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At Devil's Head lookout tower, a historic Colorado duty and way of life

May 7, 2017 Updated: May 9, 2017 at 12:13 pm
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Bill Ellis, 85 stands outside of the Devil's Head tower. For the past 35 years Ellis has been part of one of Colorado's last operating fire lookout towers. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette.

DOUGLAS COUNTY - The day presents a fair challenge. Snow swirls above the forest sprawling south to Pikes Peak and to the far-off mountains in every other direction. Thin clouds gather in spots across the landscape, mimicking smoke, causing a pair of glassy eyes to squint behind dark-rimmed spectacles.

Here in his 9,748-foot perch, Bill Ellis, 85, remains vigilant.

"Being the first to report a smoke, that's a big thing for me," says the famed fire-lookout at the start of his 33rd season atop the tower known as Devil's Head.

He keeps a 13-year track record on papers tacked to one of the windowed walls: 77 handwritten names of wildfires, 10 of them listed under the year 2016. They are unrecognizable names.

"Most of these never hit the news," he says with soft-spoken pride.

They never reached a level of great destruction after Ellis spotted their early apparitions: thin billows rising from the green hills. He tracks their coordinates with the old-fashioned, compass-looking contraption standing at the tower's center - the Osborne Fire Finder has been used by his predecessors here dating back to 1907. He calls the U.S. Forest Service's dispatch center in Pueblo.

The raspy voice over the radio is unmistakable: "Puebloooo, we got a smoke."

Devil's Head tower stands 9,748 ft. above Pike National Forest on a cloudy day, Friday April 28, 2017. For the past 35 years Bill Ellis, 85, and his wife Margaret Ellis, 77, have watched for smoke at the Devil's Head tower, one of Colorado's last operating fire lookout towers. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

His is a fading duty. Devil's Head is among Colorado's historic lookout towers, most of them standing abandoned, unmanned in the wake of technological advances to fire monitoring. Along the Front Range, the white-bearded Ellis in his Forest Service uniform is the last of his kind.

He holds a sagelike reputation. Ever since 1984, when he and his wife made the cabin at the tower's base their summer home, he has built an uncanny knowledge of the vast wilderness in his panoramic view.

Firefighters have spoken of him in legendary terms. They tell stories of embarking into the forest, flashing mirrors to reveal their locations. Ellis radios in, they say, with directions to move however many miles north or south, east or west, leading them to a single boulder or trunk smoldering from a lightning strike.

"It's like he can see through the trees," says daughter Bronwyn Goehle, who spent years as his lookout assistant after growing up at the cabin with four other siblings.

Visitors - an estimated 40,000 make the steep, 1.5-mile hike to the tower every summer - also regard him with awe. Take these curious passers-by, for example. They are welcomed into the cabin with hugs from Margaret Ellis, 77. "Come on in!" she says with the Texas drawl like her husband's but projected much louder. She's the outspoken one of the relationship, the one who in 2002, when dispatchers called to order them to evacuate as the Hayman Fire raged, responded with: "It'll have to wait until after supper."

The 360 degree view from the Devil's Head tower on Friday April 28, 2017. For the past 35 years, Bill Ellis, 85, and his wife Margaret Ellis, 77, have watched for smoke at the Devil's Head tower, one of Colorado's last operating fire lookout towers. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

On this afternoon the visitors walk into the aroma of French onion soup in a crockpot. Her favorite "Star Wars" backpacks hang on the wall along with bulkier packs that had been hiked up the week before with provisions to last a month.

Also on the walls are saws used to split wood for the burner inside as well as the old washboard for laundry. Clothes are scrubbed in a tub out back, beside the blue plastic bin that Bill Ellis bathes in every morning. And close to that is the cistern, from which the couple collects water.

Inside cans of beer line a windowsill - Pikes Peak Brewing Co.'s Devil's Head red ale, with Bill Ellis' likeness plastered across the label, peering through binoculars. On a table is a boom box that plays Bill's country in the morning, Margaret's rock 'n' roll in the afternoon.

The visitors get a history of the cabin and the tower, going back to before the time the structures were built by Fort Carson engineers in 1951.

"Well," one of the visitors says, turning to Bill Ellis, "thanks for what you do to help us not get burned down and enjoy the beautiful forest we have here."

Ellis nods and smiles. He isn't ready to retire; He thought he was in the late 1990s, when he stepped away from Devil's Head for a couple of summers, long enough to suffer a heart attack and realize he needed to return, for the tower surely sustained him.

