A lofty goal for an iconic Ouray sign

by Alan Todd

The formal name of the group of men who came together in May to repair the Box Cañon sign above Ouray is the Box Cañon Sign Committee. But informally, according to the group's chairman, Ouray resident Ralph McCormick, they go by "five guys and a sign."
The group has the lofty goal of repairing and restoring the iconic 30-foot wide by 20-foot tall sign that was erected in 1909 and that once was illuminated with 100 incandescent light bulbs. The BCSC quickly maneuvered to get permission from three separate land owners to do the work and is hoping to have the repaired letters in place before May 2018.
On Tuesday, the BCSC removed the letters from the sign in order to be able to begin repairs over the winter.
First, though, McCormick and his partners, Glynn Williams, Louis Fogleman, Mike Hakota and Tim Wallace, had to get permission from the U.S. Forest Service, which owns most of the land on which the sign was erected; the City of Ouray, which owns the sign; and, a private landowner who lives in Hawaii on whose land the last "N" in "Cañon" sits.
Partnering with the newly-formed Six Basins Project to leverage its non-profit status, the "five guys" quickly managed permission from the USFS.
Ouray City Council was agreeable as well, especially considering that the committee was not asking the city for any money or resources.
The private land owner, McCormick said, was the last hurdle and the group is appreciative of his support.
The speed at which the BCSC gained permission from those groups mirrored the quickness by which the project was originally completed in1908-09.
In December 1908, Ouray's Mayor Charles A. Sperber proposed to city council that it spend approximately $230 to erect the sign over the high bridge in Box Cañon. It was seen as a matter of civic pride by the mayor and the council, who proclaimed that the sign would be seen, day or night, from just about anywhere in Ouray.
The mayor and council reasoned that the sign would show a "progressiveness on the part of the City," and it would bring the city notoriety.
Over the years, however, the shining symbol on the mountainside of Ouray's natural beauty dimmed. The lighting and the lettering took a beating by visitors. The letters are misshapen, the lights are gone and graffiti from as far back as the 1920s is etched in just about every spot in the paint.
McCormick said almost every aspect of the sign is in disrepair, a process dating back decades. "One of the guys saw graffiti from 1929," McCormick said. Laying across the base of the frame is the pole that once carried electrical wires to the sign.
"They cut our pole down," he said. Then McCormick demonstrated that the sign's frame is not fixed to the ground.
It's a big task, but the biggest task may be funding.
"We're pulling it down, maintaining and stabilizing the sign, repairing it and putting it back as it was originally in 1909," he said. "But we don't have any money, period. We just have big ideas. Five guys and a sign."
Coulter Construction is repairing the letters, "but they're not doing it for free," said McCormick. "We're going to try to sell a letter for $1,909, and we're going to take all the donations we can get," he added.
To repair the letters, get them back up and stabilize the frame, the BCSC was quoted approximately $20,000.
McCormick's father brought him to Ouray when he was in his teens, and his family has maintained a residence here since 1960. This week, he got a little emotional explaining his reasoning for wanting to resurrect an old, graffiti-wrought sign.
"I have a connection to this place," he said. "This is my home." He fought back a tear or two while explaining his deep-rooted ties to Ouray and his desire to contribute to his community.
"There are five guys, and we each could end up paying $5,000 each." he said. "I don't want to, but I will. I'm the one who took (this project) on."
For more photos, history and information on how to donate, visit boxcanonsign.com or facebook.com/boxcanonsign.

Inception of the Box Cañon sign

The mayor then presented to the council the plans for an electric sign to be placed over the high bridge at Box Cañon. The sign is to contain the words "Box Cañon", to be 35 feet long, 20 feet high letters that are approximately six feet high and five feet wide, illuminated by 100 four-candle power incandescent lights. The cost of the sign and its installation is approximately $225. The proposition met with favor among the councilmen.
- Ouray Herald, December 11, 1908

The council accepted the proposition of the Ouray Electric Light and Power company to place an electric lighted Box Cañon sign on the cliffs above the high bridge. The proposition contemplates the use of five arc lights in Box Cañon Park at $4 per light for three months each year and running of the "Box Cañon" sign for six months in the year at $15.50 per month. The installation of the sign costs in the neighborhood of $230 and the county contributes $200 toward it.
- Ouray Herald, April 9, 1909

Within the next two weeks a large electric sign with the illuminated letters "Box Cañon” will be placed on the hill above Box Cañon at a point above the high bridge where it can be read from almost any point along Main Street and from practically all parts of the east side of Ouray. The sign will be about 30 feet long and 20 feet high, containing something like a hundred incandescent lights. The sign is expected to arrive first of next week and the work of putting in a new line up the cañon is now under way.
- Ouray Herald, April 30, 1909

The letters, six feet high, for the "Box Cañon" sign came in Tuesday at noon, the frame on which it is to be erected is being made and an attempt will be made the light company to have it in place by Sunday. Mr. Phinney, manager of the light company says he will not promise positively to have it in place by that time, but an effort will be made to have it in place then have it illuminated Sunday night, so that the excursionists from down the valley may have a look at it before ether leave town that evening.
- Ouray Herald, May 14, 1909

Next Sunday night at eight o'clock the mayor will turn on the light in the "Box Cañon" sign. The letters are here, the painting is completed as is also the frame and the sign is being erected on a point above the Box Cañon on high bridge, prominently visible from practically all portions of the city. Promptly at 8 o'clock, as above stated, the mayor will touch the button which will send the current of electricity through the 100 incandescent lights in the sign…
- Ouray Herald, June 4, 1909

According to the arrangement previously made Dr. C.A. Sperber, our city mayor turned on the button last Sunday evening at eight o'clock and the Box Cañon sign was illuminated by the 100 incandescent lights, making a conspicuous and imposing distinguishing mark for the wonderful work of nature. The sign is plainly discernible from all portions of the city and people were out in all parts of the city to witness the turning on of the light. The event was harbingered by a display of fireworks and red fire, lighted on the hill a few minutes before the light was turned on. This attracted the attention of the people generally and a large number saw the sign as it became illuminated.
- Ouray Herald, June 11, 1909