It always seems to take longer going to a place than coming away from it. Roughly three hours from Denver, we made the turn west in between two mountain peaks. Stuck between a rock and hard place, we continue up a road that turns from pavement to rock to dirt. With each twist and turn, we question whether we have missed the very place we seek. When you set out in search of a ghost town, it isn’t surprising to wonder if it has vanished from the road.
After nearly turning around, we finally receive affirmation that the ghost town is still up ahead. St. Elmo sits in Chaffee County, close to the towns of Buena Vista and Salida in Colorado’s Sawatch Range. You would have to know it to find it. It proudly identifies itself as the one of the most preserved ghost towns in Colorado. Founded in 1880, the purpose of this place was merely silver and gold. The mines in the area needed a supply center and St. Elmo obliged. Appropriately for a ghost town today, St. Elmo received its name after a romantic 19th century novel of the same name. St. Elmo couldn’t write a better tale or title.
The mines wouldn’t be the only sources of St. Elmo’s life. Once a station on the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad opened up, prosperity flowed through St. Elmo’s veins. With so many miners in search of silver, gold and perhaps good times in the area, St. Elmo became a bit of a saucy place, littered in saloons and hotels of a not so respectable nature. Its population reached up to 2,000 people, requiring the town to have several hotels, stores and even a weekly newspaper. As I wander the streets of this now ghost town, the only newspaper I see is that behind the windows of dilapidated buildings with furniture stacked to the ceilings. I don’t want to look too long in these windows for fear of seeing some sort of face that shouldn’t be there.
The decline of the mines and the end of the railroad route through these mountains along Chalk Creek all contributed to the demise of St. Elmo. Most of the population left on the last train in the 1920s, with the exception of the Stark family. The Starks were among St. Elmo’s elite and perhaps just due to its setting and story, one of the Starks is said to haunt the place. With a name like Stark, it is no wonder they were the only family to populate St. Elmo when the silver settled.
I wander through the main street of St. Elmo to see what remains. A fire in 2002 destroyed a number of the original buildings from its mining town days including the town hall, the jail and a number of the Stark family dwellings. At the same time, there are still striking traces of what St. Elmo used to resemble in what does remain. Over the last decade, work has been made to restore and rebuild some of the historic structures.
St. Elmo’s official death didn’t come until the post office closed in the 1950s. It seems fitting that the only way a town can truly die is when it can’t correspond with the outside world. My flip-flops walk on wooden sidewalks, where back in the 1880s, boots would have been more appropriate. I pause in front of one of St. Elmo’s remaining, plastered in a sign that reminds me to stay on the sidewalks. In a setting so spooky, you don’t have to tell me to keep out where I don’t belong. And in true ghost town fashion, St. Elmo vanishes far quicker than it seems it took to appear on that initial drive into town. It takes the mind a while to come out of the present world to step back into the past, hence the long drive in and the short ride back.
Have you been to St. Elmo or other ghost towns?