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Brown, Molly
Gunnison, John
Marshall, William
Mears, Otto
Moffat, David
Nunn, Lucien
Palmer, William
Tesla, Nicola
Utes


 

 

Margaret “Maggie” Tobin Brown

The Unsinkable Molly Brown, born July 18th, 1867, in Hannibal, Missouri, had no idea that Hollywood would one day make her nickname famous because of her bravery and compassion during the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. In fact, Molly’s nickname was Maggie. It was Hollywood that gave her the nickname Molly, long after she passed away. 

Maggie’s parents, John and Johanna Tobin were Irish Immigrants.  Her childhood was happy and full of love, but sorely lacking in money.  John Tobin did manual labor at the Hannibal Gas Works for twenty years, making $1.75 to $2.00 a day.  But in his “spare time” he was an abolitionist who worked with John Brown before the Civil War.  There are stories telling of him even running a station for the Underground Railroad.   In 1861, before Maggie was born, he joined a local regiment to fight in the Civil War.

Maggie’s mother, Johanna, believed in education for everyone.  Though the Tobin’s had little money, Johanna insisted that Maggie and her five siblings attend Mrs. O’Leary’s grammar school until they were in their early teens.  The bill for their education was steep, one dollar per child per month, but John and Johanna pulled it off.

After Maggie finished her education, she longed to be rich, not for herself, but she wanted to make life comfortable for her parents.  They had always been so good to her.  Attracted by stories of overnight wealth, Maggie, then 18 years old, and her little sister Helen, follow her brother, Daniel, to Leadville, Colorado.  Helen later went back to Hannibal, but Maggie stayed, hanging onto her dream of perhaps marrying a rich Leadville miner. Though Hollywood fictionalizes her life story in the 1964 motion picture, as a saloon girl who can sing and dance, in reality she found work at a local dry goods company, Daniels, Fisher and Smith, sewing carpets and drapes. 

In the spring of 1886, Maggie attended a church picnic and met J.J. Brown, a Leadville miner, who was far from rich.  Maggie fell head over heals for J.J., so she gave up her hopes of marrying a rich man and settled for love alone.  They married on September 1st, 1889, and moved to Iron Hill, where J.J. worked.  J.J. made a decent living, so Maggie continued her education and studied piano, singing, reading, and literature. 

The couple had two children, a son, Lawrence Palmer Brown, born August 30th, 1887, and a daughter, Catherine Ellen Brown, nicknamed Helen, born July 1st, 1889. 

Over the next few years, J.J. earned the reputation of being one of the best mining men in the business.  He was intelligent and worked hard, and it paid off.

A group of Leadville mining men asked J.J. to run their mining operations, called Ibex Mining Company.  In 1893, after the price of silver fell and gold rose, Ibex wanted to look for gold ore in the Little Jonny Mine, which was once one of the major producers of silver and lead in the area.  They immediately hit dolomite sand and the mine caved in, on more than one occasion. 

J.J Brown, superintendent of all the Ibex properties, invented a method of using timber and baled hay to stop the Little Jonny Mine from caving in.  It worked, and tons of high-grade copper and gold were found.  The vein of gold was so pure it was called the world’s richest strike.  By the end of October, 1893, Little Jonny was shipping 135 tons of gold a day.  Ibex, and the Browns, were millionaires.  J.J and Maggie’s hard work had paid off big.

In 1893, J.J. and Maggie moved to Denver, as many wealthy miners from Leadville did.  They bought a small mansion at 1340 Pennsylvania Avenue, from Isaac and Mary Large, who had had the home build by architect William Lang.  The house was 7,600 square feet, but was considered modest during those days.  It was equipped with electric lights, a phone, indoor pluming, hot and cold running water, and forced air and heat.  The kitchen was big and modern. Maggie’s parents even had their own room, and there were servant’s quarters both in the main house and the carriage house.

Rumor has it that Maggie and J.J. were not readily accepted by Denver society, although, the Denver society pages were full of tales of goings on at the Brown household.   The public was fascinated with Maggie. 

Soon after moving to Denver, the Browns longed for their simple life in the country, so they bought 400 acres on Bear Creek, about nine miles from their Denver city home.  Today it is called the “Molly Brown Summer House” and is a big tourist attraction in Denver, but Maggie called it Avoca, after a poem by her favorite Irish poet, Sir Thomas Moore, called “The Meeting Of The Waters”. 

The Brown’s took two years to build Avoca, but the architect of the Victorian foursquare mansion is unknown.  John Geiger, a masonry contractor, did much of the work at the Avoca lodge.

The National Historic Register describes the house as:

A two story dipped brick construction with a sandstone foundation..., which from the outside presents a striking resemblance to the Brown’s home at 1340 Pennsylvania Ave.

