Hillside Letters in the Western Landscape
by James J. Parsons
(Reprinted courtesy of Landscape, vol. 30, No. 1, 1988.)
Giant capital letters adorn hillsides near many cities and towns in the American West. These letters, typically constructed of whitewashed or painted stones or of concrete, are cultural signatures. They serve as conspicuous symbols of community and institutional identity, and they represent an idea, perhaps traceable to a single point of origin, that diffused quickly and widely early in this century.
Both environment and culture have affected the distribution of those hillside monograms. An accessible and fairly steep slope, undeveloped and preferably treeless, is the first requisite. If it is public land, such as Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, park, or school property that is protected from urban encroachment, so much the better. Many western communities can meet these requirements admirably.
Hillside symbols have a surprisingly respectable history dating back some eighty years. To a remarkable extent the letters can be traced to a single decade, 1905-1915. They have almost always been built and maintained by college or high-school student groups. The earliest letter-building projects were devices for defusing increasingly violent inter-class rivalries, which college administrators and faculty found difficult to control. It apparently worked. Making a letter was often a gala community event, an organized "men's workday" declared a formal school holiday, with picnic lunch and supper provided by campus women.
Once built, letters quickly became symbols of community and school, instant traditions shouting "Here we are!" Illuminating them before major sports contests or for homecomings began early. At such times, when tensions between rivals ran high, the letters were prime targets for raids so they were zealously defended through the night with bonfires and beer.
Their maintenance, including the annual whitewashing or painting, has often been an important ritual in campus life. In some areas the letters had a second function in earlier days as navigation aids to aircraft pilots, helping them identify look-alike desert towns. The letters are distinctive vernacular landmarks in the western states, rarely occurring elsewhere. In Canada only a single example has been identified to date, a C above Cache Creek, a community along the Trans-Canada Highway in British Columbia. In parts of Latin America, as in Mexico or the coastal deserts of Peru and northern Chile, insignias of military units and political parties commonly adorn conspicuous slopes. These sometimes include booster slogans such as "Viva el Peru" or "Arica Siempre." But such symbols have a quite different origin and character from the letters of the American West.
The University of California's "Big C" on the Berkeley hills is the granddaddy of them all. Only seventy feet high, the Berkeley letter has been dwarfed by many others over time, but it has persisted. It was built by the freshman and sophomore classes over two rainy days in the spring of 1905 and finished in time for official recognition at the annual Charter Day celebration. The traditional brawl between the two classes had degenerated into something close to guerrilla warfare, a kind of primal savagery known as "the rush" that was likened by one contemporary to Anglo-Saxon raids on the British coast. The intramural battles were receiving increasingly lurid press coverage, discrediting the university throughout the sate. Legislative appropriations and alumni giving were threatened. In a well-publicized truce, the classes of '07 and '08 agreed to end the rush and instead devote their energies to constructing a masonry C on the steep, grassy slope behind the campus. Maintaining the six-inch-thick slab of concrete, painted yellow, was a job assigned to succeeding freshman classes.
There is no apparent precedent for the Big C. Announcement of the plan to build it brought a storm of community and faculty protest. Opponents denounced it as unworthy of the university, claiming it would "for all time disfigure the sensuous beauty of the hills," and would "slide and become an eyesore." The color yellow "wouldn't harmonize." The mathematics professor A. W. Whitney protested that "living in contemplation of this kind of vulgarity students would soon be painting C's on Yosemite's El Capitan. And why not? Why is it worse? The Berkeley Hills in their way are just as fine as Yosemite.... One thousand times as many people look on them....They front on the Orient....Our wantonness would be in the eyes of the world. We cannot afford to stand for such vulgarity." Charles Mills Gayley, the distinguished professor of English literature, had an alternative: "A great C of acacia trees, with their burst of golden spring bloom. Or something else, anything." Both the influential Hillside and the Town and Gown clubs protested by petition. The C would offend many of their members, citizens who had long been loyal friends and benefactors of the university.
But others were supportive, especially the engineering and architecture faculties and the emerging athletic establishment. They saw the C as a symbol of conciliation that would also celebrate "the love and loyalty in the heart of every Californian." The renowned campus architect John Galen Howard gave encouragement, counseling how to line up the letter with the axis of the campus plan.
