Hillside Letters in the Western Landscape
April 23, 2019 2:41 PM   Subscribe

In the western part of the United States, whole communities succumb to the urge to display their school or community pride by stamping their initial on the sides of mountains. Some are painted on stone, some are overlaid with painted concrete or rocks, and some are created by strategically clear-cutting dense vegetation.

The first mountain monogram was created in 1905 by University of California-Berkeley students.

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.

University of Utah Students began painting their class numerals on "The Hill" in the early 1900s. Since the numbers changed annually, the students decided they wanted something more permanent that would promote loyalty and pride. The block U was originally built in 1907 on Mount Van Cott.

While multiple sources state that the Lahainaluna L was the first Hillside Letter, built in 1904. Lahainaluna High School has interviewed those who were students when it was built, and determined the date to be 1929.
posted by zinon (43 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Nostalgia! I hopped by MeFi for the first time in a hot while and its like a time warp! I'm pretty sure I read this page in late 90s when I was younger and imagined seeking some of these out. Looks like many of us from back in the day he's sort of left his content stand. Happy to see that Cardhouse who IIRC are friends with Doc are still at it.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 2:50 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]

My high school's "I" on the nearby mountain. Briefly attended by Sharon Tate in the early 60s.
posted by Bee'sWing at 3:08 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

I really had no idea this was a Western US/specifically SoCal thing. Like, just found out by reading this post. It's what we grew up with--so of course it was totally normal.

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.

Och Tamale!

The first, delightfully comprehensive, article misses the P for Palomar College. I grew up between the P and the ocean and so when I went off to college, the R was a soothing reminder of home.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't point out the Wikipedia article "List of hillside letters".
posted by librarylis at 3:09 PM on April 23 [7 favorites]

A guy I used to used to work with went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. They had the idea to cover the giant P that sits on a hill above the college with CDs so that the letter would twinkle in the sunlight. He and his roommates saved up CDs for years. When they had what they thought was enough they spent hours affixing them to sheets and then one early morning hiked it all up the hill. When the sun broke on the letter... there were no twinkling reflections. In fact, he said, from the city you couldn’t even tell anything was on it.
posted by not_the_water at 3:36 PM on April 23 [5 favorites]

So the Hollywood Sign doesn't merit an entry on the List of hillside letters in California because it's standing up? South San Francisco is on the list even though it's composed of whole words, not just a letter.
posted by larrybob at 3:39 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]

Las Cruces, NM has New Mexico State University which has the Aggies which is why Tortugas Mountain near town is known colloquially as A Mountain.
posted by hippybear at 3:46 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

I clearly remember hauling buckets of whitewash up the hill above the high school my freshman year in La Grande OR to refresh the L. Overseen by enthusiastic seniors of course. Wikipedia indicates it's no longer there. I have mixed emotions about that.
posted by calamari kid at 3:50 PM on April 23

I lived in La Grande back in 1999, 2000, and I can't for the life of me remember if it was there then or not.
posted by hippybear at 3:53 PM on April 23

Hmm. Wikipedia doesn't seem to know of "A" Mountain in Las Cruces, NM, the only hillside letter I've visited up close.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 3:59 PM on April 23

No, it does know of the Tortugas Mountain Observatory, which I visited often when I was young because I lived next door to an astronomer who worked there.
posted by hippybear at 4:02 PM on April 23

Back in college, I would waste time on the Deuce of Clubs website, which has an excellent section for Mountain Monograms.

Alas, the site is largely dormant now but it’s an excellent artifact from when the internet was weird.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 4:03 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]


Also filed under Albania:

It took Sheme Filja 10 days and an army of villagers to paint the name “ENVER” on the side of Albania’s Mount Shpirag in 1968, in tribute to then communist dictator Enver Hoxha.

The 100-metre-high letters still dominated the skyline above Berat, Albania’s oldest town, when Hoxha died in 1985 and communism crumbled in 1990.

They faded under napalm attack when Albania’s first-democratically elected government deployed the army in 1994 to wipe Hoxha’s name from the mountain. But Filja restored them three years later at the behest of diehard communists.

