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Looking out for the lookout: Group aims to save Squaw Mountain tower

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By Stephen Knapp

While much of the mountain area’s pioneering history is wonderfully accessible, some takes a little more effort to appreciate.

Maybe 10 miles west of Evergreen as the hawk flies, soaring above Squaw Pass Road, stands Squaw Mountain, its blustery 11,500-foot summit lording over a panorama encompassing vast, forested tracts of Clear Creek and Jefferson county high country. To the north, Longs Peak stands tall among lesser heights. To the west, Mount Evans smiles down across an immense jumble of crests and canyons. In fine weather — and, often, in not-so-fine weather — Pike’s Peak is visible far to the south. The hills surrounding Evergreen stretch away to the east, marching down into the blue oblivion of the plains.

In 1940, on a rocky prominence atop Squaw Mountain, crews of the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps fashioned a sturdy fire lookout tower from native stone. For the next half-century, sharp-eyed lookouts stationed at that aerie kept watch over mountain and wood, ready to sound the alarm whenever smoke appeared within their long horizon.

Alas, advanced radar, aerial observation and tightly woven communication networks have conspired to put the Squaw Mountain lookout out of business. Now steeped in magnificent isolation, the thick-walled stone tower is slowly yielding to time and the endless savage storms that sweep the range. Fortunately, somebody’s looking out for the lookout.

“Across the country, lookout towers are being torn down at the rate of about one a week,” says former mountain-area school principal Sondra Jackson Kellogg. “There’s a great movement right now to save those that can be saved and preserve their memories. Being made of stone, the Squaw Mountain lookout is quite unique and a beautiful piece of architecture, and we’re working hard to save it.”

As it happens, Kellogg has some interesting lookout memories of her own. In the early 1960s, she and her new husband, longtime Mount Evans Outdoor Lab School principal Jim Jackson, now deceased, spent a couple of seasons watching the forest from a lookout atop Mount Thorodin, west of Boulder.

“It was a dramatic, intense experience that I wanted to pass down to my daughter,” she says. “In 2003 I put the whole story on DVD, and that’s when the FFLA got a hold of me. Before that, I’d never heard of them,” she laughs, “and now they’ve talked me into being director of the Colorado chapter.”

Of some 30 lookout towers that once guarded Colorado’s forests, nearly half have succumbed to relentless nature or been intentionally dismantled, and only one — the Deadman Lookout in Roosevelt National Forest –— is still serving its intended purpose.

“The Friends of Deadman Lookout have more than 100 volunteers who man it during the summer,” Kellogg says. “It’s a very dedicated group.”

This summer, she hopes to assemble her own dedicated group of volunteers to help put blush back in the Squaw Mountain tower’s cheeks.

“As of last summer, the shutters had blown off, there were some broken windows, the trapdoor to the catwalk was broken and the upper floor was badly in need of stain,” she says. “We went up there with 14 volunteers in September and basically did enough to get it through the winter, but it still needs plenty of work.”

Not that the Forest Service hasn’t done its part for Squaw Mountain. Following a major 10-year Forest Service restoration effort, the old pile made the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. But the lookout isn’t out of the woods just yet, and Kellogg’s been working closely with Clear Creek District Ranger Dan Lovato, who’s already overseen the transformation of the tower’s stone core into a surprisingly comfortable apartment.

“He’s been talking about turning the Squaw Mountain lookout into a Forest Service cabin and putting it on a rental basis,” Kellogg says. “Between downstairs and upstairs, it could sleep four comfortably. But there’s a lot of work to be done before that ever happens. Dan said he’ll schedule one or two days this summer for work on the tower and, as soon as we know what days, we’ll start getting volunteers together.”

Be warned, however, that, despite fabulous views and lots of hands-on history, the top of Squaw Mountain isn’t for everybody.

“It’s not a place for kids, or for teenagers to fool around in, and it’s not a place for the elderly. You need to be in pretty good physical condition,” Kellogg says.

And, with luck, they’ll put the Squaw Mountain fire tower in pretty good physical condition. For Kellogg’s money, the cause is well worth the effort.

“There’s significant history behind that tower,” she says. “It played a big role in protecting Evergreen, Conifer, Idaho Springs, Genesee and the whole Upper Bear Creek basin against forest fires. I think it deserves some special care.”

To learn more about the Forest Fire Lookout Association, visit www.firelookout.org. To volunteer for the Squaw Mountain Lookout restoration effort, call Sondra Jackson Kellogg at 303-674-4903.