Horace “Silver King” Tabor (1830–99) rose from a smalltime prospector to one of the wealthiest men in Colorado because of his luck in Leadville’s silver mines. He became tabloid fodder through his romantic liaisons with Baby Doe Tabor and his fall from power when the United States changed to the gold standard. This shift devalued silver, hurting many in the silver mining industry and devastating fortunes overnight.
Born in Vermont to stonecutters, Tabor migrated to Kansas to farm in the mid-1850s. He married Augusta Pierce, the daughter of his former employer, in 1857 and moved to Denver with the 1859 Colorado Gold Rush. After a stop in South Park, he and Augusta began placer mining in Leadville. Later, they returned to South Park to run a trading post until a claim in Leadville proved to have a massive silver lode. The Little Pittsburg mine was exceptionally productive and was followed by the Chrysotile mine and the famous Matchless mine. Tabor expanded his mining empire to include claims in the San Juan Mountains, Aspen, Cripple Creek, and around the southwestern United States.
Tabor’s success during the great silver boom years of 1877–79 made him one of the wealthiest men in Colorado. He quickly rose to prominence, served briefly as a US senator, and donated large sums for the construction of several notable buildings.
Tabor enjoyed the extravagant lifestyle his new wealth provided and grew apart from the austere Augusta. The youthful and gorgeous Baby Doe caught his eye, and the two had an extended affair. With President Chester A. Arthur in attendance, they were married on March 1, 1883, in an extravagant Washington, DC, wedding. The family lived lavishly and was featured in national news magazines and periodicals, but this did not impress Denver socialites. The Tabors were excluded from social functions, and Horace repeatedly ran unsuccessfully for governor throughout the 1880s.
In 1893, President Grover Cleveland called a special session of Congress to repeal the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, devaluing silver and causing the silver market to crash. The Tabors were financially ruined, forced to pawn many of their belongings, and they became the target of many lawsuits. Tabor returned to the mines as a laborer to work off some of his debts. He had hoped to strike it big again to reverse his declining fortunes.
In 1899, shortly after he was appointed postmaster of Denver, Tabor died of appendicitis and reportedly asked Baby Doe to “hold on to the Matchless” as his dying wish. While his affair and subsequent marriage to Baby Doe rendered him a social outcast, his funeral was one of the largest in Colorado history, attended by more than 10,000 people, according to the Aspen Tribune. Baby Doe went to live in a shack outside the Matchless mine, frequently experiencing religious visions. Meanwhile, Augusta retained her husband’s name and wisely invested her settlement from the divorce, leaving her son over half a million dollars in inheritance.
The Tabors, including Horace, are memorialized in the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe and in the film Silver Dollar. As one of Colorado’s most prominent silver barons, Horace Tabor helped shape the foundation and the future of the Centennial State.