Now, as part of a documentary project, the 58-year-old farmer has swapped the first two letters with the help of his nephew and a whitewash pump, leaving the word “NEVER” to tower over Berat for the foreseeable future.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:05 PM on April 23 [8 favorites]

While not strictly a mountain monogram, the Platte Mound M, located outside Platteville, Wisconsin, is apparently the tallest hillside M in the world. Not sure if that is a separate category from the mountain letters?
posted by Big Al 8000 at 4:09 PM on April 23

These are also popular in Baja California.

I've hiked to the "Y" in Provo many times when I was a kid, long before there was an official and maintained trail up to it. My brother and I used to scramble more or less directly up the face and ridges beneath the Y. More than once I remember getting kind of stuck and clinging to the loose desert mountain soil so I didn't fall off and start cartwheeling down the mountain.

Why? Have you been to Provo as a tween or teen? There isn't really anything else to do. You can only get a slurpee at one of the hundreds of 7-11s that used to pepper the city like too many chips in a chocolate chip cookie, or get kicked out of the BYU campus for skateboarding so many times in a day.

Thankfully I've never painted the damn thing because thankfully I didn't go to BYU.

I've climbed up to a few more of these but I don't really remember where they are. I've also done the Hollywood sign when it used to be a more risky hike to get back there.

And honestly I think these things are a hideous blight. Who the fuck tags an entire mountain? Who looks at a mountain and thinks "Y'know? That thing needs a logo!"

And so the Wasatch range has a huge Y on it you can see from basically all of Provo and beyond. It's kind of bonkers, really.

And it's probably pretty oppressive if you're not Mormon or ex-Mormon in Provo.
posted by loquacious at 4:15 PM on April 23 [7 favorites]

pfft newcomers
posted by mbo at 4:26 PM on April 23 [8 favorites]

I was first introduced to these things when I moved to Bozeman, Montana back in 2000. There's a big ol' 'M' overlooking the town from a nearby mountainside, built during that initial wave of popularity, indeed as a university fraternity/sorority collaboration thing. There also seems to be a slightly smaller 'B' nearby, much neglected and only visible in certain times of the year if you know what to look for. I don't know the history of that one is.

I agree it's a bit of a relic from an older way of looking at nature and something I'd oppose if someone wanted to build one today, but it's a heck of an institutional landmark now, and easily the most popular hiking trail in this area.

Fun story: I once had engine trouble at the parking lot, and while on the phone with my insurance roadside assistance, they asked for the nearest address to dispatch the tow truck. I told them to just say I'm at "the M parking lot" because whatever tow company they send will be familiar with that. But no, their system required an actual street intersection for their records. So it was a bit of a side diversion while we both messed around with google maps to find the nearest official intersection their system would recognize, all the while the actual tow truck driver was in fact much more familiar with the directions "at the M parking lot".

The moral of the story is, trying to force reality to fit somebody's computer recordkeeping system is a pain.
posted by traveler_ at 4:38 PM on April 23 [7 favorites]

I really had no idea this was a Western US/specifically SoCal thing.

It isn't, or at least, it didn't used to be. Lots of local college students used to decorate highway cuts. I realized on reading this that I haven't seen any of that for years.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:47 PM on April 23

The first mountain monogram was created in 1905 by University of California-Berkeley students.

The Big C (such a creative name)! Over a decade later, I still have my pair of yellow paint pants from all the times spent returning it to its proper color of King Alfred yellow.

The links mention The C was built after the University deemed the class rush too violent, but don't mention that the reason the C was built was to get the freshman and sophomore classes to ceremoniously memorialize the tradition, as detailed on the plaque in the concrete:
posted by memento maury at 4:55 PM on April 23

Alpine, Texas has an "A" Mountain for the town and another one decorated with the Bar-SR-Bar brand of the university there (Sul Ross State University, my alma mater).
posted by battleshipkropotkin at 5:29 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

Our dorm RAs took us up to the Big C during my freshman year at Cal. The linked article describes it as “hard to miss” but I don’t think I’ve noticed it a single time in the decades since, and I am up in those hills every weekend on my bike.
posted by migurski at 6:35 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

Humans don't deserve this world.
posted by glonous keming at 6:38 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

I went to school in the northeast at a small four-year college on a hillside; on the opposite side of the valley was a two-year ag school, and there was some rivalry.

