St. Elmo, Colorado, a former gold mining camp in Chaffee County, is nestled 1000 feet below the timberline in the Sawatch Range, 20 miles southwest of Buena Vista. Today, it is one of the best-preserved ghost towns in Colorado and the entire district was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.
The area was originally settled in 1878 and was made official in 1880 when gold and silver began to bring many people to the area. Though the settlement was first called Forest City, the small town’s name was changed when the post office objected because there were too many towns with the same name. The new name was derived by Griffith Evans, one of the founders, who was reading a romantic 19th-century novel by the same name.
The town was laid out in six feet of snow and provided for the miners working in the nearby. Beginning with a high moral character, the settlement went the way of other booming mining towns, reaching a population of more than 2,000 and taking on all the trappings of a single male population with saloons, dance halls, and bawdy houses. When the Alpine Tunnel was under construction, St. Elmo became the scene of raunchy Saturday night sprees.
In 1881, the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad came through the area and station was built in St. Elmo. From here, the tracks continued to Romley, Hancock and through the historic Alpine Tunnel. St. Elmo was considered a main source of supplies arriving by train for the area settlers and eventually, the town boasted smelting works, several merchandise stores, five hotels, a telegraph office, a town hall, five restaurants, two sawmills, a schoolhouse, a weekly newspaper called the Mountaineer, and numerous saloons and dance halls.
The miners worked at several mines throughout the area that were rich in silver, gold, copper, and iron. The principal mines were the Mary Murphy, the Theresse C, the Molly, and the Pioneer. The Murphy Mine, situated high up on the mountain, some 2,000 feet above the railroad was the largest and most successful, shipping as much as 50-75 tons of ore per day to the smelters at Alpine. The Murphy and the Theresse C. ran more in gold than in silver. Altogether, there were over 150 patented mine claims in the immediate area.
In 1881 Anton Stark, a cattleman brought a herd to the railroad and was so taken with the town that he and his family quickly took up residence. Anton became a section boss for one of the local mines and his wife, Anna, ran a general store and the Home Comfort Hotel, which later became home to the post office and telegraph office. Anton and Anna raised three children – Tony, Roy, and Annabelle, who worked in the hotel and the store. The hotel was said to have been the cleanest in town, the meals the best, and the supplies at the store more plentiful than the other establishments.
The Stark family were part of St. Elmo’s elite, a high-class group that attended church regularly. Anna was said to have been a humorless woman who severely controlled her children, believing that they were better than the other townsfolk — miners, railroad men, prostitutes, and hard women. The children were rarely allowed to leave home and were forbidden to attend local dances or social activities. In the end, they had only each other for company.
In 1890 a fire destroyed the business section and the town was never entirely rebuilt. This was about the same time that St. Elmo’s peaked in population with about 2,000 residents. Afterward, many of the mines were depleted and many of the miners moved out of the area. More mines continued to fail in the ensuing years and the closure of the Alpine Tunnel in 1910 started a major decline in St. Elmo.
The railroad continued to run until 1922 and it has been said that the rest of St. Elmo’s population rode the last train out of town, never to return.
For many years, Roy and Tony Stark tried to influence developers in re-opening the mines, but when they were unsuccessful they turned to tourism, leasing the empty cabins to vacationers and continuing to run the general store. After Anton Stark’s death, Anna realized that the tourism trade was not providing for the family and sent Annabelle to work in the telegraph office in Salida, 20 miles south of St. Elmo.
The lonely and attractive girl was finally able to escape the prison that her mother had made for her in Saint Elmo. Before long, she met a young man named Ward and in 1922 they married, sending a telegram to her family that they were moving to Trinidad. Though no one seems to know why the marriage didn’t work, just two short years later she returned to St. Elmo, where she spent the rest of her life.
In 1925, the Mary Murphy Mine, the principal gold mine of the Chalk Creek Mining District, also closed. From 1870 to 1925, it produced 220.000 ounces of gold, worth $4.4 million at the time. It also produced a considerable amount of silver, lead, and zinc.
In 1926, the railroad tracks were torn up and the railroad grade became a road from Nathrop to St. Elmo. But, the Stark family stayed, believing that St. Elmo would thrive again, buying up property at tax sales.
The three eccentric Stark children, along with their mother, maintained their existence by continuing to run the general store and rent cabins to tourists, though the general condition of the town deteriorated. By 1930, the population of Saint Elmo had dwindled down to only seven.
In 1934, Roy Stark passed away and his mother, Anna, died a short time later. The only residents left were Annabelle and Tony who lived in the dead town without indoor plumbing or electricity. Rarely bathing or changing clothes, they neglected the old hotel, letting the place pile with trash and discarded items, but continued to run the Home Comfort Store. The store, said to have been “sour-smelling”, contained faded tins of outdated food and stale tobacco.
In 1947 when the book Stampede to Timberline was published by Muriel Sibell Wolle, which stated that Saint Elmo was a ghost town, Tony and Annie were incensed claiming that it was not the tattered store or their eccentricities that drove away business, but rather Mrs. Wolle’s statements in the book.