What is it about mining towns and Jews?
Us Coloradans know that mining drew a lot of Jewish people to our state — though not all, of course, were miners. My great-grandfather Harry M. Harris came to Cripple Creek to try his luck and finding gold. Many Jews participated in the mining industry via the commerce it generated. One of the most well-known cases is David May, whose dry goods empire began in Leadville. The most famous Jew to be involved in Colorado mining may, however, have never even set food in the state. Meyer Guggenheim kickstarted his fortune by investing in the AY and Minnie Mines near Leadville.
Turns out, it wasn’t just Leadville. The famed Deadwood, South Dakota also had a robust Jewish population, and according to local Jewish historian Ann Stanton, Jewish citizens had an outsized impact on the mining town. Deadwood had two Jewish mayors, Sol Star and Nathan Franklin, with Star serving for 16 years. Franklin’s father Harris Franklin was powerful business leader in Deadwood and built the Franklin Hotel. The main grocer in Deadwood was called Goldberg’s, a name it kept through various ownership up until the mid 20th century. (It was Goldberg’s through which Jack McCall tried to escape after shooting Wild Bill Hickok.) And these are just among a few of the names and businesses I picked up during my recent visit there. (Obviously Goldberg’s caught my attention!)
Most of Deadwood’s once-legendary Jewish citizens are buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery — along with Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. The cemetery even has a Jewish section and the entrance gate is adorned in part with a Jewish star.
What’s different about Deadwood is that the community there did not build a synagogue — the way Leadville did (in fact Leadville had two congregations). Why exactly will require further investigation. But it’s probably why Deadwood’s Jewish population fizzled out when the town did — and its Jews must have left further afield. After all, South Dakota’s Jewish community is minuscule — according to Jewish State Rep. Stan Adelstein it’s only 300! — while Colorado’s is booming. Seemingly there was no established local Jewish community for these mining folk to join, the way people from Leadville, Cripple Creek and elsewhere could move down to Denver, home to a vibrant Jewish community.
But a similarity that made me chuckle was that in both the cases of Leadville and Deadwoods it’s New Yorkers who have taken up the call of preserving the local Jewish history: Bill Korn here in Denver, and Ann Stanton up in South Dakota. Sometimes it takes an outsider to recognize the value of what us natives take for granted!