Box Canon sign

Jake and Larry Coulter worked to remove the letters from their scaffolding in the fall of 2017. Photo by Tim Walters

“Let’s get this straight. She’s beautiful,” says Louis Fogleman, as he steers his glossy black Jeep through an aspen glade and rumbles toward the tip of a rocky promontory high above Ouray.

Glynn Williams, riding shotgun, gazes at the view that fills the windshield. “She is beautiful,” he agrees.

In the backseat, Tim Walters is as pale as his bleached-blond hair after the brief, harrowing drive leading out to this broad-shouldered, brazen beauty we have come to admire.

“She” is the iconic “Box Canon” sign, erected in 1909. And Fogleman is right. She’s a sight to behold, with her newly fortified, steel-clad, six-foot all-caps; fresh coat of paint; and an array of solar-powered LED lightbulbs replacing the antique incandescents that shone their last sometime in the 1960s or 1970s.

“And let’s just get this straight – It is a she,” insists Fogleman, a part-time Ouray resident who has been bewitched by the Box Canon sign for the past 35 years. Williams nods a familiar nod. He, too, has been fascinated by the sign, ever since he moved to Ouray in 1975.

Walters, the lone millennial of the group, and a native of New York City, remains respectfully noncommital on the question of the sign’s gender identity. But he admits he has been equally smitten by this historic landmark for the past eight years that he has made Ouray his home.

Together, Fogleman, Williams and Walters comprise three-fifths of the five guys who came together in 2017 to fix the sign up, and succeeded against all odds in bringing her back to “light” last summer.

Around Ouray, they are collectively known as the “Five Guys and a Sign.”

We unfold ourselves from Fogleman’s Jeep and ease into the sunny late-May morning to take a closer look at the 30-foot wide by 20-foot tall historic masterpiece. Hummingbirds burr the air with song. Somewhere below, in the narrow, damp quartzite depths of Box Canyon, the black swifts have returned for the summer. So have the tourists, who pay $5 apiece to venture out onto a metal walkway for a thrilling, close-up view of Box Canyon Falls as it thunders through its sculpted chasm.

SIGN OF THE TIMES

Historians believe the Box Canon sign to be one of the earliest electrified marquee signs in Colorado. It was lit up a full 14 years before that slightly more famous marquee twinkled to life on a scrubby hillside above Hollywood in 1923.

The sign was Mayor Charles A. Sperber’s idea. According to articles in both December 11, 1908 issues of the Ouray Plaindealer and the Ouray Herald, Sperber proposed to the Ouray City Council that a “lighted sign be erected over the high bridge in Box Cafton” (an early variant of the word “canyon”).

The following April, the Ouray Herald reported that council had “accepted a proposal from the Ouray Electric Light and Power Company to place an electric ‘Box Cafton’ sign on the cliffs above the high bridge, to be illuminated at night for six months of the year at a cost of $14.50 per month. Ouray County agreed to pay $200 of the estimated $230 cost of erection of the sign.”

On Sunday, June 6, 1909 at 8 p.m., Mayor Sperber “touched the golden button that transmitted power for the first time to the beautiful sign” above Ouray, and its 100 or so incandescent lightbulbs fizzed to life, casting an electric spell on the populace below.

In the sign’s final steel-clad form, “Cafton” became “Canon” — without so much as a tilde or a ‘Y’, much to the consternation of fussy spellers to this day. “It was much more common back then to spell it the Spanish way,” explained Bill Philpott, Associate Professor of History at the University of Denver, an authority on the history of tourism in Colorado.

Nevertheless, “Several visitors in 1909 wrote letters to the Ouray Plaindealer indicating that the word Canon was misspelled and should be Canyon,” local historian Don Paulson recalled.

Back then, Ouray’s boomtown years were over but the Camp Bird Mine and the Revenue Mine were still going strong. With its plentiful natural hot springs and enchanting scenery, Ouray was also beginning to more fully embrace its tourism potential.

Cars were still rare. Most tourists would have made their way to Ouray in those days via an early-day travel package offered by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad known as the “Around the Circle” tour, a way to bolster passenger revenues on the many narrow gauge lines in Colorado.

