One evening in 1893, John O’Byrne sat in the audience of The Hettie Bernard Chase Opera Company’s production of “Alaska” in Streator, Illinois. The stage was strewn with frosty, Arctic scenes. Excitement bubbled within the man as a pair of elk pulled a sled into view onstage.
And John had only come to see those elk.
Prairie Dog O’Byrne was Colorado’s original wacky tour guide. Perhaps best known for the elk-driven carriage he navigated through the streets, he was also a rail man, author, and historical minstrel who loved to regale audiences with tales of Western grandeur.
The nickname “Prairie Dog” he obtained in one of two ways—either by virtue of his short stature or by the fact that two domesticated prairie dogs often rode along with him in the front seat of his tourist hack. But it was his articulate poems, songs, and stories kept guests coming back for more.
Born to an Irish family with 12 children, John O’Byrne came into the world in 1862 in Ohio. By early adulthood, he had secured himself a position with the railroad and worked his way through Texas, Kansas, and California before settling in Colorado. John adored the West and her tales.
His experiences with the ebb and flow of the railyard enticed him to think in a lyrical fashion. Later in life he would capture this sentiment of beauty and travel in a book entitled, Pikes Peak or Bust and Historical Sketches of the Wild West, comprised equal parts of biography, rough guidebook, and gritty historical narrative.
Running his tour business in the summers, John resided primarily in Colorado Springs. He was employed as a passenger brakeman on the Topeka, Atchison, and Santa Fe rail lines that passed through Denver and the Springs. John’s adventures in his hack included frequent trips between Manitou and Colorado City, which provided him encounters with ill-famed characters like Eat ‘Em Up Jake, Soapy Smith, and Robert Ford (the man who killed Jesse James.)
Three decades of entertaining tourists shaped John’s unique perspective on human behavior. He offered theories while driving his hack, developing a rather elitist view of himself compared to his competition, and once noted, “very few of them would pass the test for a competent guide.”
It was therefore important to John that his driving equipment be of the latest style until he surpassed the trends and set his own with the purchase of two adolescent elk while visiting Denver in 1889. In the previous spring, the animals had been captured in North Park and ended up at auction on 15th Street’s stockyard. Apparently, the judge who had purchased the elk decided not to keep them and the idea of rearing such unique creatures overtook O’Byrne. He returned to Colorado Springs to train the elk to ride alone and in tandem as his home city became accustomed to the unusual ensemble and their presence in the street.
Denver, however, did not take so kindly to the arrival of the strange outfit.
A route change in 1889 caused John and his elk team to move northward where they met with an immediate, icy reception. The folks on Capitol Hill, with their expensive tastes and buggies to match, quickly scurried away when they saw Prairie Dog coming. The scent of the elk triggered their horses to violently startle and run. Telephones at Denver’s police headquarters began to ring nonstop with complaints.
“[I] was called to the City Hall so often that I became quite familiar with their traffic ordinances, as they were read to me many times, but I was never fined…I had been warned by the Chief that if he ever caught me down in the city with that elk team, he would lock me up and shoot the elk and feed their meat to the bears at Elitch’s Zoological Gardens.”
Around Christmas time that year, the owner of a downtown sporting goods shop solicited John to play Santa as a promotional gag for the store. Mr. Van Horne called in favors at City Hall to have the ban on Prairie Dog temporarily lifted. The Irishman courageously took to the street again, his artificial whiskers flying as the elk dashed around town, promptly causing a runaway horse that brutally demolished the top buggy hitched to it.
The publicity stunt worked wonderfully for the store. Five days of Prairie Dog’s Santa routine generated enough revenue for Mr. Van Horne to build a second location, though a series of mysterious fires consumed the stables where the elk slept. John realized his battle with the city had reached dangerous proportions and he decided to leave Denver for good.
The trio appeared briefly in a similar Santa-themed business venture in Chicago before O’Byrne grew tired of the scene and offered his wares for sale, including the elk. His newspaper ads generated a wild rash of interested replies. He sold to the highest bidder, which happened to be Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show out of Philadelphia, and the deal closed with $500 and one-way expenses from Chicago to the Keystone State.
Barely two years later, a visit through the Midwest took John past a billboard portraying The Hettie Bernard Chase Opera Company’s production of “Alaska.” He immediately sighted his old elk team being utilized as living props in the winter extravaganza. Excited by the opportunity for reunion, John hastily purchased a ticket to the show.
“Yes, I went to see my elk and on the way to the car I said, “I will bet they will know me,” but I was sadly disappointed in that, as they did not seem to notice their old master who raised them from little pets six months old and who used to think so much of them.”
It was the final time John would ever see or hear of his elk team. But his colorful notoriety would continue to live on in the pages of history, inspiring Colorado tour guides everywhere to literally up their game.
Pikes Peak or Bust and Historical Sketches of the Wild West. By John O’Byrne. 1922.
To Colorado’s restless ghosts. By Inez Hunt & Wanetta W. Draper. 1960.