From Then to Now: History Along the Roadway
Historical markers have a distinct mission. Across the Nation, mile after mile, on roadway after roadway, historical markers link important stories to the landscapes where they took place. Whether situated high above the ground or lying directly on the terrain, markers work to make history feel more immediate, and, in some cases, bring into light incidents largely forgotten or intentionally ignored. Virginia’s historical marker program has the distinction of being one of the oldest in the Nation, while Missouri’s program carries the distinction of making its State the first in the Midwest to completely mark a modern cross-state highway with historical markers.
The primary purpose of the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) Historic Preservation Section—the section of MoDOT that researches the State’s history for highway projects relating to prehistoric archaeology, archaeology, architectural history, bridges, and roadways—is to ensure compliance with Federal historic preservation laws, specifically Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (Section 106). MoDOT archaeologists, architectural historians, and other staff have performed extensive research into the history of Missouri’s highways, so much so the Historical Preservation Section has become the State’s go-to resource for questions about the highway system, old maps and roadside parks, highway beautification efforts, and historical highway markers.
Via its research, the MoDOT Historic Preservation section also understands the importance of making the highway system’s history accessible to the public and supports other practitioners in the field of transportation with mitigation efforts. One of the ways this research becomes accessible is through displaying and promoting interpretive markers, often in partnership with other public and private organizations.
Virginia’s nearly 2,600 roadside historical markers, recognizable by their iconic silver and black design, have turned the State into an open-air museum for nearly a century. Managed by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR), a State agency, the marker program educates Virginians and visitors about significant places, people, and events representing hundreds of years of history—from before the era of European colonization until roughly five decades ago. Markers acknowledge both the inspiring and disturbing events of Virginia’s past, encompassing such topics as the founding of the Nation, scientific achievements, and civil rights victories, as well as the displacement of many Native Americans, the sale of enslaved people, and the lynching of African-Americans. They are not erected to honor the subjects or to serve as monuments or memorials. Instead, their primary purpose is to provide information of high educational value, illuminating the past in the interest of understanding the present.
Historical Marker Programs: The Beginnings
Virginia’s marker program began in 1927 when the State’s new Commission of Conservation and Development installed the first markers along U.S. Route 1. This commission—which coordinated the State’s programs for parks, forestry, geology, water power, history, and archaeology—was charged with stimulating economic development using strategies tailored to the age of the automobile. The marker program was intended to entice motorists to explore Virginia via the State’s new highway system, and spend money on food, gasoline, and lodging along the way. According to an early advertisement for the marker program, the traveler’s car was to be like “an easy chair” and the “roads before him” would be “open pages in the most thrilling history of the Nation.”
By 1942, when the Commission of Conservation and Development’s marker program was suspended during World War II, about 1,400 markers lined the highways. When the Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission—the forerunner of today’s Virginia DHR—was created in 1966 to manage the State’s historic preservation efforts, it assumed responsibility for the marker program.
MoDOT Historical Preservation Section’s current processes also build upon a long tradition of marking history along the roadway. In 1913, the Missouri Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR)—who were instrumental in the adoption of the Missouri State flag and the development of genealogical libraries throughout the State—partnered with the newly created Missouri State Highway Department (SHD) to mark highways that were important during Missouri’s Spanish and French colonial and territorial eras. Early in the partnership, the two organizations advocated for and raised funds to mark four highways: Boone’s Lick Road, Santa Fe Trail, El Camino Real, and Daniel Boone Trail. Markers associated with two of these programs still exist today.
For example, in 1917, DAR marked El Camino Real (also known as Kings Highway or Kingshighway) by placing a marker in each county between St. Louis and Caruthersville. The highway (roughly corresponding to modern U.S. Route 61) is the oldest in Missouri that originally connected the French settlements along the Mississippi River. When Americans started arriving shortly before the Louisiana Purchase it also connected the settlements of Americans. El Camino Real was the first highway designated by the Missouri territorial legislature, which was incorporated into the early highway system.