The tour began in Denver and made its way to Durango, Colo., home to the southern terminal of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. At this point the traveler had the option of continuing to Ouray via the rails of the Rio Grande Southern over Lizard Head Pass and Dallas Divide, over Red Mountain Pass on the famous “Rainbow Route,” or on the Silverton Railroad. At the end of the line in Ironton, passengers were treated to a thrilling stagecoach ride into Ouray along the canyon-hugging, terror-inducing curves of today’s Million Dollar Highway.

“The route was partly designed to attract investors, and would have been part and parcel of a broader effort to promote both mining and tourism in the area,” said Philpott.

In the early 20th century, as Philpott explained, Ouray was catering to both the luxury spa tourists of the earlier Victorian era, and a new breed of slightly more adventurous traveler who enjoyed taking easy excursions to spectacular sites near a centrally located destination. Colorado Springs had Cave of the Winds, and Garden of the Gods. Manitou Springs boasted the cog railway up to Pikes Peak. Glenwood Springs had its Fairy Caves. And Ouray had Box Canon Falls — a breathtaking natural wonder within easy walking distance of town.

Whether travelers arrived in Ouray from the north by train, or from the south on a stage coach from Ironton Park, the dazzling electric sign would have been impossible to miss, and would have alerted tourists to the town’s thunderous main attraction.

Thanks to hydropower, Ouray and Telluride had been lit up since the 1880s. “But electricity was still a new thing for a lot of people,” Philpott said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the sign was an effort to make a splash, grab attention and make the town seem modern and progressive and exciting. It was another way of getting on the map.”

AND THEN THERE WERE FIVE

The sign remained a shining beacon on the hill to both tourists and locals, well into the 20th century.

“The Box Canon sign was always lit in the summers as I was growing up,” recalled Ouray native Rick Trujillo. “It was in a dilapidated condition when I was a kid, but still worked, with electricity coming along an equally dilapidated power line.”

Finally, sometime in the 60s, the sign gave up the ghost. “It simply was not re-lit one spring, and I don’t recall much talk about it,” Trujillo said.

The “Lady of Ouray” sat up on her promontory for the next five decades, graffitied and increasingly misshapen, unlit but not unloved, wooing new generations of Ouray-ites.

When Fogleman first started coming to Ouray, he remembers thinking, “Someone should do something about that dilapidated sign.” But he never did. Then in 2017, a merchant named Bruce Gulde put a notice in the local paper, calling for a meeting of like-minded people that were interested in fixing up the sign.

Fogleman attended that first meeting. So did Williams and a few others. The group’s ranks grew. Then Gulde dropped out, Walters joined in, and the ad hoc sign committee settled into in its final configuration: Williams, McFogle, Walters, plus fellow sign-aficionados Ralph McCormick and Mike Hakola. Five guys and a sign.

Their idea was simple: take the letters down from the sign’s scaffolding that autumn, raise some money to hire a metal worker to repair the letters, install a solar panel to power the sign’s re-illumination, and put the letters back up again in time for the next summer season.

As word spread about the project, donations started pouring in. Before they knew it, the Five Guys had enough money to pull the project off.

“We thought the whole project would take about three months,” Williams recalled with a rueful chuckle. Then things got a little complicated.

The City of Ouray owned the sign itself. It was mostly built on U.S. Forest Service land just outside of city limits, in Ouray County. And the last letter “N” of the sign hovered over a privately owned mining claim. That meant there were five jurisdictions that they had to deal with, just to get started.

Luckily, the private property owner gave his blessing for the project. So did the Ouray City Council. The Board of County Commissioners got on board as well, declaring the sign to be a Ouray County Historic Landmark. After unearthing the original permit it had granted to the city for the sign way back in 1909, the U.S. Forest Service also declared its support for the project.

Then came a big snag. Because of the sign’s historic nature and its location on USFS land, the Forest Service was obligated to consult with the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C. about the Five Guys’ proposal to repair the sign, triggering a National Historic Preservation Act review to determine whether the sign was eligible for listing on the National Historic Register.

“At first, it was our recommendation the sign was not eligible for listing because it had been in disrepair for so long and ignored. We determined that the City could do whatever it wanted with the sign,” said Jeremy M. Karchut, Forest Archaeologist/Heritage Program Manager for the Forest Service and the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests.