President Benjamin Ide Wheeler was in the East. Plans were too far along to stop, so the C was built. A bronze plaque still embedded in the lower arm of the letter reads, "In memory of the Rush, buried by Classes of '07 and '08, March 23, 1905. Requiescat in Pace." The student newspaper, the Daily Californian, said the next week that it had "all been much ado about nothing." The editor's only complaint was that the letter had not been made larger.
The first summer the C was damaged by dynamite, perhaps in one of the earliest instances of eco-radicalism. The letter was immediately seized as a target by rival schools. It was hallowed in the school song: "On our rugged eastern foothills stands our symbol clear and bold, Big C means to fight and strive and win for Blue and Gold." Today the letter stands below the big industrial complex of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, inconspicuous and shielded from all but direct view by groves of eucalyptus and Monterey pines.
Yet the Big C had started something. Even then, Berkeley, for better or worse, was a model. By the next year, 1906, Brigham Young University had a Y two thousand feet above its Provo campus on the steepest part of Utah's Wasatch Front. This letter was 320 feet high, more than four times taller than the Berkeley C. Pack horses, and in later times helicopters, were used to reach it. As at Berkeley, constructing the letter was heralded as a community effort designed to end friction between the classes. For the past sixty years the Y has been lighted for the school's homecoming. In 1984 a "#1" was added alongside the letter to proclaim BYU's ranking in college football polls.
In the spring of 1907, the slopes behind the University of Utah overlooking the Salt Lake Valley sprouted a block U, again a pacification gesture among rival student groups. Popular Mechanics called it "the largest college monogram" although it was only half the height of the Y at Provo.
Three more college letters appeared in 1908. One was a one-hundred-foot M on Mount Zion behind the Colorado School of Mines at Golden. Here, as elsewhere, engineering students and faculty played a prominent role in the planning, and the construction day was declared a school holiday. Laying out the emblem on a twenty-three-degree slope so that it would be seen from the town as a perfect block letter was described as an instructive lesson in descriptive geometry. In true miner fashion, burros were used to move tools and materials to the construction site. Before big games it was lighted, at first by railroad flares and then in 1932 by more than three thousand electric lights. In 1978 $3,000 was spent to upgrade the power lines to this "world's largest illuminated letter," said to be visible from Denver, "pointing out to all travelers the home of the foremost school of mineral engineering in the world."
In the same year, less than one hundred miles north, Colorado A & M, now Colorado State University, built a much larger A for Aggies. In this case the link with earlier letters is documented. Students from Fort Collins traveled to Salt Lake City to inspect the new U at the University of Utah before beginning their own project. The A has persisted as a prominent Front Range landmark, although the institution's name has changed and its athletic teams are now know as the Rams.
Also in 1908 the University of Oregon at Eugene built the first of its block O's, a wooden structure on Skinner Butte near the railway station. It was later converted to concrete, and finally, in 1958, to metal. For many years Corvallis raiders visited the O, but today it is almost completely obscured from ground view by trees.
In 1909 the University of Montana at Missoula followed suit, although at a site below its present M, which is high above the campus on Mt. Sentinel. In 1910 the new Montana School of Mines at Butte, now Montana Tech, did likewise with what it proclaimed as "the largest and best-looking letter in the state." When it was first lighted on "M Day" in 1962, the governor of Montana was there to pull the switch.
Also in about 1910 the New Mexico School of Mines at Socorro, now the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, came up with an M on the mountain just west of the Rio Grande Valley campus. The annual painting of the letter is a traditional event on St. Patrick's Day, which celebrates the patron saint of the engineering profession.
Then came the flood tide. Between 1912 and 1915 at least eleven more western colleges and universities put letters on their mountains. In 1912 students constructed an M at yet another school of mines, that of South Dakota at Rapid City. They placed the 112-foot-high initial on nearby Cowboy Hill. The M was said "to excite people's wonder and interest." It was an idea that reportedly "dated back several years." On M Day, which was declared a school holiday, the soil was loosened by horse-drawn plow and removed by one group of students, while another group filled the trench with stones. According to contemporary accounts, some one hundred wagonloads of rock were required before the letter was ready for whitewashing. In later years the rocks were replaced by concrete slabs. For years this Black Hills outlier was probably the easternmost collegiate letter. More than forty years later another appeared behind Black Hills State College at nearby Spearfish, South Dakota.
