Saving the Grand Old Lady

Fire Almost Destroys Beloved Ghost Town

On April 15, 2002, a fire destroyed five buildings in St. Elmo, one of Colorado’s most beloved ghost towns. Thirty-five people from six agencies fought the blaze, saving the Chaffee County historic district’s remaining structures.

The Iron City Cabin, nestled in the woods a half mile away from the conflagration, escaped unscathed. Although this unusually ornate two-story log home was never really in danger that day, the fire made preservationists even more aware that the places that connect us to our history can be lost in an instant.

Not that they hadn’t been vigilant anyway.  According to San Isabel National Forest information specialist Ann Ewing, local citizens became concerned that the forest service intended to burn down the Iron City Cabin on purpose. More than thirty years ago, a forest engineer had determined that the cabin needed extensive repairs. Unable to justify expensive restoration, the forest service let the building sit for a while, leading history-minded folks to despair about its fate. In the end, all agreed that, given the cabin’s extraordinary architecture and history, every effort should be made to ensure its preservation. “The locals saved the cabin,” asserts Ewing.

The Iron City Cabin’s architecture and past are as inseparable as its V-notched logs. Its two stories represent two distinct historical periods. Historians believe the rustic first floor may be associated with a nearby smelter. The Iron City Smelter served the Chalk Creek Mining District and gave rise to a small community of laborers who lived nearby. Sometime in the early 1900s, a flood scoured the site of Iron City, but left the cabin intact.

Around 1890, local miner Henry Brown added the more elaborate wood-frame second floor. “Instead of removing the old roof,” Ewing says, “he simply built a new floor right on top,” giving the structure unusual height. The second-story façade displays quintessential Queen Anne elements, including fish scale shingle siding and double-hung windows dressed up with fancy stepped-cornice moldings and shutters.

Census records indicate that Brown lived there with his wife, Mary, and two children. According to Ewing, the Victorian embellishments “reflected Mrs. Brown’s obvious taste.”

The family’s income came from a portable sawmill business and earnings from the Big Bonanza and Little Bonanza mines.  The Brown family stayed in the house through at least 1910. Other private owners lived there until 1970, when the forest service assumed responsibility for its stewardship.

That responsibility entailed piecemeal maintenance until recently, when the Salida Ranger District and the Buena Vista Heritage Museum teamed up with the State Historical Fund to conduct comprehensive rehabilitation work. Following priorities established by a previously conducted historic preservation assessment, they hired expert contractors—including Bob Fulton of Back Again Restorations—to restore the cabin’s exterior, add a new roof, and repair the fireplace and windows. Volunteers participating in the forest service’s Passport in Time project also contributed to the work.

Though much work remains, the forest service ultimately wants to incorporate the cabin into its successful Fee Demonstration Program, whereby historic buildings are rented to the public. Rental fees stay within the ranger district and go toward future preservation projects. Ewing will also offer living history programs and tours.

All of these ideas will ensure the continued public use and appreciation of what St. Elmo and Buena Vista residents call “our grand old lady.”