Apparently at some point in the 1950s the college hired the ag school to plant part of its hillside to trees, which students handled—carefully placing larches, which turn yellow in autumn, among the evergreens such that every fall the college’s hillside bore the ag school’s enormous initials. This was of course not noticed until it was too late to change.

After a few decades the effect was lost, but for a while I’m told it was pretty dramatic.
posted by kinnakeet at 6:45 PM on April 23 [2 favorites]

My dubious alma mater, Loyola Marymount University in L.A., just had a big "L" on the bluff separating it from Playa Del Rey (a neighborhood with a cooler name than it deserves). The institution was the result of a merger between Loyola of Los Angeles, a boys' college and Marymount College, an all-girls' school. But after many years, an ingenious landscaper was able to expand the display to "LMU", resolving a long-held issue of contention and giving LMU the only 3-letter display in the Los Angeles area. We were so proud.

Still, I think the HOLLYWOOD sign deserves a place on the list.
posted by oneswellfoop at 7:00 PM on April 23

in the 1950s the college hired the ag school to plant part of its hillside to trees, which students handled—carefully placing larches, which turn yellow in autumn, among the evergreens such that every fall the college’s hillside bore the ag school’s enormous initials

Less lightheartedly, that story reminds me of the forest swastika that was planted in Germany.

I grew up in the western US so just always took it as normal that there would be a big hillside letter or two in any town. I pass them all the time, sometimes they are bright white and maintained, others are deteriorating and fading back into the hillside.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:03 PM on April 23

So I only spent my freshman year at New Mexico Tech, I am not a graduate. Campus history told me that not too many years before I got there, some of our students had put an 'N' and a 'T' around the Colorado School of Mines 'M' not too long before. The next year, it is alleged that a group of CSM students came to do the same thing to us, but gave up because our mountain was way higher than theirs was.

Part of my freshman year shenanigans was to go up to the M, so I know that it was quite a climb. Of course, on the way there we went through the grounds of the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center,which honestly looking back was probably not a great idea but we did it anyway. I wish that I could of stayed at the school longer but finances didn't really work out that way.
posted by Quonab at 7:43 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

NE Montana where my mom grew up has class years in big numbers made of white stone on the hillsides.
posted by impishoptimist at 8:21 PM on April 23

I was very confused by this practice the first time I found myself in Arizona. Where I grew up, a large crucifix on a hill overlooking town was the usual way of marking the territory. Particularly fancy ones were internally lit by the middle 1900s.

I never quite understood why it was considered pleasing to have an apparently floating Jesus Cross hanging over the town at night.
posted by wierdo at 9:39 PM on April 23 [1 favorite]

don't forget the sign for South San Francisco: The Industrial Tity
posted by rlio at 10:13 PM on April 23 [3 favorites]

Unfortunately during my time at school at the University of Montana, I missed the chance to "hike the M." It's less than a mile up but a decent hike. It is a pretty good landmark to find your way back "home" to the university if you get turned around nearby though!
posted by Crystalinne at 1:24 AM on April 24

Surely this is just a modernisation of an ancient tradition- like this white horse?
posted by freethefeet at 3:27 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]

> Less lightheartedly, that story reminds me of the forest swastika that was planted in Germany.

There was a 1930s British project by The Men of the Trees to plant woods in the shape of shields. Shield pointed towards the nearest landing strip. The US has a similar system of concrete arrows.

