Driving north toward Ouray on U.S. Highway 550, high above the Uncompahgre Gorge at 9,000 feet, you can see a mine shack with colorful laundry hanging from it. A sign reads “Antiques, 9-5.” Travelers gasp at the building perched on this narrow ledge and wonder how to get there.
But the story of the Neosho Mine involves more than the visual pun of multicolored T-shirts displayed by the Ouray County Historical Society. The story includes a world famous song with a haunting melody perhaps inspired by the isolation and loneliness of working in remote mines in the snowy San Juans.
It has taken me years to find the mine and the family photos and to piece together this tragic tale. Leigh Ann Hunt, archaeologist for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, and I hiked into the mine high above Highway 550 this fall. Below us, across the gorge, the parade of vehicles looked like tiny Matchbox cars. On the trail, we found two wooden sheds, the entrance to the Neosho Mine and the blacksmith shop with its distinctive center cupola. Laundry hung between the shop and a tall pine tree.
Farther down the narrow trail, we came to the faded red, wooden bunkhouse with sagging rotten floors and evidence of pack rats. On the west side of the structure, the distinctive tooth marks of hungry porcupines indicated the snow line. The real prize was unnoticed on the door.
Volunteers in 2012 and 2013 provide more than 150 hours of labor to stabilize the aging blacksmith shop. The State Historical Fund dedicated $4,000 for a structural assessment and the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests provided the materials. Technical assistance came from Hunt, the forest heritage program manager; Donald Paulson, curator of the Ouray County Historical Society’s museum; Joseph Gallagher (also known as “Log Doc”) from Heritage Preservation Resources in Boise, Idaho; and Brad Wallace of Btb Construction in Ridgway. Limited funds only permitted work on the blacksmith shop.
As I walked up steps into the bunkhouse, I swung open the original four-paneled wooden door and explored the structure with its cooking area on the east side and wooden bunks around the room. There was no insulation. When winter storms blew around the pine trees, nights would have dropped well below freezing. Miners would have huddled around a stove now gone. Then, sitting on the front steps, I looked again at the door and found a few names scrawled on it, including the penciled inscription: Margaret Weatherly, June 7, 1924.
At that moment the story I had heard finally came together – a story of a famous song, an enduring marriage and a failed mine.
Margaret grew up the daughter of an itinerant Irish laborer. Like thousands of Irishmen who fled the Emerald Isle, her father came to America to seek his fortune and found only backbreaking work on railroads. But he sang to his children, and he brought tales and tunes from the old country.
She’d had a bitter early marriage, then she met the love of her life, Dr. Edward Weatherly. How they came to settle in Ouray remains obscure, but Dr. Weatherly became a mining expert, a passionate proponent of a silver, instead of a gold, monetary standard and a writer for the Ouray Times. He never practiced medicine, though he claimed to have gotten his degree from Oxford University. Family files and photographs filling 31 boxes have resided at the University of Colorado Boulder Archives since 1936, including his obituary from The Durango Herald.
He frequently returned to England to seek funding for Ouray mines, particularly his own, the Neosho. A tall, handsome man, he struck a professional air around the small mining town. If anyone questioned why an Oxford-trained physician would come to tiny Ouray and engage in mining prospects, no one asked. In the mining West, you created your own persona and left it at that. If Weatherly could encourage British investment in Ouray mines, so much the better. But, with a proud demeanor and frayed cuffs, he always seemed a penny short. Eddie and Jess, the nickname for his wife, Margaret, moved to Ouray in 1907.
The real success in the family was his brother Fred Weatherly, who stayed in England, practiced law and began to write songs. Fred lost his son and his father within three months. Out of a deep sense of grief, Fred wrote a poignant poem about love, loss and failed opportunity. He sent the poem to Ed who shared it with his Irish wife.
From the oral traditions of her itinerant father, Margaret remembered an ancient Londonderry air or tune – perhaps once played on harps by blind singers. Or she may have heard the tune played by Irish miners in the bars and saloons of Ouray.
Margaret sent the notated manuscript of the music to her brother-in-law in England. Thus “Danny Boy,” copy written in 1913, became one of the best-selling and beloved songs of the 20th century, in part because of so many deaths during World War I and World War II. Tenors everywhere learned it. Thus, the song, sung at Irish celebrations and wakes for the dead all over the world, has a Ouray connection.
Psychiatrist Anthony Mann, a descendant of Fred Weatherly and the author of In Sunshine and in Shadow: The Family Story of Danny Boy, writes of his relative: “The skill of his words is such that they convey strong emotion without it being tied to a specific situation; singer and listener can imagine whomever they wish. These words of loss and reunion after death had special resonance with Irish people.”
If the song is about tragedy, so is the family history.
Often destitute and scrambling for funds, Dr. Edward Weatherly lived a lie. He never finished Oxford. He never became a physician. And in turn, his brother never acknowledged the role of Margaret in matching an ancient Irish tune to his soulful words.
Margaret’s name did not appear on the copyright, and perhaps to assuage his guilt, Fred loaned thousands of English pounds for his brother’s Ouray mining schemes. He never acknowledged her collaboration. Instead, he sent money to America, and his brother bought dynamite and hired miners.
The Neosho Mine never paid well, and Edward Weatherly became embroiled in bad investments, lawsuits and failed prospects. An avalanche destroyed their cabin, which was higher on the ridge than the bunkhouse. Like so many mining hopefuls, the Weatherlys believed in Ouray and believed in the promise of their silver mine, but paydays were few and far between.
Hard times became worse with the Great Depression.
Edward Weatherly died in 1934, and his Ouray grave would be unmarked. Out of her deep grief after his death, his loving wife slipped into insanity, and she passed away at the state mental hospital in Pueblo in 1938. She never lost faith in her husband or in the mine that broke them both, but she became suspicious and paranoid, scribbling doggerel on scraps of paper left in her cluttered cabin in town.
Travelers hundreds of feet below look up at the Neosho’s blacksmith shop and wonder what it is. Volunteers have preserved three smaller structures, though the bunkhouse needs stabilization to keep it from sliding down the mountain.
As I sat in the doorway looking at Margaret’s penciled signature and the date June 7, 1924, I hoped that had been a good summer for the couple.
Mann wrote: “Margaret identified throughout her life with her Irish roots, seeing them as the source of her strong Catholic faith, her love of singing and her thick, lustrous red brown hair.”
I hope she sang near the bunkhouse and mine. Maybe she even sang:
“Oh Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling, from glen to glen and down the mountainside.
The summer’s gone, and all the roses falling.
It’s you, it’s you must go and I must bide.”
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.