Duck Duck Book

52 – hillside letters
03.24.2008, 8:02 am
Filed under: history & geography

Hillside letters A to Z : a guide to hometown landmarks / Evelyn Corning.
Missoula, Mont. : Mountain Press Pub. Co., 2007.
[MCL call number: 917.304 C818h 2007; two copies, no holds]

In 1905, students at the University of California at Berkeley spent two days building a giant concrete letter “C” on the side of a hill facing the university campus. This was the United States’s first hillside letter, and it was followed in the same year by the University of Utah’s “U,” and then by Brigham Young University’s “Y” in 1906. Now there are hundreds. Hillside Letters A to Z introduces readers to the quirky history of these giant initials, and provides a kind of gazetteer to letters across the U.S.

Most letters were built out of school or community pride, but Corning reports a few unusual letter stories. In 1916, boys from Elko High School in Elko, Nevada built a 120 by 204′ “E” to memorialize an Elko High teacher who had died from hypothermia following a hiking accident. Other letters are more interesting for the rivalry they have inspired. The “O” at University of Oregon, is a good example:

“The O was stolen so many times over the years by the students of Oregon State University in Corvallis, just north [sic] of Eugene, that in the early 1950s it was reconstructed of concrete and wood. Unable to remove it, the students of Oregon State dynamited it in 1952 and again in 1953. By 1957, the students at the University of Oregon felt the Oregon State students had ‘contaminated’ their emblem to such an extent that they burned their own letter, and the following year they built a metal O embedded in concrete. Soon afterwards the Oregon State students cut the O into sections and took it to their campus in Corvallis. After several months it was returned, reassembled, and reinstalled, only to be stolen again. The last time anyone at the University of Oregon can remember seeing their O was in 1972.” (page 15)

Other letters have less dramatic stories, but Corning makes their histories interesting also, and photographs illustrating the different letters are particularly charming. The alphabetical directory of hillside letters that makes up the main part of the book is supplemented by a map of letter locations, an introduction relating the history of the hillside letter phenomenon and explaining different construction techniques, an index listing letters by state, and an excellent bibliography.


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