Located at an elevation of 10,000 feet in Chalk Creek Canyon southwest of Buena Vista, the historic mining town of St. Elmo was founded in 1880 and flourished for less than a decade. Although it is actually inhabited by a small handful of full-timers and dozens of summer residents, it is considered one of the best-preserved ghost towns in the West. The town attracts roughly 50,000 tourists annually, including many who use it as a base for hiking and four-wheeling.
In 1871 prospector Abner Ellis Wright became possibly the first to settle at the head of Chalk Creek Canyon where St. Elmo would be established. By 1875, he and his partner, John Royal, had discovered an unusually high-grade vein of silver ore on Chrysolite Mountain four miles south of the future site of St. Elmo. The claim would be named the Mary Murphy and eventually became the most successful mine in the Chalk Creek district.
Starting in 1878, the monumental Leadville silver strikes produced swarms of new prospectors in the Arkansas River Valley. By 1880 Chalk Creek Canyon was benefiting from the boom. That year Griffith Evans and Charles Seitz hired a surveyor to lay out a townsite in the canyon called Forest City. That name was denied by the US Post Office department, however, because it was preceded by a Forest City in California, and the town was renamed St. Elmo. One story holds that Evans suggested the new name because he had recently read the novel St. Elmo by Augusta J. Evans (no relation).
The population of the St. Elmo area grew from a few prospectors in 1871 to estimates as high as 2,000 in 1881 (including residents in temporary shelters at various mine locations). The town was a dynamic place. New miners arrived around the clock to cash in on the bonanza. The Mary Murphy was extracting between 70 and 100 tons of silver and gold ore daily in 1881 and employed more than 250 men at the peak of production.
With the rush of prospectors into the Chalk Creek area, St. Elmo’s business district quickly took shape. The Denver Tribune observed: “St. Elmo, a town of less than 6 months, has two sawmills, a smelter and concentrator, 3 hotels, 5 restaurants and several stores.” Other new businesses and civic institutions began appearing, including a surveyor’s office, a jeweler, an assayer, an attorney, a drug store, a meat market, several saloons, a feed store and clothing store, a blacksmith, a city hall, a post office, a firehouse, and a pair of banks. Several good silver strikes were made in nearby Grizzly Gulch, and by 1883 the district had fifty producing mines.
In the late 1870s St. Elmo still had canvas tents, pine-covered dugouts, and earth-roofed huts at the mine sites. These were followed by unsophisticated cabins built of the most plentiful materials to be found—spruce logs. As time passed, some of the early log structures—crude and often drafty—were boarded over with siding. Still other structures remained log, but false fronts were added to make them look more impressive. The most refined buildings in St. Elmo were balloon-frame stores and houses, which used vertical boards (studs) attached at both the foundation and roof plates to support the walls. More complex masonry structures of stone or brick, designed by professional architects, were not built in the St. Elmo camp.
Reporting on the early mining activities were the town’s first newspapers, beginning with the Rustler in September 1880; the paper was sold in 1881 and renamed the St. Elmo Mountaineer. Later a mining paper called the Mineral Belt took the Mountaineer’s place.
The road from the Arkansas River Valley to St. Elmo and beyond had been widened from what were supposedly original game trails and Indian footpaths. In the early 1880s the road could accommodate horse travel, ore wagons, and stagecoaches. J. L. Sanderson ran a fleet of passenger stagecoaches and freight wagons out of St. Elmo on the Chalk Creek and Elk Mountain Toll Road, the pioneer route to Aspen. A toll road also was constructed for travel south into Maysville and the Mt. Shavano mining district.
St. Elmo was soon large and successful enough for a railroad connection. In 1880 the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad completed a line up Chalk Creek into St. Elmo’s Fisher Railroad Station at the east edge of town, then proceeded with an ambitious and expensive effort to drive the 1,845-foot Alpine Tunnel through the Continental Divide southwest of St. Elmo. Completed in 1882, the tunnel cost $250,000 and opened a new trade route to the Western Slope. The Alpine’s interior was lined with California redwood for durability in its cold and damp setting.
St. Elmo’s growth stalled in the late 1880s. Several factors conspired to prevent the town from becoming one of Colorado’s rich mining camps. Even though it had early rail service, the town was sixteen miles off the principal routes, and it had difficulty obtaining the outside financing that was critical for new exploration and mining expansion. Its ores were of lower grade than those of more successful mining camps, which meant that the extraction and refining processes were slower and more expensive.