In 1912 Pomona College freshmen cut a P out of the chaparral on the high face of the San Gabriel Mountains behind their southern California campus. In 1917 during a night rally before a major football game, students illuminated it for the first time, using red flares appropriated from Pacific Electric Railway cars. Although periodically abandoned, the P was cleared of sprouting brush as recently as 1983.
The University of Redlands's R, built in 1913, was a true giant, equivalent in height to more than one-and-a-half football fields. Plainly visible on clear days ten miles from the campus, it was 460 feet by 320 feet, cut into the brush on San Bernardino National Forest land below Big Bear Lake at an elevation of four thousand feet. In 1929 and again in 1970, "R" Mountain was burned over. The unsurfaced letter requires frequent weeding, and erosion has been a problem. At times the R has been abandoned to encroaching chaparral, but in 1986 it was again reclaimed.
In the same year Redlands built its R, University of Nevada students joined in with a geometrically perfect block N, 180 feet high, on Mt. Peavine overlooking the Truckee Meadows and Reno. "It isn't right," the student yearbook observed, "that Nevada spirit should show itself less plainly than California to the west or Utah to the east." As with the others, the project was a collective effort. Classes were canceled, a bucket brigade carried water and cement up the sagebrush-covered slope, and a women's auxiliary provided the picnic that always seemed to follow.
In 1914 came the University of Wyoming with its W, built by freshmen on a modest slope north of the Laramie campus, but the banner year was 1915 when at least six college letters appeared. One was an M on Old Baldy behind Montana State University at Bozeman, five miles from town. Another was at Gunnison, Colorado: an N for Normal, later changed to a T for Tech, and, in 1923, to the present W for Western State College. The professor who suggested the letter at Gunnison said he had been inspired by a visit to the Big C at Berkeley. The Colorado letter, too, has been proclaimed "the largest college letter," a title which Brigham Young and Redlands have often claimed. In addition during 1915 a D was built on Black Ridge west of Utah's Dixie College at St. George, and a P at Cal Poly -- San Luis Obispo, while an A on "A" Mountain, Tucson, celebrated the University of Arizona's upset 7-3 football victory that year over Pomona College.
It was also in 1915, on Christmas Day, that students from Throop College of Technology in Pasadena, soon to become Caltech, hiked up the Mt. Wilson tollroad with two professors to cut out a giant T (for Tech, not Throop) on the near-vertical flank of the chaparral-covered mountains directly behind the city. Good engineers that they were, they arranged for a watcher on campus with a transit telescope to guide them in shaping the letter. After a full day of toil and three more Saturdays dedicated to the task, a handsome T looked out over the San Gabriel Valley. A snowfall later that winter showed it off to maximum advantage and permitted workers to give it a final, more perfect block form.
The Class of '16, those responsible for the Caltech project, originally planned for their successors to plant the letter with pines. However, severe erosion in the first year washed away much of the soil, leaving a rocky surface of doubtful promise for trees. When the campus became preoccupied with the war, the planting scheme was forgotten.
The Caltech T, a big one, was immediately adopted by "Techers" as their most cherished symbol. The annual "T party," when the freshmen class trudged up the mountain to clear the brush from the letter, was a major fall social event. In 1921, the school yearbook, the Big T, a title it still carries, rhapsodized:
At dawn, the first to sense the light of day,
The yearbook editor two years later was equally ecstatic: "Long may the Big T on the mountainside continue to blazon forth its message from the heart of Tech to all mankind. Long may it stand for Truth, a Testament to Tech."
it rests up there
And at evening, in the purple pallor of the sunset,
it stands out last.
The Big T
It's there for Truth and Time -- and a greater Tech,
The noblest tradition of them all!