Likewise, many of the original Boone’s Lick Road granite markers, some in the shape of millstones and others stone slabs, were placed at the edge of State highway rights-of-way and continue to be along State highways. Many in the area have been surveyed for MoDOT projects, especially those that are along present-day Interstate 70 outer roads and along St. Charles County Route N. However, some of Missouri’s early highways were relocated, as were their markers. Today, many of the original markers are located near prominent buildings or natural features.
In the spring of 1932, the State Historical Society (SHS) of Missouri, working with SHD, erected historical markers along U.S. Highway 36 in northern Missouri—between the cities of Hannibal and St. Joseph—as a way of popularizing State history. Markers were dedicated to important figures who had lived along the corridor including writers Mark Twain and Eugene Fields, Senator David R. Atchison, and U.S. Army Officer John J. Pershing. Communities including the cities of Laclede, Hannibal, Cameron, Linn, Brookfield, and St. Joseph received markers, as did Buchanan County. The first railroad across Missouri, the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad, was also marked. With these placements, Missouri became the first State in the Midwest to completely mark a modern cross-state highway with historical markers. George A. Mahan, who was president of SHS at the time, purchased plantings to beautify the marker locations.
In the fall of 1932, at the Missouri State Fairgrounds in Sedalia, SHS dedicated a marker to the State Highway System at the SHD Highway Gardens exhibit location on the fairgrounds. This marker told the history of highway funding in the State from territorial appropriations to the Centennial Road Law which created the State Highway System.
In the 1950s, SHS and SHD entered into a formal agreement to place historical markers across the State over a 10-year period. Per the agreement, SHS would research and write the content for the markers and SHD would prepare appropriate locations for their placement. Appropriate locations included areas adjacent to State highways where right-of-way was wide enough to provide safe access to the marker, and where the marker was positioned in a landscaped area such as roadside parks with amenities or simple pull-offs with a driveway. Each county and the city of St. Louis would receive at least one marker (typically large, two-sided tablets). In the end, 121 markers were placed across the State. Since their placement, many of the county markers have been relocated to the county’s courthouse lawns.
According to Beth Pike, SHS’ current assistant director for Communications and Education Outreach, the society has made its “mission to collect, preserve, and make material related to Missouri history available to the public.” Pike “still gets excited” when she discovers a new-to-her marker in traveling across the State. “Often, I learn something new about Missouri.”
In the 1970s, the Commonwealth of Virginia stopped providing regular funding for new markers. Over the last four decades, most new markers have been created via an application process that allows individuals or organizations—such as historical societies, churches, alumni associations, museums, and tourism bureaus—to propose topics and to submit draft text for the markers. In this way, hundreds of people have worked with DHR to tell the stories that are important to them and the State. Nelson Harris, a minister and former mayor of Roanoke, VA, has successfully applied for a number of markers. “I am often amazed at how little the general public knows about their locality’s history but is keenly interested in finding out. I know first-hand how markers are appreciated by locals and used by others to promote history-related tourism and research,” Harris says. “They allow readers to reflect upon [the past] in ways that might be inspirational or cautionary, but always educational.”
Historical Marker Programs: The Now
To be eligible for a marker in Virginia, an event, person, or place must be of regional, statewide, or national significance; subjects of strictly local importance do not qualify. The subject must have attained its significance at least 50 years prior to the current year, and a marker may not focus on a living person. DHR staff members conduct research on each topic, consulting primary sources when possible, and edit each text for accuracy, clarity, brevity, thoroughness, and educational value. The staff members work closely with applicants to arrive at a final draft of about 100 words, which is then presented to the Marker Editorial Committee, a group of historians, archaeologists, and copy editors. As Harris notes, the markers “tell a fact-checked narrative, and that elevates them above other forms of historic recognition in the public sphere.” If the committee accepts the text, the staff members present it for official approval at a quarterly meeting of the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, a seven-member body appointed by the governor. Applicants pay approximately $3,000 for the manufacture of the marker, if their proposal is approved.