In 1890 a fire burned several buildings on the north side of Main Street and destroyed every business on the south side. After the fire many St. Elmo residents packed up and left, and the town’s population declined from 750 to 500 by 1891. The repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 dealt another blow to the struggling town. Even the best silver mines on Chrysolite Mountain were nearly abandoned, and like most other silver camps, St. Elmo never fully recovered from the crash.
Later in the 1890s new gold discoveries began to revive St. Elmo’s faded economy, but in January 1898 fire again engulfed St. Elmo’s commercial district. By the end of the year some of the damaged structures had been rebuilt, but the town never completely regained what it lost.
In 1905 the Mary Murphy was reopened under the ownership of an English syndicate, but precious metals mining declined in the years before World War I in favor of iron and other ores for the war effort. After the war, precious metals prices did not justify a return to full-scale mining in St. Elmo. The Alpine Tunnel had been abandoned in 1910, and in 1922 trains stopped running up Chalk Creek Canyon to the town. Four years later the Colorado and Southern Railroad pulled up the tracks despite the town’s legal steps to prevent the action. With the tracks gone, the old railbed on the south side of the canyon was converted into an automobile road. The Mary Murphy Mine closed in 1936.
By 1943 St. Elmo had only two full-time residents, siblings Annabelle and Tony Stark. As others left, the Starks had gradually accumulated many of the town’s remaining buildings and converted them to summer cabins for tourists. In 1960 the Starks willed their St. Elmo holdings to Marie Skogsberg, a family friend. Subsequently, Skogsberg’s granddaughter, Melanie Milam (later Melanie Roth), helped her family hold on to many of the better buildings in town, which became part of the Milam Family Trust. In addition, in the late 1950s St. Elmo property owners began to care for public buildings such as the schoolhouse and the town hall. After organizing as the St. Elmo Property Owners Association, they secured ownership of the schoolhouse in 1975 and of the town hall in 1989.
Many of the town’s buildings have vanished from the wear of time, heavy snow loads, and wind, but roughly forty early structures remain intact. In addition to the Miner’s Exchange building (1892), which served as a bank and saloon before becoming a general store, surviving buildings include Pat Hurley’s Saloon (1892), the Pawnee Mining and Milling Company building (1880), and the Home Comfort Hotel/Stark Store (1885).
In 1979 Melanie Roth and Colorado Springs architect Doug Hagen successfully got St. Elmo listed as a National Historic District. The goodwill of the Starks, Roth, and other local property owners over the past century has helped St. Elmo remain one of the West’s best-preserved ghost towns (though the town’s few full-time residents and its fifty or sixty summer residents might dispute the notion that it is a true ghost town).
The National Register listing protects St. Elmo from federal projects, but nothing prevents private development in the area. In the 1960s, before St. Elmo was listed as a historic site, a development group called Consortium B bought property near the town with the hope of turning it into a ski resort. A multi-year drought derailed that plan, however, and the Milam Trust acquired much of the developer’s property. Later, with increases in gold and silver prices, the American International Metal Company leased the Mary Murphy Mine and planned to reopen it in the early 1980s. The company quickly demolished the historic mine buildings and mill, claiming that they were an insurance liability, but gave up on the project because the area received too much snow to make mining there financially viable.
Perhaps the greatest threat facing the wooden buildings in St. Elmo is fire. In April 2002 a major fire destroyed five buildings in St. Elmo, including the town hall, which dated to the early 1890s and had survived several previous fires. After the fire, the St. Elmo Property Owners Association transferred ownership of the charred town hall and the schoolhouse to the nonprofit Buena Vista Heritage. With financial help from a State Historical Fund grant and private donations, in 2004–5 Buena Vista Heritage restored the schoolhouse, which opened to the public in June 2006 as the St. Elmo Schoolhouse Museum. In 2006 Buena Vista Heritage began to rebuild the burnt town hall. Completed in 2008, the new town hall building also operates as a museum of local history.
In 2010 Melanie Roth and others formed a new nonprofit called Historic St. Elmo and Chalk Creek Canyon to support further preservation work in the area.
Adapted from Lawrence Von Bamford and Kenneth R. Tremblay Jr., “St. Elmo, Colorado: The Little Mining Camp that Tried,” Colorado Heritage (Spring 2000): 2–18.