Then, Colorado’s State Historic Preservation Office got involved, and made a good argument that the sign actually deserved to be listed. It was iconic, after all, and had been part of Ouray’s identity for well over 100 years. The Forest Service accepted the state’s recommendation, which meant that the Five Guys would have to adhere to much stricter rehabilitation standards — including how they should replace the lights.

“Our original idea was to run tiny LED strip lighting on the back, and put fake glass bulbs on the front, which would have allowed us to control the brightness and the timing of it on a smart phone,” Williams recalled.

To test their idea, they took down the letter “O” from the sign’s scaffolding, and lit it up with the strip lighting powered by a nine-volt battery from Fogleman’s smoke detector. “We took it to the City Council, turned out the lights, everybody just ooh’d and ahh’d, and we got an approval,” Fogelman said.

But the powers-that-be at the State Historic Preservation Office nixed the idea because it was not historically accurate.

“They told us we had to use the original porcelain sockets and light bulbs instead,” Williams said. “And we thought, well, we can’t do that because the solar we would need to light all those bulbs would be massive. We would have to cover the whole hillside with solar panels.”

Eventually the Five Guys and the State Historic Office settled on a compromise to use low-wattage LED bulbs instead of incandescents.

Through all the ups and downs, including a temporary cease and desist order from the City Administrator that they quietly ignored, the Five Guys kept moving forward with the project.

“We worked diligently not to be ‘bogged down’ in any way or form,” said McCormick, the chairman of the Five Guys sign committee. “The requirements and permits for exceeded our expectations. All we wanted to do was to repair and bring the ‘Grand Lady’ back to life again.”

That fall, the Five Guys hired Jake Coulter of Coulter Construction Company to take the rusty, ragged letters down and rehabilitate them over the winter. Leif Juell of Alternative Power in Ridgway got to work designing a solar-powered system to light up the sign. Craig Hinkson, of Hinkson Construction Company, assisted with the sign’s removal and eventual replacement.

Everything came in ahead of schedule and under budget.

“We had a goal of lighting the sign by the Fourth of July last year,” Fogleman said. Less than a week before their deadline, on June 29, 2018, the majestic Lady of Ouray that had remained sentry over Box Canyon Falls for the past 109 years was turned back on. The Five Guys had brought her back to life.

“We were just elated,” Fogleman said. “It was a dream come true. I’ve done lots of different things in my lifetime. But to restore this sweet lady up on top of this mountain from 1909, that hasn’t been lit in over 50 years…It was amazing.”

PRETTY LIGHTS

In a word, the sign was dazzling. Its new LED lightbulbs were only 12 watts apiece, but their collective impact turned out to be pretty overwhelming, and not everybody loved it.

The Ouray City Council soon found itself barnstormed by residents complaining about the obnoxious brightness. One resident demanded that the city purchase her home and pay her for pain and suffering. Another said that he laid awake at night making hand shadows on his bedroom walls in the sign’s invasive glare.

“We’re working on it,” the Five Guys said — their standard, unified answer to any concern that had come up along the way. Because the bulbs were LEDs, they couldn’t be put on a dimmer. But they could be put on a schedule: illuminated for only a few hours each night. And what if they painted the bulbs dark gray, to soften their brightness?

The Five Guys trooped up to the sign again, had a little painting party, and made a few adjustments to the control panel. Problem solved. The sign now glowed with a softer, more pleasing light, and switched itself off on a schedule after three hours of illumination every night.

Most of the community fell in love. But the sign still had its detractors, and around Thanksgiving Day late last year, someone snuck up to the promontory and stole two-thirds of the light bulbs from their porcelain sockets. “They took the B and the X out, and they took the C, the A and the N out, so it said “O NO,” Fogleman said.

The vandal was never caught.

But apart from the occasional bit of maintenance and vandalism repair (which was to be expected, after all), the Five Guys say that their work here is done. Now they can sit out on their porches on a summer’s evening, and admire the softly glowing fruits of their labor.

At a time when other communities in Colorado are touting their dark skies, the Five Guys are being celebrated for bringing light back to a place in Ouray that was once dark.

Fogleman says people think it’s a big deal when they find out he’s one of the Five Guys.

“I get that a lot too,” says Walters. “They’re like, ‘Really?’”

“It’s not that we try to be secret about it,” Fogleman shrugs. “It’s just, you know, five guys and a sign.”