While DHR is responsible for the information that appears on State markers, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) handles marker site approvals, installation, and maintenance. VDOT, whose history traces back to the establishment of the State Highway Commission in 1906, builds and maintains transportation infrastructure on the VDOT rights-of-way. The close partnership between these two State agencies is vital to the success of the marker program. “Working with DHR, VDOT has been able to maintain existing, replace damaged, and erect new historical markers on VDOT’s right-of-way at key locations denoting significant historical events,” says Rick Burgess, manager of VDOT’s Integrated Directional Signing Program (IDSP). “The traveling public is utilizing our available restaurants, lodging facilities, service stations, camping sites, and other related attractions… I believe this has helped to stimulate economic growth.” The IDSP, which oversees revenue-generating logo signs (i.e., for gas, food, lodging, and attractions on limited-access highways) and other similar programs, provides funding for historical marker installation and maintenance. In cities and towns that maintain their own roadways, the local public works departments approve sites and install and maintain markers.
Historical markers, and closely related interpretive panels and markers, are often used by State departments of transportation to provide a public benefit when historic resources—properties that are eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)—will be adversely affected by construction projects. Under Section 106, if these adverse effects cannot be avoided or minimized, they must be resolved through mitigation, which can include historical markers, interpretive markers, and interpretive panels and kiosks. These help explain to the public what has been lost as well as interpret what remains. Since Missouri does not have an active official State historical marker program, the MoDOT Historic Preservation Section uses interpretive panels and markers and other efforts to comply with Section 106.
For example, when the Missouri River bridge at Boonville, Cooper County, MO, was replaced in 1995, the cobblestone landing along the riverfront was unearthed—a significant archaeological find eligible for listing in the NRHP. Working with the city of Boonville, a park—dubbed Cobblestone Park—was established along the riverfront showcasing the historic cobblestones. Because the Boonville Bridge was also NRHP-eligible and was adversely affected by the project, elements from the bridge, including pieces of the railing and the bridge plaques, were incorporated into the park. MoDOT provided interpretive panels about the Boonville Bridge and the significance of the riverfront cobblestones for the park. Making the mitigation relevant to the public is desirable, and one way to do that is through interpreting the resources that are affected using interpretive panels.
In another instance, the New Franklin Viaduct on Missouri Highway 5—the longest State highway and the only highway to transverse the entire State—spanned a division yard for the Missouri Kansas Texas (MKT) Railroad. The MKT ceased operation in 1986 and Missouri acquired the right-of-way, which developed into the Katy Trail State Park. MoDOT proposed to remove the viaduct in 2008, since the structure was no longer needed. Since the viaduct was NRHP-eligible, as part of the Section 106 mitigation for the removal of the massive concrete structure, it was proposed that a trailhead for the Katy Trail be developed adjacent to Missouri Highway 5, and that an interpretive panel on the history of the viaduct be included in the trailhead. MoDOT worked with Missouri State Parks to develop and install the interpretive panel. Railings from the viaduct were installed along Missouri Highway 5 adjacent to the trail.
Interest in the Virginia historical marker program has also recently surged, resulting in the approval of as many as 50 to 60 new markers per year. At the same time, supply chain problems and high demand at the foundry that manufactures the markers have reduced the pace at which new signs can be delivered, and a substantial backlog has formed. In December 2021, the Board of Historic Resources adopted new, more selective approval procedures for marker proposals in recognition that the program’s rate of growth was unsustainable. Instead of accepting 10-15 applications from the public per quarter, DHR staff members now use a scoring rubric to select the top five applications received by each quarterly deadline. Proposals that receive the highest scores are those that have great potential to educate the public; address a topic that the program has not extensively covered; focus on the history of a community that has been marginalized or underrepresented; demonstrate statewide or national significance; and contribute to a more equitable geographic distribution of markers.
After a marker is in place, its sponsoring organization typically holds a dedication and unveiling ceremony. These events celebrate the completion of the project, bring communities together to learn more about the subject featured on the marker, and stimulate media reports that educate the wider public. “Time and time again, I have witnessed Virginia’s highway marker program galvanize communities around a shared sense of purpose and history. Attending a marker unveiling is a moving experience, during which attendees witness first-hand the power of history. I have lost count of the number of times that these events have moved me to tears,” remarks Julie Langan, director of DHR.
