In 1875 prospector Dr. Abner Ellis Wright struck gold in Colorado’s remote Chalk Creek Canyon, discovering the vein that would yield the Mary Murphy Mine and support St. Elmo for 50 years.
In spring 1880, Griffith Evans and several partners surveyed the town in 6 feet of snow and founded a business to grubstake the prospectors. Originally named Forest City in 1878, Evans renamed the town St. Elmo—the title of a popular Victorian romance novel— when the post office objected to the overused earlier name.
By 1881 the town, bolstered by the arrival of the Denver, South Park, & Pacific Railroad and the construction of the Alpine Tunnel through the Continental Divide, had 2,000 inhabitants. The settlement had several merchandise stores, three hotels, five restaurants, two sawmills, a smelter and a weekly newspaper called the Mountaineer.
Principal mines in the area included the Mary Murphy, Tressa C., Mollie, Pioneer and Alley Belle. The Mary Murphy was on a mountaintop 2,000 feet above the railroad and shipped as much as 75 tons of ore per day to the smelters at nearby Alpine. Altogether, there were 150 patented mine claims in the immediate area, though the number of men who became owners of paying mines was small. The low-grade ore necessitated heavy machinery, and thus large amounts of captial, to extract.
The newspapers in the area worked quite hard to promote St. Elmo’s virtues to investors. In April 1888, the Buena Vista Democrat boasted: “From all appearances the Murphy vein extends clean through the globe to the Celestial Empire and the management propose to sink on the vein until the center of the earth is reached, and then negotiate with the Chinese government for sufficient territory and sink shafts.”
St. Elmo experienced repeated booms and busts, but U.S. entry into World War I shrunk the labor market and brought prohibitive taxes that convinced mine owners to keep the ore in the ground for good. The Alpine Tunnel had closed in 1910, and with the failure of the mines the Colorado & Southern Railroad decided to abandon the Chalk Creek extension. Though residents of St. Elmo fought the railroad’s decision all the way to the Supreme Court, they lost and in 1926 the diehards rode the last train out of town.
Today St. Elmo stands as one of Colorado’s most intact ghost towns. An April 2002 fire destroyed the historic town hall, but a new town hall is currently under construction with funds donated by the Buena Vista Heritage Museum.
Originally published in the April 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.