Ghost Town Chronicles is a new monthly series researched and written by Ag Journal’s Jolene Hamilton. The series will give readers an in-depth look at “ghost towns” across Colorado, and how agriculture influenced the rise and fall of these historic places.
In the heartland of the Colorado Rockies, nestled on the floodplains of Chalk Creek rests St. Elmo, one of Colorado's most intriguing ghost towns. Despite destructive fires and land development, St. Elmo is considered the most intact ghost town in Colorado.
While the preservation has attracted its fair share of tourists, a vast amount of curious travelers visit the town for a creepy western-themed adventure.
Founded in 1878, the town thrived on precious metal mining, and the railroad. In 1881 the town became a station for the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad. Thanks to the line, the city became a hub for supplies arriving by train.
For that very purpose, a cattleman by the name of Anton 'Tony' Stark stepped off the Pacific Railroad with a herd of cattle he sold to the railroad company in 1881. Stark was so pleased with the rugged mountainous town that he sent for his family and took up residence in St. Elmo.
Stark was a prominent businessman, so it didn't take him long to prosper in the booming town. It is assumed he quit the ranching trade due to the challenging landscape of his new home, and launched a new career as a section boss for a local mine.
His wife Anna ran the family-owned businesses which included Stark Bro. Mercantile Co., and the Home Comfort Hotel. The couple had two children, Roy and Annabelle, who according to historical accounts served at the pleasure of their harsh and controlling mother.
It is said Anna controlled the children ruthlessly and believed they were too good to associate with the simple town folk; doing anything other than working in the hotel or store was forbidden.
According to Lambert Florin's documentary, St. Elmo hit its prime in 1890 after a gold strike. The boom-town quickly grew to a population of 2,000 people, with the Stark family reaping many of the benefits. The hotel was known as the cleanest in town, and the store shelves were always fully stocked. Quality meals were prepared and served, attracting many miners and visitors to the hotel tables. The store would eventually expand into the post and telegraph offices.
The city continued to prosper for several years, but trouble began to surface in the mines. The earth which served as the "cash cow" for the town started to play out, and miners slowly moved away in search of other boom-towns and gold strikes.
The Starks held onto false hope that the town would eventually come back, and so as people moved out, Anna began purchasing properties at tax sales, according to the town's historical society.
However, in 1920, the town suffered its final devastating blow. With the lack of passengers and goods shipping in and out of the remote area, the railroad line closed down, and the city was lost.
According to historical statements, Roy and Tony Stark spent many years trying to influence developers to re-open the mines, but their efforts failed. Still, the Stark family remained the sole year-round occupants of the town through most of the early 20th century.
Under Roy's influence, the family started a venture in tourism, leasing the vacant cabins to travelers, and provided goods through the general store.
Annabelle often referred to St. Elmo as her prison, and after the town's decline, she moved 20 miles away to Salida. There, she met a man named Ward and married him in 1922. The couple had planned to relocate to Trinidad, but the marriage didn't work out, so she returned to St. Elmo instead.
Roy Stark passed away in 1934, and his mother Anna died a short time afterward. Tony and Annabelle continued to live in the crumbling ghost town, without indoor plumbing or electricity.
It is said that Annabelle remained a kind, yet eccentric, tenant of the region. She was known for her generosity to those who passed through St. Elmo, but would also roam the empty streets with a loaded rifle hung over her shoulder ready to protect the town from anyone who dared to threaten it. Local legends imply that Annabelle still watches over the city today.
Tales of ghost sightings
Only a short while after Annabelle had passed away in the 1960's, the hotel was deeded to a family friend whose grandchildren were playing inside the hotel. When the children began to roughhouse, the doors slammed shut, and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. The children cried and screamed until finally, the room returned to the outside temperature and the door released, slowly swinging open.
Not clean enough
One of the older grandchildren, a young woman in her twenties, decided to make the hotel her project and began cleaning up the neglected structure. She and a group of friends washed down the walls, scrubbed the filthy floors and made minor repairs. They would put away their tools, brooms and mop buckets, only to find them in the center of the room the next day. When it first happened, they brushed it off thinking they had forgotten to put the items away.
As the strange events continued, they began putting the tools and mops into a closet and padlocking the door closed. It never failed that they would find the items out of the closet the next morning. They started to believe that someone, perhaps the previous housekeeper Annabelle Stark, was lending a hand because the place wasn't getting cleaned to her satisfaction.
Snowmobiles not allowed
A woman skiing down the town's main street at dusk was struck by a peculiar sight of a lovely looking woman in a long white gown glaring out of the second story window of the Home Comfort Hotel. Familiar with the town, the skier was shocked; she knew the current owner of the hotel was on vacation and the doors were padlocked, suggesting no one was supposed to be inside. As she turned to see what the woman was eyeing, she noticed snowmobiles approaching. Snowmobiling is illegal in St. Elmo, so the skier informed the group who promptly apologized and drove off. When the woman turned her gaze back to the hotel, the woman in the window lowered her head in a thank you nod, turned and vanished before her eyes.
Part-time residents of St. Elmo and locals who live in the region often discuss Annabelle's ghost and her presence at the Old Home Comfort Hotel. They wonder why even after death she was unable to escape the penitentiary her mother made for her, and how far she might go to protect the town that once imprisoned her. They also can't help but wonder if her paranormal activity has something to do with the town's pristine preservation and lack of vandalism.
Today, St. Elmo is considered a ghost town, though it is still inhabited. Many tourists visit St. Elmo, and the former mining roads are now used as off-road vehicle trails. There are places to fish along Chalk Creek, which runs through St. Elmo. The general store is open during the summer when tourists can rent off-road vehicles or buy items. Many buildings are extant, though the town hall and a few other buildings were destroyed by a fire in 2002. Buena Vista Heritage is rebuilding the town hall to its original state.
Information for this week’s Ghost Town Chronicles was obtained from Ghost Towns of the Rockies by Lambert Florin (1970), Ghost Towns of the Old West by Lambert Florin (1990), Dark Zones by Sharon Jarvis (1992), A Room for the Night: Hotels of the Old West by Richard A. Van Orman (1956), Colorado.com, and St. Elmo Historical Society.