Virginia's historical highway marker program was created by the General Assembly in 1926. The idea was conceived by Richard C. Wight, an amateur historian, who proposed to Governor E. Lee Trinkle a plan for a state-funded system of roadside markers to indicate locations of historical significance. Because Wight's suggestion came at the end of Trinkle's term, he recommended that Wight take the idea to incoming governor Harry Flood Byrd Sr. Byrd approved, and with the assistance of his former campaign manager William E. Carson, created the State Conservation and Economic Development Commission. In 1927, the Commission's Division of History and Archaeology, led by state historian Dr. Hamilton James Eckenrode, was assigned the task of developing a state highway marker program, which included writing the texts and installing the markers.
Increase in Popularity
As public interest in the marker program grew, so too did the number of markers. By 1930, 691 historical markers had been erected, and by 1934 there were roughly 1,200. With the rising popularity of automobiles, however, and the ever-increasing speeds at which people drove them, it became difficult for drivers to read highway markers safely. Part of the solution was to publish a guide to the markers, so that travelers could look up a given marker by its title or assigned number and read its text without having to stop.
In 1929, the booklet Key to Inscriptions of Virginia Highway Markers was published and distributed free of charge. This publication listed all markers installed in Virginia, along with their texts and where they were located. In 1934, with traffic increasing in speed and volume, a series of roadside pull-offs was created, where travelers could stop and read a marker and view its environs at their leisure. In many cases, these pull-offs were set up as small wayside parks where travelers could relax and even explore the site described in the marker. The highway marker pull-off areas and the Key to Inscriptions helped to ensure the popularity of the highway marker program and promoted Virginia tourism in general.
By 1937, as a testament to the program's continued popularity, the Key to Inscriptions became the most popular piece of Virginia tourist literature. Revised editions of this booklet were periodically published through 1948, to provide the public with a list of the latest markers. But it was not until 1985—thirty-seven years later—that the next revision, A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers, was published. A second edition was published in 1994, and a revised third edition was published early in 2007 to celebrate the marker program's eightieth anniversary. That edition describes more than 1,800 markers.
Marker Design and Construction
Early on in the marker program, a labeling system was developed whereby each marker received a letter indicating what main road the marker was located near, and a number indicating the order in which it was installed. For example, the first marker erected was E-1 / "Bacon's Plantation." Installed in Richmond in 1927, the "E" represented U.S. Route 1, and the number "1" indicated that this was the first marker on that road. The very first marker code numbers were displayed on a separate plaque attached to the post directly below the marker; shortly thereafter, the numbers were moved to the top of the marker, near its title. The marker program still loosely follows this original alphanumeric code to designate a marker's location.
Later Developments and Current Functions
Some markers, however—especially those that recognize the historic significance of women, African Americans, or Virginia Indians—are still covered by the state. Such markers have recently been supported by a federal grant, through the Federal Highway Administration's Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). Using these grant funds, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, often in partnership with the Virginia Historical Society, has created markers that highlight the history of those Virginians who have been underrepresented in the marker program. Among these markers are OC-30 / "Headquarters of Opechancanough," near Manquin on U.S. Route 360; E-109 / "Freedmen's Cemetery" in Alexandria; and Q-4-i / "Patsy Cline: Country Music Singer" in Winchester.
1926 - The General Assembly creates Virginia's historical highway marker program, an idea conceived by amateur historian Richard C. Wight. He proposed to Governor E. Lee Trinkle a plan for a state-funded system of roadside markers to indicate locations of historical significance.
1927 - The Virginia State Conservation and Economic Development Commission's Division of History and Archaeology, led by state historian Dr. Hamilton James Eckenrode, is assigned the task of developing a state highway marker program.
1929 - The booklet Key to Inscriptions of Virginia Highway Markers is published and distributed free of charge. This volume lists all of the markers installed in Virginia, along with their texts and where they are located.
May 1941 - An iron shortage as a result of the need for armaments in World War II (1939–1945) halts Virginia highway marker production for the duration of the war.
1976 - The Commonwealth of Virginia ceases to pay for historic highway markers, leaving it to public and private sponsors to provide the funds needed to pay for the cost of their production. The state does, however, continue to pay for those markers that recognize the historic significance of women, African Americans, or Virginia Indians.
1994 - A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers is published, the first completely new edition to the popular 1929 Virginia tourism volume, Key to Inscriptions of Virginia Highway Markers, since the publication of the original booklet.
2007 - A revised third edition of Virginia's booklet on the state highway marker program is published to celebrate the program's eightieth anniversary. The new edition describes more than 1,800 markers.
- Virginia Department of Historic Resources: Historical Highway Markers
- Virginia Department of Historic Resources
- The Historical Marker Database, documenting national historical markers
- Kane, Emily. "Historical Highway Markers," on Web site, "So What if Poe was Here? Identifying and Evaluating Virginia's Literary Landmarks." American Studies Program, University of Virginia
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Striker, A. Historical Highway Marker Program. (2012, September 19). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Historical_Highway_Marker_Program.
- MLA Citation:
Striker, Arthur. "Historical Highway Marker Program." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 19 Sept. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: November 7, 2008 | Last modified: September 19, 2012