Ghost town of St. Elmo
Hidden among the Sangre De Cristo mountains lies a treasure more valuable than the historic gold and silver rushes that created it over a century ago. It may be called a ghost town, even named on the historic register as one, but the multitude of intact buildings among spectacular high country views belies the fact. If a person wants to experience a well-preserved town from the rush days of the Old West, they need look no further than St. Elmo, Colo.
First settled in 1878 and originally named Forest City, the 10,052 foot-high locale saw gold and silver mining swell its population along with that of the surrounding area. The name was changed from Forest City when the post office objected because there were too many towns with the same name. The new name was inspired by the title of a popular romance novel being read by one of the founders and, in 1880, St. Elmo was officially founded.
According to historical reports, the town became a station in 1881 on the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad line. As a result, it developed into a main source of supplies for area settlers and eventually included several merchandise stores, three hotels, five restaurants, two sawmills and a weekly newspaper called the Mountaineer. Prospectors lured to the area by the dream of wealth worked at several mines rich in silver, gold, copper and iron. The principal mines were the Murphy, the Theresse C., the Molly and the Pioneer. The Murphy Mine, situated high upon the mountain, 2000 feet above the railroad, shipped as much as 50-75 tons of ore per day to the smelters at Alpine. At one point, there were over 150 patented mine claims and nearly 2,000 people living in the area, changing it from a quiet “high moral settlement” to a boom-town environment.
All the excitement screeched to a halt with the failure of numerous mines followed by the closure of the Alpine Tunnel in 1910, starting the decline of St. Elmo. Though mining continued at the Mary Murphy mine up until the 1920’s, many of the miners moved away in search of new gold strikes. The railroad continued to run until 1922 and it has been said the rest of St. Elmo’s population rode the last train out of town, never to return. In 1926, the railroad tracks were torn up and the railroad grade was used to drive from Nathrop to St. Elmo. The survival of the town was largely due to the Stark family and their descendents, who remained the sole year-round residents for many years. According to local legend, perhaps at least one of them, Annabelle Stark, still keeps a ghostly watch over the town from a window or two.
While the railroad may not connect to St. Elmo anymore, the short drive west from Buena Vista is well worth the trip. The ghost town is considered to be the best preserved ghost town in the state, and maybe the best in the country, with about 25 buildings standing tall amid beautiful mountain scenery. The wood structures certainly show their age, but their weathered facades offer a true peek into America’s mining-town past, earning the location an official designation as a National Historic Site.
To help visitors see the town, a General Store remains in operation year round, with high season and regular hours being May-September. Make sure to buy some sunflower seeds for resident chipmunks and watch for various hummingbirds in action over the feeders located just outside the store. Jeep rentals are available to help navigate more rough and rugged roads (no exaggeration) leading higher into the mountains from St. Elmo, where pristine campsites and calm beaver ponds await those who relish high country camping and fishing. The views are spectacular, to say the least.
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