Buena Vista History

“We call it Bewnie!”

 
How do you say Buena Vista, Colorado? Buena Vista is properly pronounced “BEW-na Vista”.

The town’s name has been pronounced “BEW-na Vista” instead of the Spanish “BWAY-na Vista” ever since it was founded. Its nickname is “BEW-nie.” It all came about at a meeting in 1879, when residents and property owners in the area at the convergence of Cottonwood Creek and the Arkansas River held a meeting to create a formal community.  They had been told that would help attract a railroad line (eventually it attracted three).  Two names were proposed by attendees: Collegiate Peaks, after the mountains in the area, and Buena Vista, which means “beautiful view” in Spanish, certainly an appropriate description.

Alsina Dearheimer, the resident and property owner who suggested the name Buena Vista, certainly knew how the Spanish words were pronounced, her first husband having been a language and music professor. But she insisted that the pronunciation for the town name be Americanized into “BEW-na,” borrowing the first syllable of the English word beautiful.  Her suggestion carried the day. An interesting anomaly was born, and Dearheimer became known as the Mother of BEW-na Vista.  To this day long time residents carry on the tradition and say “Bewna Vista”.  If it is hard for visitors to swallow, it is suggested they just say “BEWNIE” or BV. 

History of Buena Vista’s Park Chapel

Home of the Buena Vista Chamber of Commerce

 

When the little mountain town of Buena Vista, Colorado, was a brawling, burgeoning, dusty mining center with freight wagons pouring through enroute to the silver boom town of Leadville and the fabulous gold fields of St. Elmo; while a heavy traffic of creaking wagons brought rich ores to the local smelters, the town consisted mostly of hastily constructed tents and shanties. And don’t forget the 68 places where a man could get a drink! Then a group of folks put their resources together to build Buena Vista’s first church building. The year was 1879.

Nearly 90 years later, after continuous use, the little church was about to be abandoned in favor of a new, “modern” assembly hall. The little church was to be demolished. As no-one wanted the job for its salvage value, and several tentative efforts by historically-minded individuals to have the church moved had failed, the fire department volunteered to use it for practice and burn it neatly to the ground. Although cries of dismay went up from many quarters, especially from the seniors whose childhood memories centered around the little church, nobody came up with money or an effective plan to save the building.

Then, near the date of the proposed cremation, a woman of some means and lots of determination managed to procure a restraining order, and within a few weeks, the little structure was sitting on a new foundation in a city park, surrounded by a grove of old cottonwood trees.

For three years it sat there, fallen plaster littering the hardwood floor, it’s quaint pine pews all in disarray, ancient white paint flaking off with every breeze. The disgruntled firemen made threatening noises from time to time and the Town Council spread it’s collective hands helplessly whenever the subject came up. None of the old established clubs wanted to even attempt the renovation. The Park Department eventually permitted the removal of the park trees in front of it to open up the view of a new gas station a block away.

Then, in August of 1972, a small committee determined to restore the “Little Chapel in the Park” to usefulness as a community center for art and history, club meetings, and perhaps weddings — simply because it was THERE. (The only “community house” in town had been moved during highway construction, years before). With publication of this aim, support had rallied. Donations of cash, labor, and good discounts on building materials made the project a possibility. Installation of water, heating, and electricity, and the painting and repair of walls made it a reality.

The Little Park Chapel houses the Buena Vista Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. It provides a unique place for visitors to find out more about this lovely, quiet mountain town.

“Ghost Town” of St. Elmo

St. Elmo, originally named Forest City due to heavy pine growth, was settled by miners prospecting in the surrounding area of the Chalk Creek Mining District. In 1875 the discovery of the Mary Murphy Silver mine solidified the town’s future as a supply town. By 1880, there was sufficient interest and population in the area for the town’s incorporation as Forest City. The name was later changed, by request of the US Postal Service, to St. Elmo after the main character in a novel by Augusta Evans.

The town in the 1880s was a hub of activity serving the interests of the many miners employed in the District as well as supplying equipment and goods to the many mining operations. Early in the decade it was known as a “Saturday Night” town where laborers recreated in the town’s saloons.

The town also became a major transportation center with goods destined for Tin Cup, Ashcroft and the Gunnison Valley by way of the many toll roads originating in the townsite. St. Elmo’s prominence was further established with the completion of the Denver, South Park, & Pacific Railroad’s line through the Alpine Tunnel by way of St. Elmo on its way to Gunnison country. Although remote today, St. Elmo was a major stopping point for train excursionists and major distribution area for the South Park Line. Luxuries such as tailor-made suits from Chicago and New York, blue point oysters, and fresh fruit from around the country were readily available in the town.

The town’s economy and population fluctuated with the price of minerals. Until the silver crash the town and surrounding area was home to 2,000 people. With a lull in mining many residents left to pursue other mining camps. The re-capitalization of the Mary Murphy and increased mining activity in the District stabilized the population at 500. After WWI the demand for silver decreased and St. Elmo again began to lose many of its residents. By 1950 St. Elmo had two full time residents who kept vigil over the community. When they were removed in 1958, St. Elmo truly became a Ghost Town.

Today St. Elmo is a community with many summer residents and several year round residents. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Sites since 1979 and is known as the best example of 19th century mining architecture in the United States.