Rabbitbrush Rambler: Lookout Mountain

With the Christmas star shining atop Lookout Mountain (aka “D” Mountain), we know that stargazers on the west side of the Valley soon will be watching for Santa and his sleigh. Most people have forgotten that there once was an observatory up there, too.

The explanation for an observatory’s being there at all is really twofold. First, its purpose was educational. Second, it was just one activity of the Presbyterian College of the Southwest at Del Norte. Their history is not well-known today.    

The dome-shaped observatory on the summit was constructed in 1885, two years after the college was founded. The observatory was small, only 20 x 20 feet, with an adjoining room. Its telescope was large and reputedly of excellent quality for its time but suffered from damage, possibly due to vandalism, and had to be put in storage. When the college closed, the telescope was sent to another Presbyterian school, Occidental College in California, and the whereabouts of the telescope are now unknown.

(The Monte Vista Historical Society owns a rare photograph, made in 1890 and showing storefronts down in town with the observatory high above on Lookout Mountain. A.J. Taylor, formerly at the Rio Grande County Museum, performed research on the observatory and the telescope’s history.)

We do know what became of the observatory itself on Lookout Mountain. It suffered from weather, deterioration, and vandalism until its last remains blew down. For the past few years the Lookout Mountain Observatory Association has been meeting for star parties on the hilltop near the Rio Grande County Annex, where the organization has built a facility with a rollback dome and two professional-grade telescopes.

The Presbyterian College itself suffered a short life. Established in 1883, it opened for classes in 1884 and closed in 1901 due to its lack of adequate funds.

During its brief existence, the frame academic building was lost in a fire. A photograph that accompanies a story on the Internet, obviously was of some large, two-and-a half-story, masonry structure at an unknown location. There were several large Presbyterian schools in those years.

The pretty, gothic-styled Pioneer Church on Spruce St. is the original Presbyterian Church that was built with the school adjoining it, where a modern brick sanctuary now is part of the property. An apartment building, still standing at Sixth and Cherry, was the dormitory.

The first president of the Presbyterian College of the Southwest was the Rev. Willis Lord, an octogenarian clergyman and esteemed theologian with high academic standards. He had served most recently in Colorado Spring, was past retirement age, and did so the next year.

He would be followed by George M. Darley who had been pastoring the first Protestant church on the Western Slope at Lake City. Testimonials to George Darley’s skill as a builder and carpenter are seen in the attractive church buildings he constructed, but the necessary enrollment to keep the college operating was too small. George Darley suffered a nervous breakdown in the struggle.

An older brother, the energetic proselytizer Alexander Darley, had been the pastor at Del Norte in the 1870s. After Del Norte he opened Presbyterian churches and schools in Alamosa and several of the communities in the southern part of the Valley, with the goal of teaching pupils English, other subjects and spirituality and to prepare some to attend the new college.

But the San Luis Valley was not yet ready for the college, and it closed. On Lookout Mountain, it just wasn’t in the stars yet.