The days of Prairie Dog O’Byrne
He was known for his trained, carriage-pulling elk in the late 1800s
By Dave Hughes
A few rip-roaring stories from the 1890s have come down to us about Prairie Dog O'Byrne - the man with a carriage pulled around Colorado City by two ant-lered elk.
But who was he? And other than his infamous rides into snooty Colorado Springs with Laura Belle, Queen of the Red Light Dis-tric,t sitting beside him, what else did he do? There are no eyewitnesses still around from the the 1880s and '90s, when 21 saloons on the south side of West Colorado Avenue kept things hopping. But I have managed to fill in lots of dots about the life of this memorable Irishman. And I have a photograph of him and his elk. The picture is pretty tame, but it proves he existed and indeed, from his having, at one time, a wheel at the back of his carriage in which a prairie dog ran endlessly. We had such a wheel on our ranch in eastern Colorado. I remember as a boy watching it rotate endlessly as the hapless animal never got anywhere. That was Prairie Dog, who seems to have had as many different jobs and visited as many places as his prairie dog had spins of the wheel.
John O'Bryan was born in 1862 in still unsettled Ohio, born of Irish Catholic immigrant parents, who were married in the U.S. by Father Machebeuf, later the famed Archbishop in Denver. As he grew up, he was with his father and the rest of the family in Abilene, Kan. As the railroads kept pushing westward, he moved with them as his father supervised rail laying work crews.
Even before finally arriving in Colorado, young O'Byrne had several scary brushes with Indians, lived through the grasshopper plague of 1874, saw gun fighting, Kansas cyclones and bushwhackers who were put down by vigilante bands and “Judge Lynch.” At Council Grove, he witnessed three horse thieves hanged before he had his own breakfast.
He wrote a funny little book named “Pikes Peak or Bust,” but it was so disjointed I think he had it published himself. Some of the details of his life came from that rare book from my collection. No publisher or copyright was printed in it.
Prairie Dog arrived in Colorado sometime in the late 1880s, when he was still in his 20s. He seemed awed by the grandeur and beauty of Colorado and the Rockies, and waxed eloquent about them. To make a living he became a tourist guide around Colorado City and Colorado Springs. In 1890, he drove a stage with four horses all the way to the top of Pikes Peak, where he lectured his charges on the dangers of the high altitude, remarking that water boiled there at 184 degrees. O'Byrne always seemed to be a keen observer. He drove visitors up to Crystal Park, where he marveled at the smoky topaz, agates, and crystal.
The high jinks for which Prairie Dog is best remembered started in 1889, when Old Town was beginning to rip-roar 24 hours a day. As a matter of fact, there is much evidence that the popular song “There'll Be a Hot Time in Old Town Tonight” referred to Colorado City's Saloon Row, not Cripple Creek's. Colorado City, which had been founded some 30 years earlier with log buildings, was already called “Old Town” by 1890.
Prairie Dog acquired his pair of young elk in 1888. They had been captured in North Park - probably orphaned by a hunter who killed their mother - then taken to the Stockyards on 15th Street in Denver where they were auctioned off. Prairie Dog bought them from a second owner and named them Thunder and Buttons.
Even to domesticate elk a little bit, they have to be run almost every day. O'Byrne admits to having to hitch them up and run them up and down Colorado Avenue a lot. He claims he was the first man to drive a team of elk through the gateway of the Garden of the Gods.
Even then, before the big Cripple Creek gold strikes, thousands of gold-seekers passed through Colorado City. They usually arrived on Palmer's narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, which ran right up Cucharras Street behind Saloon Row, ending in Manitou Springs. Since Colorado Springs was dry - and therefore dull - the gold-seekers got off the train in Colorado City, caroused all night in the saloons, gambling dens and Red Light District along Colorado Avenue and then poured onto the full gauge Midland Railroad cars the next morning, and headed for the gold districts.
