Portions of St. Elmo Colorado Burn.
- From the Denver Post
By John Ingold Denver Post Staff Writer Wednesday, April 17, 2002 - ST.
ELMO - In the end, it was electricity that toppled what countless cycles
of boom and bust, freeze and thaw, dawn and dusk could not. A fire Monday
morning likely sparked by electrical wires destroyed the town hall, a
mule barn, one of the original homes and two other buildings in this well-preserved
ghost town high in the mountains southwest of Buena Vista. Thirty-two
firefighters dumped 15,000 gallons of water on the blaze to extinguish
it. And what was left were piles of charcoal containing history that can
never be replaced. The scene saddened fire investigators. "This place
is just fascinating to me," said Jerry Means, a fire investigator with
the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, as he clutched a book about the
history of St. Elmo. "I just wish I wasn't up here on a fire. There's
a part of history now that's gone." By Tuesday afternoon, authorities
said the fire was not intentionally set and believed it likely that an
electrical problem in the town hall was the cause. The town hall had been
slated for renovation, said Melanie Milam-Roth, whose family owns four
of the buildings destroyed in the fire and who has ties to St. Elmo that
go back generations. Members of the town's meager property owners association
had won tens of thousands of dollars in grant money to restore it, she
said. But on Tuesday, Milam-Roth stood shocked in front of what used to
be the town hall and wondered what to do next. "It's not a fun sight,"
she said mournfully. "It's not a happy sight." The historical damage was
significant. In what is renowned as one of the best preserved gold mining
towns in the American West, five of the 40 buildings burned to the ground.
Among those, three were built in the 1880s. None was younger than 50 years
old. And all were in pristine shape, inside and out, Milam-Roth said.
But the emotional impact was perhaps greater. St. Elmo is well preserved
for a reason. Every year a handful of people from the hills and valleys
of Chaffee County devote themselves to its safekeeping, traveling the
mud road in summer and winter, a time when the snow can fall so thick
and so heavy that it nearly buries some of the structures. "It's sad;
I hate to see it," said Priscilla Hartman, who for 20 years ran a gift
shop and lived in St. Elmo but is now retired and living in Buena Vista.
"It's a part of history that's gone forever." Hartman should know. Fifteen
years ago, her shop burned, not 100 yards from the most recent fire. St.
Elmo was built in the late 1870s by miners. At its peak, the town had
more than 2,000 residents. There was a school, a fancy hotel, a jail,
a town hall, several shops and a post office. When the post office closed
in 1952, the town officially ceased to be. But residents and former residents
kept it alive, and in the summer, people began coming to walk through
the century-old wooden buildings. Today, St. Elmo sits at the end of a
10-mile-long dirt road. About 40 original structures remain, mostly along
two main streets that straddle Chalk Creek. In the summertime, there can
be dozens of people living in the cabins that dot the areas outside of
town. But in winter, only a single family remains full-time. "It's about
like living anywhere else, except there aren't that many people," says
Jay Stone, who, with his wife, Caroline, and his stepson, Brett Barron,
were the only people in town when the fire started. Stone and Barron had
come from their cabin about a mile west of St. Elmo into the town to fix
up a building. But when they saw smoke, they went to investigate. "It
really freaked us out," Barron said. "We were like, "Ah! The town's on
fire.' " They went back to their home and called authorities on their
satellite telephone. When they returned, Barron began shoveling snow onto
one corner of the blaze, though most of the buildings were already gone.
The first firefighters arrived 15 minutes later. In the old days, Hartman
said, a bell in a little tower above town hall would warn residents of
a fire. On Monday, that bell fell to the ground when flames consumed the
building. St. Elmo's keepers were able to recover the bell. Now they have
to decide if they want to rebuild the place where it hung. "You can never
truly replicate these buildings," Milam-Roth said. "You can build something
that looks like them, but you can't replace them."