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Remnants of the past 

Explore St. Elmo and the Iron City Cemetery

click to enlarge The Iron City Cemetery near St. Elmo allows a look at a - Colorado mining town over a century ago, and includes - mysteries such as this faded wood tombstone. - MATTHEW SCHNIPE
  • Matthew Schnipe
  • The Iron City Cemetery near St. Elmo allows a look at a Colorado mining town over a century ago, and includes mysteries such as this faded wood tombstone.

Remember the good ol' days when leeches and brandy treated everything, and digging for various ores constituted a living in the mountains? The days when consumption killed more people than highways now do and if the tuberculosis didn't get you, then the mines would. Aah ... good times.

If you've somehow forgotten these far-from-simple lives of the past and could use a sensory reminder, why not load up the proverbial wagon and head into the mountains for a refresher?

I recently brushed up on my Colorado frontier knowledge with friends up in Tincup Pass, near the ghost town of St. Elmo, labeled Colorado's Best Preserved Ghost Town.

We camped in forest service campsites and built modest fires in iron pits. Nearby our site, while out roaming, we uncovered some not-so-secret secret places (i.e., any place with a fence around it and a proper sign) that made for a worthwhile venture. One such place we stumbled upon is the Iron City Cemetery, which serviced St. Elmo over a century ago.

Brief background: St. Elmo was settled in 1878 under the name of Forest City, which later changed, and peaked in population at around 2,000 inhabitants. The 24 original buildings are preserved rather than restored, making St. Elmo one of Colorado's most authentic ghost towns. Bear Necessities B&B rests where an old saloon and mercantile used to operate, and provides a general store from May to October. Eight year-round residents play steward for the tiny township.

During the course of three days, we visited the Iron City Cemetery a handful of times, as it was a mere 200 yards from our tents. A strange sensation lured us back to the rocky hillside grove numerous times, a feeling that there was still something new to see, some stone unturned. Sure enough, each new visit uncovered a previously unnoticed feature or marking that would catch an eye and prompt a thorough investigation: a crumbled wooden tombstone with no name, an infant's grave, someone who died almost exactly on their birth date.

Cemeteries satisfy our morbid but universal need to fawn over minute details regarding death. And just as at a crowded funeral, the urge to break into a nervous laugh is frequently overwhelming; it was so at this cemetery.

Laugh, you say? In the house of the dead? How could you -- shameless monsters.

Well, you give it a shot. Try and keep a straight face upon learning that somebody died from "a gathering behind the ears" or by "thawing his dynamite by the fire at his forge." The ensuing mental imagery is too much. I picture a Gary Larson-esque cartoon in which a tea party is being held behind an ear and some esteemed Brit is asking for someone to pass a crumpet. A smoldering box labeled "TNT" rests next to a small fire ring and an empty, smoking pair of cowboy boots. It's too much elation to hold behind pursed lips and trembling cheeks, though, after purging the laughter, I felt as if I belonged on trial with Camus' protagonist in The Stranger.

Much as it's nice to visit the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to experience the novelty of a zoo built into a mountain, it's a sublime treat to tiptoe inside a cemetery such as Iron City, scattered up a tiny hillside among young aspen trees.

Our last visit to the peaceful graveyard came near midnight, the evening before our departure. Strength in numbers chased teen-age horror-flick fears from our minds as we crunched down the gravel road and slid under the chain-locked fencepost. I felt reassured and empowered by my friends' voices in the dark, secretly doubting whether I had the courage to come alone. I've always been prey to a wild imagination.

We spread out and lay down on the cool ground, in between overgrown plots, looking up at the sky between the branches. Eventually our idle talk turned to comfortable silence, the wind occasionally rustling leaves in the trees. I nearly fell asleep. Fighting heavy eyelids, I found familiar stars and traced the outlines of dark tombstones, my thoughts turned to the sleep of the dead. It was quiet, lonely and beautiful.

I thought about the bodies around us, most of which we'd discovered were claimed in accidents at the Mary Murphy Mine. What different lives they'd led in their time, what strange routes to death.

Our ancestors have secrets to whisper to us; the key is to get your ear close enough to hear them.

-- Matthew Schniper

capsule

St. Elmo and Iron City Cemetery

Tincup Pass

Take US-24 west to US-285 south, turn right on CR-280 after 6 miles, turn right onto E CR-270 after 2 miles, turn left on CR-162 after two more miles. Follow this road 12 miles and hang a right on 1st Street.

Driving time: 3 hours

Distance: 118 miles

  • Explore St. Elmo and the Iron City Cemetery

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