Pioneer Profiles: HAW Tabor

Nobody thinks the origin of the term “money to burn” might be attributed to one person, but Horace Austin Warner Tabor, known commonly as “Haw,” may very well have been responsible for it.

Augusta Pierce Tabor. (Credit: wildwesthistory.com)

Haw Tabor was born on November 26, 1830 to a life of modest means. He trained as a stone mason, and in 1857 he married a woman named Augusta Pierce. Augusta was a frugal woman who worked hard to save money and run a tight household. Even though she had amassed a sizeable savings of around $40,000 (modestly rich back then), Haw heard the call of gold, and packed up his family to head west, as so many families did. Augusta had just given birth to their son Maxsy, and Haw nearly lost them both in a river crossing where they were almost swept away by rushing water that overcame their wagon. Their voyage set a precedent: they were the first wagon, and Augusta the first woman, to reach Idaho Springs near Denver. This was only a temporary stop, because Haw was determined to get to Leadville, the “Cloud City,” so named because it remains the highest incorporated city in America at 10,152 feet in altitude.

Tabor opened a general store there, acting as postmaster and later as the first mayor of Leadville. In the spring of 1878, even thought he had never extended credit, he grubstaked two miners with $64.75 worth of groceries and supplies in exchange for one-third interest in whatever they found. It didn’t take long before the two miners struck it rich with a silver mine called The Little Pittsburgh, which began netting each man $50,000 a month ($1.15 million today). Tabor sold his interest not long afterward for $1 million and then bought The Matchless and Chrysolite mines, which were both steadily profitable. Tabor also diversified his investments, owning property and other assets all over the world. He built an opera house in Leadville and a Grand Opera House in Denver, at one time owning several blocks of real estate in downtown Denver, including the Tabor Block where the Capitol building resides. He also bought the Brown Palace, an aging inn that he brought into her glory as Denver’s finest hotel.

The Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver (Credit: Skyscraperpageforum.com)

An out-of-work carpenter sitting outside the Tabor Opera House in Leadville looked up to see Haw step through the door. Pulling a dollar from his wallet, Haw lit his cigar with it. The young man was stunned. “I’m gonna be that rich someday,” he said. That carpenter was Winfield Scott Stratton. Tabor liked his enthusiasm, so he hired Stratton to help build the vault for his new bank, from which he converted his general store. He also liked Stratton’s work ethic and attention to detail, especially with woodwork, so after the bank was finished, he hired Stratton to carve a giant liberty dollar coin to be silver-leafed and hung on the side of the bank. Stratton carved a perfect three-foot replica of the coin, then helped mount the finished coin on the building. Because of this early relationship, Stratton figured prominently in Tabor’s later life.

“About 70 percent of people who suddenly receive a windfall of cash will lose it within a few years,” says the National Endowment for Financial Education in a recent article. The same statistic may have been true of early Colorado miners. Once he had a steady substantial income, Tabor began spending money very freely. Augusta wanted nothing to do with his sudden fortune, maintaining her simple, low-key lifestyle. They ended up moving to Denver, and Haw was happy to leave her at home while he hobnobbed with high society.

In 1878 Tabor was elected Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, serving until 1884. He also served a few months as a U. S. Senator, covering for Henry Teller who had recently been named as Chester A. Arthur’s Secretary of the Interior. 

Enter Elizabeth “Baby Doe” McCourt. At age seventeen, she was a stunningly beautiful counterpoint to Augusta’s severe, pristine countenance, and the ingénue caught fifty-year-old Haw’s attention. After three years of clandestine meetings, she agreed to marry him, but Augusta didn’t want anyone else to have Haw’s last name, so she dragged her feet as much as she could on a divorce. After being married 25 years, their marriage was older than his new girlfriend! Finally, in 1883, in a lavish wedding, Haw and Baby Doe were married. They invited all sorts of celebrities to attend, even President Arthur. Many rich and famous men attended the wedding, but their scandalized wives stayed at home.

And then the spending really began. Trips to Europe, a richly decorated mansion, weekly massive parties at their estate outside of Denver, and all the clothes and jewelry Baby Doe could wish for made the marriage work despite their thirty-three-year age difference. The Tabors never dreamed it would end.

But end it did. Tabor ran for Governor three times, but was unsuccessful. Then, in 1893, the stock market crashed, and Tabor’s dreams of silver setting the standard of currency, rather than gold, were dashed. He was forced to sell off many of his holdings yet was still in debt to many creditors.

Re-enter Stratton. In the intervening years the lowly carpenter had struck it rich, becoming the Gold King of Cripple Creek. Deciding to return Tabor’s kindness, Stratton not only paid off all of Tabor’s debts, but he also bought the Brown Palace and set up Haw and Baby Doe in permanent residence there. Tabor was named postmaster of Denver in 1898, but following a bout with appendicitis, he died the following year. His mines had played out a few years earlier, but he always believed there was more silver to be found. His final words to Baby Doe were, “Hold on to the Matchless.”

(Credit: Art Source International)

Baby Doe did as her husband bid, moving back to Leadville and living in the tool shed next to the Matchless mine. She believed she held onto it as Haw had asked, but in reality it had been lost to foreclosure. Winter and summer for the next 35 years, Baby Doe lived a solitary, reclusive life in the shed, appearing occasionally even into her 60’s to traverse a rickety pulley system down into the mine to look for gold. The new owners tried in vain to make the Matchless produce again, but it never did. Baby Doe lived through the charity of the owners, never knowing she didn’t keep the mine. On March 7, 1935, after several days of absence, a few concerned citizens stopped by the shack to check on her. They found her frozen body among the scanty remnants of her life. She had been keeping diary entries on scraps of paper, calendar pages, and margins of old newspapers which, except for the bed and a table were the only things found in the cabin.

Baby Doe was quietly interred in Mt. Olivet Cemetery, in contrast to Haw’s funeral, for which all the flags of Denver flew at half-staff. Ten thousand people were said to have attended his funeral, after which he was laid to rest at Mt. Calvary Cemetery. His body was later moved and placed next to Baby Doe’s.

So if you think you have enough money to burn, be careful. That dollar bill may be your last.

Photo By: Colorado Digital Archive