LEADVILLE – Wanna see something really scary?
This classic line from “Twilight Zone-The Movie” has likely been repeated hundreds of times in Leadville over the last hundred years, or as long as the carbonate camp’s most eerie legend has been floating on the wind. The story involves a pair of mines, four men named Gallagher, a plot to get rid of a mine boss and death in its most hideous forms.
Today, little remains of the history behind the legend.
“As kids, everyone was afraid of Gallagher’s Ghost,” said Leadville resident Carl Miller. “Nobody even knew where the mine was, but when we were out playing kick-the-can, and we didn’t want to come in, our parents would tell us Gallagher’s Ghost or the “Lady in Black’ would get us.”
Miller’s grandmother lived at 402 East Fourth Street, below the imposing Penrose Mine, which stood castle-like and forbidding on the brow of Chicken Hill. It was a convenient, in-town place for youngsters to go to get scared.
It apparently worked, because local legend tells of a woman whose husband was killed in an accident at the Penrose. Common belief held that the widow, dressed in black, would wait at the mine for a husband who would never return.
“Neighborhood children once placed a black flag on the mine dump,” said Howard Tritz. “One day it got twisted around the pole and everybody thought the Lady in Black was up there. Even the old widows in the neighborhood were outside looking at it.”
However, legends concerning the Gallagher Ghost were born one mile to the east in the mines of Strayhorse Gulch, where the workings of the old Argentine Mining Company perforate the south side of the gulch.
Originally discovered by a trio of Gallagher brothers in 1876, the company was reorganized as the Mikado in 1887. In that year, it employed 120 men, and the property was well known for its resident spirit population, which lingered on through the turn of the century.
By 1890, at least five men had met destruction in the Mikado Mine. Three men walked into open shafts, one fell from a bucket and another, James Slattery, perished beneath a falling slab of porphyry in 1898.
A year later, one miner fell from a ladder in the Gallagher Shaft and one old miner who never carried matches walked into a hole and fell 40 feet to his death.
Three of the dead men apparently returned in spirit form to wander the dark galleries of the Mikado. They remained in the workings until the mid-1890s, and were apparently the source of disembodied voices, invisible, icy hands on miners’ shoulders and other strange occurrences.
The phantoms reportedly worked on all levels of the mine, disturbing the operation of buckets and cages, ringing the signal bell or jumping onto ore cars. One employee, confronted by the shade of a miner wearing ragged brown coveralls, an old hat and blue snow spectacles, ran his shovel through the misty form, which promptly vanished in the lurid candlelight. The sightings resulted in many miners collecting their pay and going to work in nearby mines with less spiritual unrest.
“There is something weird, something beyond the mind of man,” said the press about the unearthly screams heard in the depths of the Mikado. “Many miners have come to the conclusion that they are the wailings of men who have lost their lives in the mine.”
Following the closure of the Mikado, the stories waned, but never disappeared completely.
Another tale, Tritz said, describes the ghost as that of a temperamental former shift boss at the Mikado. He gained immortality when a vengeful employee buried a pick in his back. After the murder, the dead man reportedly chased the guilty conspirators from the mine whenever they reported for work.
This twist in the tale likely dates to the 1890s, when an unpopular mine manager named W.R. Chadbourne oversaw operations at the Mikado. Problems arose when stockholders wanted to be paid dividends from the rich ore, but Chadbourne preferred to re-invest the capital in exploration. Miners were apparently instructed to do their best to get rid of the man, and a period of practical joking ensued. Workers drew human figures on mine timbers, sprinkled them with phosphorus and set them on fire to produce glowing ghosts, or uttered bloodcurdling screams in order to scare the manager into quitting.
The pranks didn’t work, but more than one Mikado miner collected his pay as a result of the shenanigans.
Other subterranean tricksters preyed on newly-employed foreigners who brought their belief in ghosts from the old country. Practical jokers dressed in black and carried a “floating” candle on the end of a stick through the drifts to frighten the new workers. They also hung masks, moving them with strings, or splattered a worker lying on the floor of the drift with ketchup to terrify victims when they passed.
Other miners added fuel to the ghost frenzy inside a pair of connecting Iron Hill mines. When the workers in one lode went to the surface for dinner, their counterparts in the neighboring shaft frequently invaded the adjoining property to ring signal bells or create other “ghostly” mischief. Even after the mine management put a stop to the pranks, otherworldly activity persisted in the diggings.
Another version concerning the origins of the spirit tells how Gallagher was decapitated while riding a cage. However, the accident wasn’t enough to keep him away from work, and his spirit returned to the stopes and drifts. His comrades reportedly saw the headless miner walking down a nearby hill with grub bucket in hand, but his head tucked under his arm.
The Gallagher Ghost legend also appears to share a connection to events in the Moyer Mine, located in California Gulch, one mile to the south.
It was there that State Sen. Joseph Gallagher came from Silver Plume in 1901 to labor in the Moyer’s dismal workings. His employment was cut short after two weeks, when parts of his anatomy were truncated in an explosion in a drift. Soon after the tragedy, miners reported seeing the senator’s wraith in all parts of the mine, returning to warn his friends of danger. His appearance decreased the mine’s payroll.
The surreal ambience underground, coupled with the miners’ superstitious nature, were other factors that helped give rise to ghostly tales.
“Uncanny places, these subterranean stopes, chutes and galleries,” said a 19th-century daily. “Water gurgles, drips and trickles in (sibilant) whisperings. Ghostly shadows are thrown in giant shapes by sputtering candles, and glimmering lights dance like will–the-wisps from somber crannies.”
Today, few reminders – other than the hulking mine dumps and decaying timbers – remain of the struggle, successes, heartbreaks and toil that took place beneath Leadville. Even after gravity and the elements have erased all evidence of mining, the legends that were born underground will likely continue to enlighten future generations.
“Leadville is known as “The Magic City’,” Miller said. “I believe it’s so important to promote and protect the legends of our past. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between fact and fiction, but I can say with certainty that miners are a superstitious lot.”