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.
The program’s original intent was to attract tourists to Virginia by highlighting the state’s many historical attributes. The first markers were installed by late 1927 along U.S. Route 1—between Richmond, in central Virginia, and Mount Vernon, in northern Virginia—at a cost of forty-five dollars each; soon other markers were installed around the state. Most of these markers described either historically significant white men or important military events, such as battles of the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783) or the American Civil War (1861–1865). During the 1920s and 1930s, historical markers were paid for by state funds, with topics selected and texts written by a small group of historians called the History Advisory Committee. This group initially included such notable historian-authors as Douglas Southall Freeman, H. R. McIlwaine, and Lyon G. Tyler. As the program gained popularity, citizens began to request markers on specific subjects of local interest.
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
The earliest markers were cast in an aluminum alloy using all capital letters, which limited the text to approximately fifty words. The metal proved to be too brittle, however, prompting the use of iron, which continued until May 1941, when an iron shortage as a result of the need for armaments in World War II (1939–1945) halted marker production for the duration of the war. In 1946 Virginia resumed the marker program, using an improved aluminum alloy instead of iron, which was still in short supply and was prone to oxidation. Since then, the size of the lettering has been reduced and is set in capital and lower-case letters, which—along with the marker’s increased size of forty-two inches wide by forty inches high—allows marker text of roughly one hundred words. This format makes it possible to include a reasonable amount of information on the marker, while keeping the letters and text more legible from a distance. Other changes include replacing the white painted background with silver paint, and including the marker identification letter and number.
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
Despite two attempts to end the historical highway marker program—once after World War II and again early in the 1960s—the program’s broad popularity has ensured its survival. Throughout the program’s history, different state agencies have successively managed it. These include the Conservation and Economic Development Commission beginning in 1927, the Virginia Department of Highways in 1949, the Virginia State Library in 1950, the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission in 1966, the Division of Historic Landmarks in 1985, and the Department of Historic Resources since 1989. The signature lines at the bottom of the markers reflect these administrative changes by indicating what department authorized the sign and the year it did so. Regardless of what agency managed the program, each has been in charge of the application process for new markers, researching or verifying the proposed texts to ensure accuracy and historic significance, and, until 1976, funding the marker’s manufacture. In 1976, the Commonwealth of Virginia stopped paying for markers, leaving it to public and private sponsors to provide the funds needed to pay for the cost of production.
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.