ghost town haunting
the spirits of the Colorado Rockies
by Troy Taylor
The once prosperous town of St. Elmo is located far off Highway 285 in the heart of the Colorado Rockies. The remains of this place are nestled on a flood plain of the Chalk Creek, where it was founded in 1878 as Forrest City. The collection of homes and false-front businesses incorporated a short time later as St. Elmo. Even though many old ghost towns of the West have long since vanished, thanks to fire, time, and developers, St. Elmo still remains. It’s been called the most preserved of the Colorado ghost towns and some believe there may be a supernatural explanation for this.
St. Elmo, Colorado is one of the states best-preserved, and most haunted, ghost towns.
The survival of the town depended largely on the presence of the Stark family, who remained the sole year-round occupants of the town through most of the early 20th century. According to the legends of the place, one of them, Annabelle Stark, still watches over the town today... many years after her death.
When St. Elmo first began, it boasted a population of about 2,000 people and later went through the standard “boom and bust” cycle of many western towns. In 1881, it became a station on the Denver, South Park and Pacific Railroad and it was during this same year that Anton Stark came to town. He was a cattleman who brought a herd to sell to the railroad and was son taken with the small town that he sent for his wife and they took up residence. Stark became a section boss for one of the local mines and Anna ran a general store and the Home Comfort Hotel, located on Poplar Street, St. Elmo’s main business area. The general store also became the post office and the telegraph office.
The Home Comfort Hotel began renting cabins and catering to tourist in later years.
The stories and accounts recall Anna Stark as a harsh, humorless woman who raised three children in St. Elmo. It was said that she controlled them ruthlessly though and believed that Tony, Roy and Annabelle were too good to associate with the simply town folk. She discouraged them from doing anything other than working in the hotel and store and for this reason, the hotel was known as the cleanest in town and the store the best stocked. Meals were prepared with care and attracted many miners and visitors to the hotel table.
St. Elmo continued to prosper for several more years but eventually the mines began to play out and the men slowly moved away, looking for other boom-towns and gold strikes. The Starks always believed that St. Elmo would come back again and so as people moved out, Anna began buying up property at tax sales. However, in the 1920’s, St. Elmo lost the railroad line and the town was mostly abandoned.
Roy and Tony Stark spent many years trying to influence developers in re-opening the mines, but they were never successful. Finally, Roy began to realize the possibility of tourism and convinced the family to lease empty cabins to vacationers. After Anton Stark’s death though, the family was unable to make a living from the cabin rentals and tourist trade at the general store. Reluctantly, Anna decided to send Annabelle to work in the telegraph office of Salida, a larger town about 20 miles away.
Annabelle Stark had grown up as an attractive and passionate girl in a town filled with miners, rough railroad men, prostitutes and hard women. She was haunted by the fact that she was rarely allowed to leave home and to have nothing to do with the young men in town. It was said that during her entire life, she was forbidden to attend any dances, save for one. She was a sad and lonely young girl with only her equally lonely brothers for company. Finally, with the new job in Salida, she was going to be able to make her escape from the prison of St. Elmo.
Soon after arriving in the new town, Annabelle met a young man named Ward and they fell in love. In 1922, they decided to get married. She then sent her family a telegram to inform them of the marriage and to let them know that she was moving to Trinidad. Unfortunately, neither the marriage nor the move away from Colorado worked out. There has been speculation over just what exactly happened to Annabelle over the next two years, but whatever it was, it ended with her moving back to St. Elmo, where she lived out the rest of her life.
In 1934, Roy Stark passed away and his mother, Anna, died a short time afterward. Tony and Annabelle continued to live on in the now crumbling ghost town. It has been thought that their minds and sanity began to crumble as well. There had never been indoor plumbing at the hotel and now there was no electricity either. The two of them were said to have rarely bathed or changed clothes and threw nothing away. The rooms of the hotel began to fill with books, papers, trash and discarded food. What caused this decline is unknown, although it has been suggested that perhaps being out from under their mother’s strict and controlling influence allowed to live just the way they wanted to.
To the residents of the area, Annabelle began to be known as “Dirty Annie”. She would often come to Salida in filthy clothing and with her hair in a tangled mess. Regardless, she remained a kind, although very eccentric, resident of the region. She was known for her generosity to those who came to the Home Comfort Hotel store for candy and soda, but they also knew that she roamed about the old town with a rifle to protect her property.
Eventually, fearing for their safety, or that of others, Tony and Annabelle were sent away to a mental institution. A sympathetic friend managed to secure their release after a few weeks though, insuring the authorities that they were of no harm to anyone. Tony died a short time later and Annabelle was then sent to a nursing home, where she lingered until her death in 1960. They deeded their property to the friend who had helped them.
No long after Annabelle had died, the friend’s grandchildren were playing in a room on the lower floor of the hotel. Suddenly, all of the doors to the room slammed shut and the temperature in the room dropped nearly 20 degrees! The children, now crying, were terrified and after the temperature in the room returned to normal, they left and refused to play in the hotel again.
One of the older grandchildren, a young woman in her twenties, decided to make the hotel her project and began cleaning out the place. She and some of her friends washed down the walls, scrubbed the filthy floors and made minor repairs to the place. Often, they would put away their tools, brooms and mop buckets, only to find they had been moved back into the middle of the floor when they returned the next day. When it first happened, they thought that perhaps they had forgotten to put them 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 back out of the closet the next morning. They began to believe that someone, perhaps Anna Stark, was helping them, believing that they weren’t getting the place clean enough.
In the late 1970’s, a skier whose family rented a winter cabin near St. Elmo reported seeing the hotel’s ghost. The woman was skiing down Poplar Street at dusk and as she passed by the Home Comfort Hotel, her eyes were drawn to a second story window. She was startled to see a very attractive and shapely girl in a white dress framed in the window glass. She appeared to be holding back the curtains and looking out. At first, the skier assumed it was merely a trick of the light. She knew the owner of the place, who had the only keys to the building, was away on vacation. There could be no one else in the building!
What happened next was even stranger... and convinced that skier that something otherworldly was occurring. The young woman in the window was looking out, her eyes focused on something in the distance. The skier turned to follow her gaze and saw that she was looking at a group of snowmobilers who were riding up and down the street. As snowmobiling is illegal in St. Elmo, the skier flagged down the group and informed them that they had to leave. They apologized and rode away. When they were gone, she looked back at the hotel and saw that the woman was still watching. She nodded at the skier... then turned away and vanished into the shadows of the hotel room.
Curious, the skier returned to the hotel the next day and checked to see that all of the windows and doors were secure. When the owner returned, the two women searched the hotel but could find no trace of the girl the skier had seen. They decided that it must have been the ghost of Annabelle, still young and pretty and perhaps reliving a better time, watching over the town.
It has been said that part-time residents of St. Elmo, and those who live in the region, often discuss Annabelle’s ghost and her presence at the old Home Comfort Hotel. They often wonder just how far she might go to protect the town. Those who knew her in later days, noted author Sharon Jarvis, remember when she prowled about the ghost town with her rifle... they don’t have any inclination to see what her ghost might do to vandals or trespassers!
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)
(c) Copyright 2000 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.