There's a loch-side somewhere in Scotland.... yeah here we go. Visiting sailors would spell out ship names in stones.
posted by Leon at 5:02 AM on April 24

There were a couple in Huerfano County, CO, but neither is mentioned in the article, google maps doesn't show them, and I can't for the life of me remember what either one said. Probably just "Walsenburg" and "La Veta."
posted by aspersioncast at 5:11 AM on April 24

I grew up thinking Tucson was special because of A Mountain. During the Gulf War 2 Electric Boogalo the local city council decided to paint it red, white and blue. Some local scallywags went up at night and painted it black in response.
posted by nestor_makhno at 7:39 AM on April 24 [2 favorites]

There's one of these in New York City - the Columbia C way up in Inwood! Apparently it's been there for almost 70 years. I never realized it was a Thing beyond this particular example, though.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:16 AM on April 24 [1 favorite]

Driving through Battle Mountain, NV, we'd always joke that there was a giant BM on the mountainside. The University of Utah U its a good branding item for them. They light it and used to make it flash during sports events and such.
posted by msbutah at 8:39 AM on April 24

"Of course, on the way there we went through the grounds of the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center,which honestly looking back was probably not a great idea but we did it anyway."

Definitely not a good idea.

One morning in 1995 I was jolted awake by a boom that rattled the windows. I found out later that day that the blast was miles away at EMRTC grounds.

Funded by the DoJ or the like, they'd suspended a filled gasoline tanker (like you see on the highway) thirty feet in the air and then shot at it with successively more powerful sniper rifles if and until something happened. Such as a massive explosion.

My reaction of "OMG people get paid to do awesome things like that?!?" was a regular occurrence while I was there. My girlfriend was an astrophysics grad student who worked at the VLA/NRAO. The pre-production crew for the movie Contact had spent a few days following her around and filming her, to get a sense of "what astronomers do" (and she was among the few women there). She'd come home and say, "The movie people spent another day watching me sit in front of a computer." So, of course, the movie opens with Jodie Foster climbing atop one of the array dishes for no good reason whatsoever. Nevertheless, the array and the correlator were extremely cool, especially 25 years ago.

Also, our good friend was an atmospheric physics grad student who worked up at Langmuir Laboratory up on top of the mountain and had fun firing rockets with wires into the clouds to trigger lightning strikes while he sheltered in the Faraday cage bunker.

The geophysics and petroleum engineering folk also have some cool toys.

Science is fun!
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:05 PM on April 24 [1 favorite]

Hmm. Wikipedia doesn't seem to know of "A" Mountain in Las Cruces, NM, the only hillside letter I've visited up close.

The rest of the country is still not convinced New Mexico is real.
posted by bongo_x at 2:16 PM on April 24 [2 favorites]

Being near all the big boom boom toys is pretty neat, as long as you aren't the one who has to keep everything from rattling off the shelves. I know this because my grandparents lived less than a mile from the boundary of a nearby Army training range when I was a child. That put them two or three miles at best from "tater hill," which was by far the most prominent point nearby and therefore was their most used target for artillery practice. The ANG folks also liked to drop bombs on it. A lot. Even when they don't break the sound barrier, fighter jets are farking loud, y'all.

It was rare for more than a couple of days to go by without hearing, feeling, and seeing exactly how much destruction could be rained down on that spot. As I grew older, the fun turned to surprise that they'd managed to not accidentally hit anything off the base in all those years of 18 and 19 year old kids learning how to use their artillery. That point was driven home some years later when I was living in another state and one of the ANG jets dropped a bomb on an apartment building a few miles from my house.
posted by wierdo at 2:31 PM on April 24

The rest of the country is still not convinced New Mexico is real.

Don’t be silly. Of course New Mexico is real but we’re talking about the United States.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 5:26 PM on April 24

Has anyone here been to New Mexico? Reality still isn't sure if New Mexico is real.

"Wait... hold up? What are you anyway? Are you a desert? A mountain range? A prairie?"
posted by loquacious at 7:33 PM on April 24 [2 favorites]

Most of the Western states were divvied up to have diverse resources so that the state wouldn't be a mono-economy. A lot of the people wanting to redivide, say, Washington and Oregon in a more North/South orientation rather than East/West don't seem to realize that having the growing prairie region, the timber bearing mountains, and the coastline benefit both states across their breadth.

New Mexico and Arizona and Colorado were also split up this way. Utah was a bit of a different case, from what I understand, and Nevada was sort of just what was left over.
posted by hippybear at 7:39 PM on April 24

Nevada was sort of just what was left over.

Can confirm.
posted by bongo_x at 2:43 AM on April 25

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