Rare Photos Found in Leadville Illustrate the Lives of Miners

Miners amble down the street of their Appalachian town in this 1948 photograph by George Pickow.
Miners amble down the street of their Appalachian town in this 1948 photograph by George Pickow.
Photo by George Pickow/Courtesy National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum

It’s not every day that significant new art finds are made. And it’s even rarer for these discoveries to be recognized, shared with the community, and integrated effectively into a larger historical and cultural context. But such is the case at Leadville’s National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, where curator Stephanie Johnson uncovered a portfolio of period mining photos by eminent photographer George Pickow. The resulting exhibit, Eat, Sleep, Mine, is currently on display at the museum, and will be celebrated at a grand-opening happy hour at the museum on Friday, April 1.

“In our safe, we had some leather-bound binders, with no identifying information on them,” Johnson recalls. “However, once I opened them up, I found the name George Pickow, and I got very excited.”

Pickow, who died in 2010 at the age of 88, is best-known for his portraits of folk singers, jazz musicians and fine artists of the mid-twentieth century. A conscientious photojournalist as well, he also did many studies of the lives of anonymous American artisans and manual laborers. The husband of folk singer Jean Ritchie, he accompanied her on many song-gathering expeditions to Appalachia; these photos were taken in 1948 in the coal-mining regions of Kentucky and West Virginia.

In all, 93 photographs were recovered; each had a neatly typed description on its reverse side. Culling the find to 56 photos, Johnson used the images to craft the Eat, Sleep, Mine exhibit, integrating the pictures with other objects in the museum’s possession.

The exhibit Eat, Sleep, Mine at the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville.
The exhibit Eat, Sleep, Mine at the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum in Leadville.
Photo by Susan Lange/Courtesy National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum

“This exhibition puts the artifacts we have in the direct context of a miner’s daily life,” she says. Headlamps, lunch buckets, breathing masks and more accompany Pickow’s annotated pictures, adding a valuable human dimension to the museum’s nearly 20,000-piece collection of tools, specimens and archival material.

“It tells a story,” concludes Johnson.

The exhibit Eat, Sleep, Mine: A Collection of Photographs by George Pickow is now up at the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, 120 West 9th Street in Leadville. A grand-opening happy hour highlighting the exhibit will run from 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Friday, April 1. For more information, visit mininghalloffame.org.

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