Bill Ellis makes his way down the 143 steps that lead to the Devil's Head tower on Friday April 28, 2017. For the past 35 years Bill Ellis, 85, and his wife Margaret Ellis, 77, have watched for smoke at the Devil's Head tower, one of Colorado's last operating fire lookout towers. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

He admits, though, the 143 steps to the perch are becoming more difficult. He breathes heavy on his way up, using the grip of his gloves on the handrails to propel him forward.

"When he can't do it anymore, it's gonna be sad for me, because, you know ." his son Charley says, struggling with the words. "You know, I think it's gonna slowly kill him."

Sweet summers

Bill Ellis found Devil's Head as he searched for fulfillment. Money wasn't going to provide that; it came little by little on the Texas ranch where he worked to support the family who stayed on the property in a one-bathroom house. He and Margaret had one bedroom, three boys shared the other. Bronwyn slept in the laundry room.

But the kids were raised to understand home was wherever they made it. The summers were for exploring. Their parents packed them in an old Volkswagen bound for campgrounds in Montana and California. Margaret Ellis went on an Appalachian Trail kick, taking anyone along over her years of logging 800 miles.

Bill Ellis, 85, and his wife Margaret Ellis, 77, share some words at their cabin at the base of the Devil's Head tower on Friday April 28, 2017. For the past 35 years the couple have watched for smoke at the Devil's Head tower, one of Colorado's last operating fire lookout towers. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

The couple happily refers to themselves as homeless. When they're down from the tower, they travel the country, visiting the kids scattered around. They are affectionately described as gypsies.

"They don't want anything or need anything. They don't have a whole lot of material," says Bronwyn, providing the exception of her mother's "Star Wars" collection that fills a storage unit.

The daughter lives with her husband on open land in Minnesota. "The whole way we grew up," she says, "made us appreciate the simple things."

More than their poor residence in Texas, the kids linger on their sweet summers at Devil's Head. They spent the days roaming the woods, searching for wildlife and building forts. In their high school days, the boys would run up and down the trail and up and down the tower's stairs, to return south at the school year in tip-top shape for the football season. From the mattress-lined floor of the cabin, dispatchers from the other end of the radio would hear the youngsters: "Good night, Mom, good night, Dad. Love you, Mom, love you, Dad."

When Bill and Margaret met 55 years ago, they were simply looking for companionship. It was at a bar in Dallas. He was home, having served 26 months as an Army infantryman in Korea. She was 22, having been left by her husband. Bill put a quarter in the jukebox and asked her to dance, "at 5 in the afternoon!" she recalls, along with his deep green eyes.

Twenty-five days later, they were married. They started their own family. And later, with one child struggling with asthma, they got a doctor's advice to seek thinner air. In 1966 they moved to the off-grid town of Victor, where Bill Ellis picked up a Forest Service job and first learned of Devil's Head. Before he was full time starting in '84, he filled in where he could.

The family was drawn back to Texas in the years between. And all along, Bill Ellis felt drawn to that tower, that place so divided from the world.

Finding peace

"Yesterday, he sort of had an anxiety attack," Margaret Ellis says inside the cabin beside a chair now empty. "Just sitting and doing nothing, it bothers him."

On the desk is a spiral-bound book titled "Billy's War," with 89 pages of handwritten accounts from his time in Korea. He came out of the service with two Bronze Stars, a Purple Heart, a blown-off right thumb and nightmares.

Bill Ellis surveys the view from the steps leading to the Devil's Head tower on Friday April 28, 2017. For the past 35 years Bill Ellis, 85, and his wife Margaret Ellis, 77, have watched for smoke at the Devil's Head tower, one of Colorado's last operating fire lookout towers. Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette. 

The 17-year-old Ellis couldn't have imagined what he was getting himself into, couldn't have known what it would be like to hide in dead bodies or what it would be like to contemplate suicide over capture, what it would be like to take a life at the end of a bayonet.

"Once I asked him how many he had killed, and he just said, 'I don't know,'" says Charley, the son. "I think over the past five or six years, it's bothered him."


There was pain before the war, brought on by a drunk father. At the age of 12, Bill Ellis was working, delivering groceries. "Had to eat," he said here in the cabin with a shrug, referring to himself and also his mother and two sisters. He didn't go back to school after the eighth grade with the responsibilities back home, like fending off the old man with a gun.

Ellis leaned forward in his chair with a deep breath. He rested his elbows on his knees and stared at the ground for a moment.

Then he got up and went outside.

The mountain gets its name for its face resembling a devil. It is here where a man feels he is with God.

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