Pasadena residents complained to President Robert Millikan that the T scarred the natural beauty of the mountains. In a letter to these early environmentalists Millikan defended the students, saying "the T stands for the finest products our Western Civilization can produce," and again, "California Institute is making a valuable contribution ... to the progress of the world. Arbitrary action on the part of the Trustees to force the students to abandon the T would jeopardize interests that are literally a thousand times more important than any gain that could be accomplished by its removal." Apparently pressured by protestors, the U.S. Forest Service, on whose land the letter stood, ruled in 1929 that further maintenance of the letter would constitute trespass. Asking compliance from Caltech, the Forest Service emphasized the site's vulnerability to erosion. A period of neglect followed, but the T was haphazardly cleared from time to time until as late as 1960 when the Pasadena Star-News observed that although "a few people have at times complained about the T, claiming it defaces the mountainside with an ugly scar, to the men who have had a part in its perpetuation the T symbolizes the ideal to which Caltech is dedicated." By 1981 it was described by a reporter for the campus newspaper as "mostly overgrown, visible only to the educated eye."
Between 1905 and 1915 at least twenty collegiate letters were built in the western states. Others came later. In 1918 students at the college in Tempe, Arizona, first built an N for Normal, next a T for Tempe State, and, finally, in 1938, the present A for Arizona State Teachers College (now University). New Mexico State University at Las Cruces, then an agricultural school, came on line in 1920 with an A (they are still the Aggies). Kansas State University at Manhattan joined in 1921 with a KS, "planned since 1915," on a low riser behind the stadium. Two years later the Texas School of Mines, now the University of Texas -- El Paso, built its block M on a barren desert surface adjacent to what is today the Sun Bowl. The SR for Sul Ross University on an outlier of the Davis Mountains at Alpine, Texas, dates from 1925.
Later college letters usually reflect an institution's more recent establishment. A brick M at California's St. Mary's College, for which ground was broken in 1927, was said to stand for St. Mary's, for Moraga, and for the school's great football coach, "Slip" Madigan. It became the present small, but neat, SMC only after World War II. At Loyola Marymount University in West Los Angeles, a large L left on the bluff below by a construction company when the Loyola campus was completed in 1929 was converted into an LMU in 1973 in recognition of the merger with Marymount College.
The W at Western Montana University in Dillon dates from 1933. The C at the University of California, Riverside, and the H at Black Hills State College in Spearfish, South Dakota, both appeared in 1955. The R of the Mormon Ricks College in Rexford, Idaho, was built in 1962, and the O at Oregon Tech in Klamath Falls, in 1964. Dates for the letters from a half dozen other colleges shown on the map have not been determined.
High schools and a few junior colleges and grade schools followed the collegiate example, and today their letters vastly outnumber college letters. Several early ones were in Nevada, including the E at Elko, built in 1916 to honor a physical-education instructor who had lost his life in a snowstorm while leading a student group in the nearby Ruby Mountains. The T at Tonopah is lighted by a spotlight on the roof of the Mizpah Hotel. It celebrated the Nevada State Championship won by the Tonopah girls' basketball team in 1917. At Winnemucca, where a handsome W was built to honor another girls' championship team in 1920, a trust fund was set up to pay for periodic whitewashing, but, according to a recent report, "no one knows where the money is."
Other early Nevada high-school letters include the BM at Battle Mountain (1925), the V at Virginia City (1926), the L at Panaca, Lincoln County (1927), and the L at Lovelock (1931). The S at Sparks became a focus of controversy in the summer of 1985 when the ski manufacturer, Salomon-American, acquired the land on which it stood and redesigned the fifty-year-old symbol to resemble its corporate logo. In the face of community complaints, the company apologized and restored the letter to its original form.
At Quartzsite, Arizona, population 895 in 1980, a well-designed Q was built and painted in 1962 by local grade-school students. When the students were transferred to Ehrensburg, eighteen miles away, winter visitors raised funds to maintain the letter. There are some twenty-seven recreational-vehicle parks in Quartzsite with more than one thousand spaces; the winter population of snowbirds may reach twelve thousand, and it is many times that in late January during the Big Event, a gem show and trade fair.
Other letters have other stories to tell. The LP on the Alabama Hills west of Lone Pine, California, stands out in the view of the Sierra scarp and Mount Whitney. Ansel Adams's photograph of this scene became one of his most heralded works, but to make it so, he is said to have brushed out the intruding letters from his negative.
