One of the most famous mines in Colorado, the Matchless Mine in the Leadville Mining District produced millions of dollars in silver for its owner, Horace Tabor, in the early 1880s. The mine is perhaps best known as the home of Horace Tabor’s second wife, Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor, who lived there on and off for more than three decades after Horace’s death, hoping for a return of the mine’s boom days. The Leadville Assembly restored and stabilized the mine’s buildings in the 1950s and turned the site into a museum, with surface tours offered seasonally by the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.
Mining the Matchless
The history of the Matchless Mine on Fryer Hill parallels the history of Leadville mining in general. Mining in the Leadville area began with a gold boom in 1860. The area boomed again in the late 1870s, when lead and silver were discovered in the hills east of town. The first ores on Fryer Hill were discovered in May 1878. These ores and others in the area proved incredibly rich. Over the next two years, the mines at Leadville produced more than the rest of Colorado’s mines had in the previous two decades.
The Matchless claim was made by Peter Starr and seven others on July 19, 1878, and was supposedly named after a popular brand of chewing tobacco. The claim was on Fryer Hill, about one and a half miles east of downtown Leadville. Starr and the others soon sold their interests to Tim Foley. Foley and other investors sank four shafts to explore the claim. One found a small amount of ore, but it was quickly mined out. In August 1879, wealthy Leadville merchant, mine owner, and mayor Horace Tabor (1830–99) began to buy an interest in the claim. By July 1880, Tabor, then lieutenant governor of Colorado, had paid nearly $78,000 for a claim that had yet to produce anything significant. He took the risk because it lay along the east-west trend of the ore discovered in several bonanza mines on Fryer Hill. Tabor supposedly paid another $40,000 to gain title to the Matchless claim.
Tabor had interests in many profitable Leadville mines, but the Matchless was the only one he owned exclusively. In September 1880, he promoted his young assistant, Lou Leonard, to manager of the Matchless. Leonard directed the mine’s superintendent to sink a shaft near the southwest corner of the claim. In November the shaft struck a rich vein of silver ore. During the winter of 1881, the mine was said to be producing at least $25,000 per month. In March 1882 alone, the mine produced $82,000. By January 1883, the Matchless had produced a total of $1.9 million, making it Tabor’s most lucrative mining interest.
By the mid-1880s, however, the high-grade ore on Fryer Hill was nearly exhausted. The Matchless shared this fate. By 1885 its output was declining. Even with deeper shafts and more extensive exploration below the surface, the mine was only sporadically producing small amounts of high-grade ore. In the second half of the 1880s, Tabor started to lease older areas of the Matchless, indicating that they were mostly played out.
Tabor’s fortunes declined with his Leadville mines. He had plenty of valuable real estate, including the Tabor Grand Opera House and the Tabor Block in Denver, as well as many mining investments, but by the late 1880s, his income was not keeping up with his expenditures. He used his properties as collateral for several loans, then borrowed more money to pay off the loans. Tabor’s remaining wealth vanished in 1893, when an economic panic and return to the gold standard dealt a huge blow to the American economy.
Baby Doe Tabor at the Matchless Mine
When Horace Tabor died in April 1899, he was basically bankrupt. Tabor Mines and Mills, which still owned the Matchless, was deeply in debt, and the Matchless was pledged as collateral for loans. Tabor’s much younger second wife, Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt Doe Tabor (1854–1935), better known as “Baby Doe,” was secretary of the company. There is a legend that on his deathbed he told her, “Hang on to the Matchless. It will make millions again.”
There is no firm evidence to support that legend, but Baby Doe Tabor nevertheless spent the rest of her life trying to hold on to the Matchless. After the Lake County sheriff intervened to settle the mining company’s debts and sell the mine in 1901, Baby Doe’s sister, Claudia McCourt McCabe, bought the mine in 1902. McCabe granted Baby Doe power of attorney and allowed her to conduct all business regarding the Matchless.
Over the next thirty-five years, the Matchless continued to produce low-grade ore., Production declined as time went on and became sporadic by the late 1920s. By then, Baby Doe’s income from leases, loans, and charity had trickled nearly to a halt. She probably began to live in a small superintendent’s cabin at the mine for longer periods of time.
In the late 1920s, the property was finally foreclosed and sold to the Shorego Mining Company at a Lake County sheriff’s sale. Contemporary accounts report that Shorego, owned by Denver millionaire J. K. Mullen, bought the mine to allow Baby Doe, then seventy-one years old, to stay in her cabin. By that time, she was apparently being supported by benefactors like Mullen and Margaret (Molly) Brown. She was found frozen in her cabin, apparently dead of heart failure, in early March 1935.
There were a few final efforts to operate the Matchless after Baby Doe Tabor’s death. The Matchless Mining Company of Grand Junction evaluated the mine in 1937 but never produced any ore. In 1945 Thomas Nixon and Associates of Denver made the final attempt to revive the Matchless Mine, again without success.
By the 1950s, interest in the Tabor story meant the Matchless site had considerable historic value. Three structures dating to the late nineteenth century were still standing: Baby Doe’s cabin, the No. 6 head frame, and the hoist house. In 1953 the nonprofit Leadville Assembly began to restore the structures. That summer, the assembly began to operate the Matchless site as a museum, though the site was still owned by the Shorego Mining Company. Shorego donated the site to the Leadville Assembly in 1988.
Originally, the Colorado & Southern Railroad’s Mineral Belt branch ran east of the Matchless. In the 1990s, the Leadville community made the old railroad bed part of the Mineral Belt Trail, a twelve-mile paved recreation path around the city that opened in 2000. The trail provides interpretive signs and easy pedestrian and bicycle access to the Matchless and other sites in Leadville’s historic mining district.
In 2006 the Leadville Assembly transferred the Matchless Mine to the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, which offers guided surface tours of the site daily during the summers. The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011.