It was in this wide open town's atmosphere - looked down upon by Colorado Springs' genteel, educated “Little London” residents - that Prairie Dog O'Byrne was in his element. He exercised his elk up and down the avenue, tying them to the hitching rails on the wooden boardwalks outside the saloons. He stopped, drank and gambled in Byron Hames' saloon especially, rubbing elbows with Soapy Smith, Bob Ford (the killer of Jesse James) and “Eat 'em Up Jake.” He probably also met Minnie the Gambler, who horsewhipped a cheater in a card game with her lover, Charlie Utter, of Colorado City. Inside were those “turning a wheel,” playing cards or rolling the dice. He invariably lost the money he earned driving tourists by playing Three Card Monte against Soapy Smith, who was later shot dead in Skagway, Alaska. Colorado City was fully on the gambling circuit, which included Denver, Cheyenne, Creede, and Lead, South Dakota.
O'Byrne started inviting Laura Belle, Queen of the Red Light District, to ride with him in his carriage in 1889 and 1890. He would take those famous rides with her sitting right next to him, all the three miles into downtown Colorado Springs. That was before street cars, while the Avenue was still dirt. What a sight that must have been! Two antlered elk galloping eastward and Laura Belle's hair blowing in the wind, while startled citizens and visitors just off the D&RG train (near today's 21st and Cucharras streets) jumped out of the way and horses unfortunate enough to be on Colorado Avenue spooked.
Prairie Dog bragged he could make it to Colorado Springs in “6 or 7 minutes,” which speed I always doubted until I realized that the western limit of Colorado Springs then was “Limit Street” - next to today's Eighth Street. But it's still a feat. The elk undoubtedly were cut loose as much as O'Byrne's grip on the reins would risk.
Of course, when those elk arrived in downtown Colorado Springs, the fine horses pulling gentlemen and ladies in carriages as often as not bolted, tossing the ladies in the dirt. The police would put Prairie Dog in jail, and Laura Belle had to drag her gowns through the dirt all the way back to Colorado City.
Old Town folk would have seen this spectacle many more times, except that Prairie Dog had to get a better paying job to pay off his gambling losses. So he became a passenger brakeman between Colorado Springs and Denver on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Then his route was changed so he had to move to Denver. He took Thunder and Buttons with him.
Prairie Dog was even more unwelcome in Denver, as horses bolted, there were runaways, and he was arrested more than once. Not before, however, he was paid to help promote a sporting goods store on Lawrence Street by playing Santa Claus with his reindeer - er, elk. He was a smashing success and the store profited.
Soon he was in hard-boiled Chicago, which gave him an even harder time, so finally he gave up and sold Thunder and Buttons for $500. They ended up in Pawnee Bill's Wild West Show in the East. In later years, he saw them again, but was hurt when they didn't recognize him.
Prairie Dog, ever the wanderer, traveled to old Santa Fe, to California and Mexico. Always by train. He was robbed, jailed, and snapped pictures of cactus and old missions. He took special interest in those Spanish missions and, remaining an Irish Catholic, prayed in all of them.
Finally he showed up in Colorado Springs again in 1922. He wrote his funny little book, published it, then disappeared from view.
Footnote: In 1978, while I was engaged in the revitalization of Old Colorado City, a restaurant being started by Whitey Pine in one of the original saloon buildings needed a name. I told Whitey the story, and he named the restaurant “Thunder & Buttons.” Then in 2004, some years after the original Thunder & Buttons had closed, a female graduate of the Air Force Academy - who had hung out there with fellow cadets and later became an airlines pilot - started it up again, giving it a flying theme and the name “Thunder & Buttons II.”
So the elk's names, Thunder and Buttons, and the memory of Prairie Dog O'Byrne and his wild carriage rides still live on, 115 years later.
Dave Hughes is a Westside historian, civic leader and board member of the Old Colorado City Historical Society (OCCHS). His article on Prairie Dog O'Byrne was reprinted with permission from the OCCHS' March 2006 newsletter.