Avoca was a working farm, which produced hay, wheat, fruit, and sugar beets, as well as a dairy operation, which was built south of the Avoca Lodge.  The dairy barn had a second floor with sprawling hardwood floors, where Maggie threw parties that lasted three days.  It is rumored that the guests would arrive by train at Sheridan Junction, then take a hayride to Avoca on a wagon sent to pick up the guests by J.J. and Maggie. When the Browns stayed at their home on Pennsylvania Ave. they had fresh milk, butter, cheese, and fruit from Avoca sent by train daily. 

The Denver Times reported the social gatherings at Avoca as “highlights of the season”.  Molly would always be dressed to the hilt, and was thrilled when her outfit made the fashion news.  Once when it was pointed out to her that it was improper to wear diamonds in the daytime, she replied, “ I didn’t think so either, until I had some.”

Maggie enjoyed living large and being on top of the social scene much more than J.J..  Their different views on this subject eventually led to the demise of their marriage, which began to fall apart by the early 1900’s.  By 1905, J.J. had started to sell off pieces of Avoca land, but because of incomplete records, who took ownership is unknown.  In 1906, Louis C. Donley is the listed owner on the deed, and though the land continued to be divided and sold, Louis Donley lived at Avoca and ran the dairy farm into the 1920’s.  In 1930, Robert V. Fehlmann purchased Avoca Lodge and the remaining land, and his family took care of it for three generations.  Most likely, The Unsinkable Molly Brown is pleased with the way the Fehlmann family has kept the legend of Avoca, and Molly Brown, alive.

It was many years after Maggie and J.J. Brown separated when she took that famous trip on the Titanic.  In April of 1912, Maggie was in Europe with her daughter, Helen, when she got word that her first grandson, Larry’s son, was sick.  Consequently, she cut her European trip short and booked passage on the Titanic; $4350 for a first class stateroom for the six-day trip.  Helen stayed in London with friends, so she did not accompany Maggie on the Titanic. 

On the night the Titanic hit the iceberg, Maggie had retired to her stateroom to read.  She was engrossed in her book, when a crash struck her window overhead and knocked her to the floor.  She left the stateroom and found men running around the halls in their pajamas.  One man, who she later said had a face the color of death and eyes popping out of his sockets, ran up to her, gasping, and told her to get her life preserver.  She went back into her stateroom and put on a black velvet two-piece suit with black and white silk lapels, seven pairs of socks, and a sable stole J.J. had given her back in the day.  She wrapped a silk capote around her head, grabbed $500 in cash, put on a life jacket, grabbed a blanket from the bed, and headed for the deck and the lifeboats.

Maggie was used to traveling to remote places, and wasn’t afraid for her safety.  She was an excellent swimmer and figured at worst, she could swim to a lifeboat.  But while she was helping people into a lifeboat, someone grabbed her and made her get in too, as the lifeboat was being lowered. He pushed her, and she feel four feet into lifeboat number 6, arguing all the way that she wanted to stay and help others. 

The lifeboat was supposed to hold 65 passengers, but it was pushed off the Titanic with only 21 women and 2 men aboard.  Their orders were to row to the light, but when lifeboat hit the water, they realized there was no light. 

Maggie positioned a very heavy oar, and together with another woman, rowed the lifeboat away from the sinking ship, through water littered with bodies, furniture, and personal items.  They could hear screams and gunshots coming from the ship.  They found out later that the gunshots were really the boilers.  Then suddenly, at 4:30 a.m. April 15th,the boilers exploded, the sea parted, and the Titanic broke in half and sank.  Approximately 1600 people were lost, of the total 2300 on board. 

In Maggie’s lifeboat, the women demanded to go back and help the survivors, but the Quartermaster refused, telling them that the drowning victims would mob the lifeboats, pull them over, and everyone would drown.  He made the women take their ores and ignore those dying around them. 

Maggie rowed for two hours, giving out pairs of her socks to other women and even giving her stole to a woman who was freezing.  She shared her blanket with another woman. 

Maggie kept the moral up.  She used her pioneer spirit to keep the others rowing so they would not freeze.  The sea was calm and she knew they had a good chance of survival.  Those who could not row she kept occupied with conversation. 

They were finally rescued by the Carpathia, a great ship that was able to save from the lifeboats, over half of the thirteen hundred survivors.  Once onboard the Carpathia, Maggie would not be a victim. She knew most of the survivors had lost everything.  Since she spoke five languages, she could communicate with foreign passengers and help them find finacial assistance.  She got the first class survivors to donate to those less fortunate, and by the time the Carpathia had docked in New York, she had gathered together $10,000.00 to help the needy. 

Once in New York, Maggie found out her grandson was fine.  She decided to stay in New York to continue helping the less fortunate Titanic survivors, and was elected president of the survivors committee.

Margaret Tobin Brown returned to Denver a true national hero.  Those high society types who shunned her now had open arms.  She had finally received the social status she felt she deserved.  J.J had no desire to be accepted by the elite and prestigious, with or without Maggie.  He returned to Leadville, Colorado, where their life had once been simple.

 

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