COPPER MINING - BUTTE, MONTANA (1894)

reduction would remain in effect as long as the price of silver was under 83.5 cents per ounce. At the time of this agreement the price of silver had already dipped to 73.5 cents per ounce and miners in the know speculated that it would be years, if ever, before the price of silver would rise to 83.5 cents per ounce again. Living costs were traditionally high in Leadville, and a silver miner, even if working steady, could hardly maintain his family on $3.00 per day. By November 4, 1893 the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed and the demonetization of silver in America was official.

 

It was under these circumstances that Billy Irwin, his father (John) and uncle (Jim) together left Leadville to work in the copper mines of Butte, Montana. Hoping that their stay in Butte would be short and temporary, John Irwin’s wife (Bridget) and daughters (Etta and Margaret) remained behind in Leadville. Many other Leadville families were separated in the same fashion as the town's menfolk dispersed to other non-silver mining camps throughout the West. For the Irwins (and many others) the choice of Butte was a logical one. Butte was a strong union town…the Irwins were a strong union family. Butte was largely settled and mined by County Cork emigrants…the Irwins were emigrants from neighboring County Limerick. Butte had a considerable network of ex-coal miners who had worked in the coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania during Molly Maguire times…the Irwins also had worked in the coal mines of Northeastern Pennsylvania (Wilkes Barre and Nanticoke) during Molly Maguire times. So from mid-1893 to early 1894 the Irwins worked in the Butte copper mines while hoping their return to Leadville would be forthcoming sooner rather than later.

 

Fortunately Leadville had a great resilience and by late 1893 things in Leadville began to reopen thanks to other non-silver minerals found in abundance in the Leadville region. On December 23, 1893 the Leadville Herald Democrat newspaper wrote: “the miners might be thankful this Christmas for the presence, not of silver or gold or lead but for the much humbler iron ore of the district.” So by early 1894 after about a six month stay in Butte, the Irwins return to Leadville and went back to work in the mines. But only now they returned with less enthusiasm for mining than they had before. For brothers John and Jim Irwin they would finish the year 1894 as miners but by 1895 they would leave mining for good and open up the “Irwin Brother's Saloon” located at 105 East 4th Street. As for Billy he too would return to the mines of Leadville but only half heartedly for now he was determined in earnest to pick himself up out of the mines by means of his “other profession”…prize fighting! By mid-March 1894 a prize fighting opportunity presented itself to Billy by the name of the “Montana Kid”.

The year 1893 was a watershed year not only for Billy Irwin but also for his father (John) and uncle (Jim). Since the early 1880s silver had dominated the Colorado economy and by 1890 (Sherman Silver Purchase Act) silver purchases for coinage by the U. S. government nearly doubled. This in turn radically increased the amount of silver money in circulation and Colorado silver mining towns, such as Leadville, prospered. But by the time of the presidential election of 1892 things did not bode well for Colorado silver mines however. President-elect Grover Cleveland believed that with so much silver money in circulation it could threaten to deplete the U. S. Treasury’s gold reserve (if silver coin holders opted to redeem their silver for gold). So in 1893 President Cleveland called a special session of Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and demonetized silver. By mid-year, as word of this reached Colorado, silver prices began to fall and the general condition of the Colorado economy began to worsen. Then on June 26, 1893 Britain closed its India silver coinage mints which amounted to another blow to the Colorado silver mines. As these traditional silver markets were closing so too was Leadville’s silver mines and by mid-summer of 1893 fully 90% of Leadville’s workforce was idle. A national crash and depression followed and Leadville caught the full force of the storm…a storm which came to be known as the “Silver Panic of 1893”.

With the growing labor surplus in their favor the mine owners moved to reduce wages from the standard $3.00 per day to $2.50 or as an alternative ultimatum to increase the work day from eight to ten hours at the old wages. By September 14, 1893 the miners, represented by their union (Knights of Labor), agreed to a wage reduction from $3.00 to $2.50 per day and this