A big whitewashed M stands behind Manassa, Colorado, population 814 in 1980, the home of boxing champion Jack Dempsey, "The Manassa Mauler." The letter dates from 1959 when this predominantly Mormon community in the San Luis Valley still supported a high school. Five years later the school consolidated with a neighboring district so today the letter is maintained by the townspeople and Mormon youth. It is lighted for "Manassa Pioneer Days" every July with flames from one-gallon cans filled with diesel fuel that are hauled up the mountain, outlining a "beautiful, flickering letter that can be seen for miles around."
Most noncollegiate letters are in smaller communities where the high school takes the name of the town, for example, S for Salida, Colorado, C for Cody, or GR for Green River, Wyoming. In other cases schools carry county names and are represented by the appropriate letters, like L for Lassen County, California, and WP for White Pine County, Nevada. Occasionally, the school names are unrelated to either town or county names, as in Ridgecrest, California, Loyola (L) at Missoula, Montana, or the several high schools whose monograms are emblazoned on the high slopes of Mt. Franklin overlooking El Paso, Texas.
Some letters have been abandoned because of lack of student interest, objections from environmentalists, or concerns of property owners. Collegiate initials once existed but are no longer maintained at Caltech, the University of New Mexico, the now-defunct University of Albuquerque, the University of Colorado, and San Diego State University. At Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where an entire mountainside was set afire on Homecoming Day in the course of lighting a kerosene-soaked flaming W, attempts to create a living monogram by planting bushes or sumac trees have been unsuccessful. But the trace of the W, almost invisible today, is still outline in electric lights on special occasions.
A few high school letters also have been abandoned or are in disrepair, but most continue to be maintained, if sometimes rather casually. At Los Alamos, New Mexico, the LA created by students is said to have been removed in the early 1960s by unsympathetic "eastern scientists" with the Atomic Energy Commission, who felt the initials defiled the natural beauty of the area. Following a hearing that received national press coverage, army engineers rebuilt the letters, thus making them a "government structure."
The clustering of letters is most apparent in southern California, along the Wasatch Front in Utah, and in parts of Montana. Virtually every community along I-80 between Reno, Nevada, and Rock Springs, Wyoming, seems to have one, but they are rare on the forested coast of the Pacific Northwest. In most of the Mountain West they are as American as apple pie. Even a Mennonite community in central Montana boasts one. This western bias in distribution makes the letters particularly intriguing. The only letters that have come to my attention in the East are an M for Marist College, overlooking the Hudson River at Poughkeepsie, New York, and the C of Columbia University above its boathouse on Manhattan's Harlem River, across from Lawrence Wien stadium. Others have been reported at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, once a school of mines, and at Rushton, Minnesota, in the Driftless Country. The few identified in the Great Plains and South Central states are on the westernmost margin except for the letter at Kansas State University. In Hawaii an L stands behind Lahaina on Maui.
In some cases, the new spray-can graffiti artists find these letters irresistible targets, to the dismay of student groups responsible for their upkeep. In earlier years students sometimes placed class numerals alongside letters. In August 1966, the citizens of Reno, Nevada, awoke to find the university's seventy-five-year-old N prefixed by a Greek sigma, the work of a college fraternity. Raids by groups from rival institutions armed with aerosols or cans of paint still enliven campus life.
The letter on the mountain is a subject without a literature. The map represents the author's personal observations over several years as well as the gleanings of students and associates who have joined the letter game. Additional examples will assuredly turn up. I predict that most will lie west of the hundredth meridian.
These monograms, usually of respectable antiquity, are part of community and landscape history. To some extent they reflect the spirit of the time when most were constructed, before environmental preservation and esthetics became concerns in our culture. Of the nearly 250 letters mapped, virtually all have been produced by student groups and represent their institutions. The letters remain a conspicuous and durable part of the identity of many communities, fortifying institutional allegiances and the sense of place. Occasionally they arouse antipathies among those who are offended by the intrusion of the human hand on often dramatic scenery. However, for travelers in the arid West the letters are "anchors to the eye," adding diversity and interest to the natural beauty of the landscape.