St. Elmo was originally settled in 1878 and was made official in 1880 when gold and silver began to bring many people to the area. Though it 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 nineteenth-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 mines. Beginning with a high moral character, the settlement went the way of other booming mining towns, reaching a population of more than 2000 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 it became a station on the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad line where the tracks continued through Romley, Hancock and through the historic Alpine Tunnel. The settlement was considered a main source of supplies arriving by train for the area settlers and eventually included several merchandise stores, three hotels, five restaurants, two sawmills and a weekly newspaper called the Mountaineer. The miners worked at several mines throughout the area that were 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. 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 the 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, forbidden to attend local dances or social activities and had only each other for company. In 1890 a fire destroyed the business section and the town was never entirely rebuilt.
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.
The failure of numerous mines, and the closure of the Alpine Tunnel in 1910 started 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 that 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. But, the Stark family stayed, believing that St. Elmo would thrive again, buying up property at tax sales.
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 decided to get 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 and just two short years later she returned to Saint Elmo, where she spent the rest of her life.
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.