptional path of this Colorado mogul in detail, bringing Walsh and his time to life.

Thomas Walsh was an Irish Immigrant that had a string of successful business ventures in the American West, culminating in the discovery and operation of the fabulously wealthy Camp Bird mine in the mountains above Ouray, Colorado. The great wealth acquired during and after the sale of the Camp Bird propelled Walsh into the upper echelons of American Society.

Walsh is noted for being an advocate of the laboring class in an era where labor was generally treated poorly. His Camp Bird mine was a model of progressive business practices and labor relations. Walsh was an early supporter of 8 hour work days (when most miners worked a grueling 10 or 12 hour day). He built what became a famously lavish boarding house for his mine workers. Treating workers well wasn’t just a matter of good will for the mine owner – Walsh’s mine escaped most of the strikes and associated violence that swept through western mines in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The argument could be made that good treatment of the miners resulted in loyalty that repaid the mine owner many times over.

The following quote of Walsh’s illustrates his progressive views on labor:
“As employers, treat your men with humanity and justice. Provide them with clean, comfortable quarters, wholesome food, and keep medicine at hand for their use. Money spent for their comfort is well-spent, for besides the good results in work, you get their appreciation and loyalty, which is of incalculable value.”

It wasn’t just mine laborers that Thomas Walsh treated well. He helped the poor and unfortunate throughout his life. He made sure that nobody went hungry in Ouray while he lived there during his Camp Bird days. He also stepped in and saved a financially ailing hospital from being shut down. Ouray also got a new library courtesy of Walsh. Ouray wasn’t the only town to benefit from Walsh’s generosity. After selling the Camp Bird, he even went as far as helping the poor in his home country of Ireland. Evalyn Walsh, Thomas’s daughter, continued the Walsh spirit of philanthropy after Thomas’s death, contributing to many causes in her home town of Washington D.C..

I’m surprised that a complete biography of a man as noteworthy as Thomas F. Walsh was not written sooner. This is especially true given the near celebrity status of his daughter Evalyn Walsh – who was the owner of the famous Hope Diamond for many years. The difficulty of researching and writing about a man that has been deceased for nearly 100 years is evident in the often-sparse details of Walsh’s life – especially his early years as a businessman in the frontier American West. Much more is known about Thomas Walsh in the years during and after his fabulous Camp Bird mining venture, when Walsh moves to Washington D.C. and became involved in society and politics. I would like to know more about Walsh’s days as a mining entrepreneur and Leadville hotel owner, but almost 130 years have gone by since that time so details of Walsh’s early life are undoubtedly difficult to come by.

There are a few miscellaneous, interesting points from the book that I wanted to include:

  • On the ultimate extent of Camp Bird mining activities (1900): The Camp Bird had reached just about it’s greatest surface extent, with 103 lode mining claims and twelve mill sites covering a total of 941 acres.
  • David Lavendar, author of “Red Mountain” (which I have reviewed here), worked at the mine during the great depression. In his 1956 book “One Man’s West”, Lavendar provides a glimpse of the life of a Camp Bird miner.
  • Although Walsh was almost universally praised for his progressive stance on labor relations and his philanthropy, his memory is somewhat blemished by his close friendship with King Leopold II of Belgium. King Leopold was responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed in Africa during the colonial era.

Walsh’s legacy was well summarized by The Rocky Mountain news, in an article eulogizing his death in 1910 (related to his wealth): “oppressed not one single soul in the attainment; it was money that washes as clean as mountain water, but the ownership of it meant to this man simply that it had become possible for him to enjoy the pleasure of doing good.”

Thomas Walsh 1904
Thomas Walsh 1904

 

John Stewart did a commendable job in researching and writing this biography of one of the West’s greatest mining men. However, Stewart makes one misstep at the end of the book. In describing the bygone era of the Western prospector, he writes “however, in a modern society that values a clean environment above all else, ore finders, for all their talents, have little status outside the shrinking U.S. mining industry”. Whether mining is an economically feasible activity is determined by a complex set of factors, including environmental regulations. Implying that mining is in decline purely because of environmental regulation, and even going as far as saying that in the United States, environmental regulation trumps all, is certainly misguided and not appropriate to the scope of this book. This is a minor fumble though, and I can still whole-heartedly recommend this book to anyone interested in Western mining history, Colorado history, or more generally, an interest in important figures in gilded-age American society.