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John Irwin (1845-1902)

Jim Irwin (1852-1904)

For Irish men in Leadville tending bar and saloon ownership was a very respected occupation. It was a kind of skilled position that offered great opportunities for social, political and fraternal networking. As a gathering place saloons served as forums of information where old hardships could be reminisced, politics could be discussed and conspiracies could be hatched. And Leadville certainly had its fair share of old hardships, politics and conspiracies about which to reminisce and discuss.


The Irwin brothers… [as former coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania and “refugees” to Leadville from those Molly Maguire days… as “veterans” of Leadville’s silver mines and the strike of 1880… as Irish patriots and staunch supports of Irish freedom causes (Ancient Order of Hibernians, Land Leaguers, Fenians and Knights of Robert Emmett)… as unionists (Knights of Labor and more recently Western Federation of Miners and the Cloud City Miners Union)… as some of Leadville’s “leading Populists” (Leadville Herald Democrat July 27, 1894) and as recently returned Butte, Montana copper miners]... were certainly well qualified to reminisce, discuss and conspire with their Irish patrons on the other side of the bar.


But Colorado saloons of the 1890s, like today’s “sports bars”, were also sanctuaries for male sportsmen. Probably at the Irwin Brothers Saloon boxing was the most popular sport and son and nephew Billy Irwin was undoubtedly the most popular pugilist. Most of Billy’s matches, at this time, were fought away from Leadville due to Leadville’s general hostility towards boxing matches fought within its city limits. Billy’s “away from Leadville” matches were also a result of the Leadville miner’s strike of 1896 which had reduced Leadville to a virtual “war zone” for most of the year. Although the Irwin Brothers Saloon did not have the benefit of radio and television it did, nevertheless, have other means by which to bring an out of town boxing match to its local sportsmen on a round for round and virtual live coverage basis: Remote telegraph reporting from ringside to local newspapers with “runners” carrying messages the rest of the way to its saloon patrons.


To illustrate how one of Billy Irwin’s matches could have been remotely sent to a newspaper (Leadville Herald Democrat) and forwarded to a saloon (Irwin Brother's) a clipping (Aspen Times – March 12, 1898) from Billy Irwin’s scrapbook (Irwin vs. Taylor at Glenwood wired to Aspen Times and messengered to Brick Saloon) is quoted here:


  • Glenwood Spring, March 12. – (Special to the Times) – Between 260 and 300 excursionists left Aspen on the Midland Special at 6:30 last evening for Glenwood Springs to see the 20-round fight between Johnny Taylor and William Irwin. The special report of the Times over the Western Union wires, and was sent by the Times representative, who was on the ground. Copy of these messages were placed on the bulletin board at the Brick Saloon, and that place was jammed with people till midnight, and there was great interest manifested. Considerable money changes hands on the result.


  • Glenwood Springs, March 12. – (Special to The Times) - 7:30p.m. – Both fighters ready for ring. Streets are crowded with people. All business houses will close in thirty minutes. The match will not be interfered with by officers, nor will any hippodroming be tolerated. Irwin is favorite in betting. Taylor has been nicknamed “Griffo.”


  • Glenwood Springs, March 12. – (Special to the Times) – 8:10 p.m. – Two hundred and twenty-six people have just arrived on the Midland Special. Two hundred and ninety tickets sold before doors opened. Seats on stage are at big premium. Aspen money still goes on Irwin, 100 to 75.


  • Glenwood Springs, March 12. – (Special to the Times) - Irwin enters the hall and is greeted with cheers. Taylor is coming in amid cheers. Later – The house is in an uproar with bets being offered. Irwin is the favorite. Irwin will enter the ring at 124 pounds, Taylor at 133.


  • Glenwood Springs, March 12. – 10:00p.m. - Irwin enters the ring first stripped to the waist: loud cheering. Taylor wears blanket and bows to the audience with great confidence. Bets are declared closed…


The Irwin Brothers Saloon (or as we may say today ‘Sports bar”) at 105 East 4th Street reported Billy Irwin’s matches (local and away) from 1895 through 1897. By 1898 their business had grown to the point that they relocated to 320 1/2 Harrison Avenue (Leadville’s main street and mercantile district) and remained there until 1902. Billy Irwin fought his last fight in 1901…John Irwin died in 1902…and Jim Irwin died in 1904. Thus the Irwin Brothers Saloon where so many old hardships had been recalled…politics and conspiracies discussed…and Billy Irwin boxing matches reported passed into the memories of Leadville history.


This photo was taken circa the mid-1890s at the entrance of the railroad ticket and express office (401 Harrison Avenue). This was just across the street from the Irwin Brother's Saloon. At far left is John Irwin. Perhaps he was a passer-by when this picture was taken? Or perhaps he was there to purchase a train ticket to see one of son Billy Irwin’s fights at Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Silverton, Denver or Cripple Creek/Victor?

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