c 2015 By Jan MacKell Collins
Biographers of Colorado silver king H.A.W. Tabor and his second wife, Elizabeth “Baby Doe”, have been exploring the scandalous Tabor family for decades. What most of them have missed, however, is the tiny part Baby Doe’s brothers, Peter and Philip McCourt, played in the history of the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad and the Cripple Creek District.
Eizabeth, Peter and Philip were born into a family of seven children in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The McCourts were not a wealthy family; Elizabeth’s marriage to a local boy named Harvey Doe was probably welcomed as a way to ease the financial burdens on the family. Harvey and Elizabeth moved to Colorado in 1877, where Harvey tried his luck as a miner. The McCourts saw the marriage as a good sign: one less mouth to feed, with opportunity for success in the family.
The rest is well known Colorado history. The Does initially settled in Central City, but Baby Doe wasn’t the type of gal to settle down as a miner’s wife. Ultimately she took a trip by herself to Leadville, where she met and eventually married the millionaire Horace Tabor in 1882. The relationship was scandalous even by today’s standards as Horace left his wife Augusta and their son, Maxey, in favor of the delightful and gorgeous Baby Doe.
Some of the McCourt family, including Baby Doe’s parents, a sister and her brothers Peter and Philip, accompanied the new couple to Washington D.C. for the marriage. Later, Baby Doe used her husband’s riches to move the family to Denver. The McCourts were given lavish homes and other extravagant gifts. Peter, Baby Doe’s favorite brother, was bestowed with the job of managing the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver. Philip was hired as treasurer.
For the next several years, things were grand for the Tabors and McCourts. Tabor and his bride were the epitome of eccentricity, shocking high society with their outrageous lifestyle and unbridled spending habits. Baby Doe’s family took full advantage of her wealth. Peter was especially a familiar sight at the Tabor Mansion, holding court over weekly poker games with comrades from other elite Denver families.
One night, in the midst of the party, Baby came storming into the room. She was rightfully upset, largely because the wives, sisters and daughters of Peter’s poker buddies were in the habit of snubbing the Tabors and their over the top behavior. Peter’s embarrassed guests quickly left, and the two siblings had it out. They made up later, but it is said their relationship was forever changed.
When talk of the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act—wherein the federal government had standardized silver coinage—started, the Tabors were so lost in their own wealth they hardly blinked. In fact, the couple was well known for their lavish spending habits—including buying diamond-studded diaper pins for their babies, and once even purchasing 100 peacocks for their daughter’s birthday party. So much money had indeed made the couple downright giddy with power, and out of touch with reality. For Tabor and his bride, there seemed to be no end in sight.
In 1893 Peter and Philip McCourt, aware of the ramifications the Sherman repeal was about to bring, began scouting for safe investments. True to everyone’s predictions, the government stopped buying silver and the value of the once precious metal plummeted. Horace Tabor lost everything nearly overnight. Among his assets to go were the Tabor Grand. Peter was out of a job, but had wisely managed to save his money. Baby Doe appealed to Peter to help the falling Tabor empire, but Peter was unsympathetic. “I haven’t any money to spare,” he told her, “and even if I could, you’d only throw it away on some silly extravagance.”
Possibly to escape the woes and shame of his sister, Peter decided to check out the Cripple Creek District, which was in the infant stages of a gold boom. Amongst the developments in the district was the Florence Free Road, established in 1892 by Thomas Robinson. The road, which ran through today’s Phantom Canyon, was to eventually reach the Wyoming state border. Soon after the Salaman Stage Line debuted on the Florence Free Road, plans next began for the Florence and Cripple Creek State Line Railroad. Peter McCourt arrived in about 1893, where he was immediately inaugurated into the Elk’s Lodge. The move is not mentioned in most Tabor biographies, and information about Peter’s correspondence with the family is scant. It is known, however, that Peter soon developed an interest in the railroad coming up Phantom Canyon, then known as Ute Canyon.
