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On Walkabout In: St. Elmo, Colorado

Basic Information

  • Name: St. Elmo
  • Where: Colorado, USA
  • Population: 8
  • Founded: 1878
  • More Information: St. Elmo website

Narrative

This summer after my hike up to the summit of the 14,269 foot Mt. Antero I decided to take the short drive down the road to visit the old ghost town of St. Elmo, Colorado:


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St. Elmo is located just a short 19-mile drive down County Road 162 that can be accessed off of Highway 285 just south of Buena Vista.  The road exits the Arkansas River valley and follows Chalk Creek into the valley between Mt. Antero and Mt. Princeton which are both prominent peaks in the Sawatch Range:

Road to Mt. Princeton Hot Spring Resort

When the road first enters the valley there are incredible views of the Chalk Cliffs that lie on the lower slopes of Mt. Princeton:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

The Chalk Cliffs are an unusual geologic feature in Colorado and are more impressive to see down below.  Despite its name these cliffs are not made of chalk, but instead are composed of a mineral called kaolinite which is a soft rock that’s created by hot springs percolating through cracks in the rocks and creating the whitish color. This rock was slowly pushed up as the mountain was raised by the same volcanic activity that created the hot springs:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

The Chalk Cliffs are easily eroded by water which is quite evident at this crossing that is flooded by debris from the cliffs after heavy rainstorms:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

Near this crossing the road becomes a dirt road that is easily navigable by two-wheel drive vehicles. The Chalk Cliff washout area is really the roughest part of the entire road.  The road next comes to a large meadow that is currently a protected wildlife area:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

This land used to be part of the Love Ranch which began in 1927.  The ranch became a guest ranch that became a haven for artists and writers.  Supposedly Alex Haley used to come to the ranch to write.  In 1996 the Love family donated the ranch to the Colorado Wildlife Heritage Foundation who now manage it as a wildlife refuge.

Next the road travels passed Alpine Lake which is formed by a dam that was constructed on Chalk Creek:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

Due to the steeps slopes of the mountains surrounding the valley I did not really have any good views of Mt. Princeton or Mt. Antero, but occasionally I could spot some of the higher peaks of Mt. Antero:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

For most of the way through the valley the road is cut into steep hillsides, but eventually opens up to follow Chalk Creek to St. Elmo:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

The closer to St. Elmo I got the more old mining remains I began to see along the road:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

I then entered into St. Elmo and it did not even seem like a ghost town to me.  There was a lot of activity in the town due to the number of visitors that were walking around checking out the old buildings as well as those renting four-wheel drive vehicles and ATV’s from the local businesses:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

I was expecting a run down old ghost town, but St. Elmo is actually a pretty lively place during the warmer months.  I am not sure what it’s summertime population is, but according to GhostTowns.com the year around population is 8 people.  Though there are a few businesses and homes in St. Elmo most of the buildings are not used, but have been maintained to preserve the town’s frontier heritage:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

Here is an excerpt from a brief history of St. Elmo from GhostTowns.com:


Photo from CollegiatePeaksByways.org

Built in 1878 in a heavily forested area, the town was first called Forrest City. As soon as the number of houses, hotels and stores warranted, the town was incorporated with a new name, Saint Elmo. At first, the town was of high moral character. When the population passed the 2000 number, it took on all the trappings of a single male population with saloons, dance hall, bawdy houses and the like. Saint Elmo is somewhat unique among smaller ghost towns. Submitted by Henry Chenoweth.

St. Elmo was originated in 1879. Once called Forest City, the name changed because it was objected to by the post office department due to the fact that California all ready had a Forest City. The name derived from either a southern city with the name or named after a popular novel at the time called “St. Elmo”. In this novel, the main character’s name was St. Elmo Murray. St. Elmo had reached a population over 2000 people at its peak. St. Elmo is unique because the buildings are preserved not restored. St. Elmo has been labeled Colorado’s Best Preserved Ghost Town. But we call it “God’s Country”. Submitted by Nora Connell  [GhostTowns.com]

A more detailed history of St. Elmo can be read at this link, but the town’s silver and gold mines had largely shut down by the 1920’s.  The remains from these old mines can be seen strewn all over the town:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

In 1922 it is said that the last train left St. Elmo with most of the town’s population riding on it.  In 1926 all the track had been torn out and the rail bed became a road instead for automobiles to access the now largely abandoned town:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

However, one family stayed on to keep the town alive.  The Stark family bought much of the property in St. Elmo.  Over the years members of the Stark family ran a general store and the post office until they became to old to run the business and it closed in 1952.  The building that housed their old business can still be seen today in St. Elmo:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

Some of the structures in St. Elmo have been nicely fixed up like this old schoolhouse:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

Other buildings appeared to be fixed up and used possibly as summer residences since they had no businesses open within them:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

On the outskirts of town it appeared some of the other small houses were also fixed up to be summertime residences as well:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

I cannot imagine too many people would live here full time because the winters have to be brutal in this valley.  That is why the year around population is supposedly 8 people.  But if the county is able to regularly plow the dirt road I guess the few hardy people can enjoy living up here during the winter months:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

Finally here is a view looking down the main street of St. Elmo from its far west end:

Picturef from St. Elmo, Colorado

Conclusion

If visiting the Buena Vista area I highly recommend taking a couple of hours to drive up to St. Elmo.  The drive offers some beautiful scenery and the town provides an interesting look into the region’s mining past.  Those with four-wheel drive vehicles can continue on from St. Elmo to explore some of the off road destinations around the town.  Even if you do not have a four-wheel drive vehicle the residents in St. Elmo will be more than happy to rent you one.  Or you can be like me and walk!

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