Work on the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad began in late 1893. Within the year Peter was establishing a small railroad station, supplemented by a nearby quartz mine staked by himself. His partners were brother Philip, C.A. Bass of Denver, and Dr. John Whiting of Cripple Creek. Plans were in the making to erect a small stamp mill. There were also two placer claims covering the water in Ute Creek, now known as Eight Mile Creek.
McCourt Camp was located at an altitude of 6,483′, situated 13 ½ miles from Florence and 20 miles from Cripple Creek. The F & CC tracks had passed McCourt by March of 1894. Within a few months they had extended as far as Wilbur a few miles up Phantom Canyon, and regular passenger service began. Upon arriving at Wilbur, passengers were transferred to a stage for the remainder of their trip to the Cripple Creek District as the railroad continued extending towards the District town of Victor.
Just a few months later, the railroad was nearing completion with several stops and two tunnels along Phantom Canyon. Upon leaving Florence, the train would pass a reduction works later called Cyanide, Russell (originally called Alabaster), McCourt, Adelaide (originally known as Robinson), Glen Brook, Wilbur and Alta Vista. The next stops were Victor, Eclipse, Arequa, Anaconda and finally, Cripple Creek.
No sooner had the F & CC been completed when a flood in August of 1894 washed out a good bit of the railroad. The southbound train had just passed through Glenbrook when a flash flood came crashing around the corner behind the train. The train raced the flood for the remaining 13 miles to Russell. Behind the train, stations, bridges and tracks were washed out. At Adelaide, two men and a woman drowned in the flood waters.
McCourt Camp was not affected by the flood, and the railroad repaired the damage at a cost of a million dollars. More stations, namely Vesta Junction and Wilders, were established along the route, but Peter McCourt had enough. By all indications, he closed up the Western Union telegraph office at McCourt, forgot about his claims and returned to Denver. There he leased the Broadway Theater, which he ran very successfully for many years. Philip apparently tired of riding his brother’s coat tails and eventually pursued a career as a professional gambler.
Little else is known about McCourt. Some years after the camp was abandoned, a nearby prospector was delighted to find good ore in Ute Creek. It was only after he staked his claim that he discovered the ore was the result of a derailment of the railroad, during which the ore spilled into the stream.
There is nothing to suggest Peter ever returned to the Cripple Creek District, but he did continue to make the occasional headline. After Horace Tabor died in poverty in 1899, Peter was known to send money to Baby Doe’s daughters, Elizabeth and Silver. When Elizabeth tired of life at the Tabor’s depleted Matchless Mine in Leadville, Peter willingly paid her way to Oshkosh.
From then on, Baby appealed to her other daughter, the flamboyant Silver Dollar, to write her uncle when they were in need. Peter accordingly financed some trips to Denver, where Silver Dollar and her mother could spend the winter in warmer quarters than at their shack at Leadville. Eventually Peter bought Silver Dollar’s way out of Colorado forever, mostly in an effort to keep her safe from her own crazy mother.
Unfortunately, Silver Dollar Tabor led a life more scandalous than Baby Doe’s. In between bouts with alcohol and failed relationships, Silver Dollar met President Theodore Roosevelt, published a novel, tried her hand at songwriting and worked briefly as an actress for Alexander Film in Colorado Springs. In 1925, she died from an accidental scalding in Chicago. Her sister Elizabeth refused to claim the body, but Peter sent $300 from Denver for a proper burial. Newspapers in Chicago and Denver jumped on the benevolent act. “Saves Girl From Pauper’s Grave,” blazed one of them, “Silver Dollar Tabor’s Body to Be Cared For. Uncle Pays Funeral Bill.”
When Peter died in 1929, his passing was hardly recognized by society. Baby Doe Tabor died six years later, and this time it was Philip who paid for his sister’s body to be brought from Leadville for burial in Denver. If Peter had been alive, would he have helped? Maybe. When he passed away, Peter included Baby Doe in his will, but she refused the bequest. Her comment at the time was probably more prophetic than she knew. “Living, he forgot me when misfortune came;” she once wrote, “dead, he can give me nothing.”