While having a nearly century-old marker program is a point of pride in Virginia, the program’s longevity has also created challenges. The sensibilities and scope of the program have changed radically since its early decades, when markers focused largely on colonial houses and churches, the expansion of European settlement westward, and political and military history—with an emphasis on Civil War battles and troop movements. Information about the history of Native Americans (other than armed conflicts with settlers), African-Americans, and women was virtually excluded until the 1980s, when the program’s definition of what qualified as “historic” or “significant” began to broaden.
Since the 1990s, DHR has made vigorous efforts to diversify the content of the program so that it presents a more complete and accurate account of Virginia’s past. A series of Federal grants received between 1996 and 2009 allowed DHR staff and community partners to develop a variety of new markers about Native Americans, African-Americans, and women, highlighting such topics as a Monacan Indian village, the 23rd U.S. Colored Troops (USCT), the Equal Suffrage League of Virginia, and jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. In addition, the Virginia General Assembly allocated funding in 2021 to support the production of 35 diversity-related markers. Despite these efforts, the program’s earlier history of exclusion means that, in terms of absolute numbers, the marker system still doesn’t adequately reflect the reality of Virginia’s multicultural past, an ongoing problem given that markers are often perceived as an official representation of what the State considers to be important.
A second challenge stemming from the program’s age has been the lingering presence of markers that are deteriorated, outdated, misleading, or erroneous. Markers are intended to stand on the roadsides for decades, and there is no way to revise them—other than full replacement—when new information comes to light or when terminology evolves, rendering certain words antiquated or offensive. DHR’s marker retirement policy allows for the removal and replacement of markers that are in poor physical condition, contain factual errors, or have limited educational value because their texts are exceedingly brief, lack historical context, or are otherwise inadequate, as determined by a detailed evaluation based on thorough research. Markers from the 1920s through the 1950s often contained very short texts and omitted information now considered essential. For example, markers about plantations did not mention the labor of enslaved people. Updated replacements contain longer, more comprehensive texts based on modern historical scholarship.
Although the demand for replacements is great and the associated expenses are substantial, DHR and VDOT have worked steadily to reduce the number of markers that do not meet the modern standards of the program. Federal grant funding in the 1990s and early 2000s allowed for the first large-scale replacement of older markers, bringing an aesthetic improvement to the roadsides as rusty and cracked iron signs gave way to new aluminum markers. Recently, State funding allowed DHR and VDOT to partner in the replacement of about 100 markers in 2017-2018, and, as of 2020, a reliable stream of funds from VDOT’s IDSP covers the cost of replacing about 10-15 missing or deteriorated markers per year. An infusion of State funds in 2021 is also supporting the replacement of damaged or outdated markers in cities and towns that are outside VDOT’s jurisdiction. Because older markers may retain special significance to the community and are often regarded as important artifacts, those that are retired from the roadside may be donated for indoor display to museums or other organizations that have an educational mission.
Hitting the Mark: Historical Marker Contests
As the design-build Request for Proposals in Missouri was being developed, Brandi Baldwin, deputy project director for the Champ Clark Bridge Project, contacted the MoDOT Historic Preservation Section about including a required interpretive marker or panel as part of a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) challenge. Baldwin explains: “[I] always had a great passion for STEM, and when I saw the requirement for an interpretive panel, I saw an opportunity to engage the local schools. I wanted to give high schools students the opportunity to have a life-long impact on their community and with their families, and be able to say, ‘look what I did when I was a kid.’ ”
Five schools in Missouri and one in Illinois participated in the challenge, which was set up like the design-build procurement process. Aaron Gander, machine tool instructor with the Hannibal Career and Technical Center whose students had the winning design, said “my best memory of the design challenge was the teamwork I witnessed amongst our students. They spent many hours designing and evaluating their design to meet the contest criteria. I feel the students benefited beyond the challenge as it prepared them for requirements of college and work. Working with others, compromising, and then rallying around each other to reach a goal. The students were so proud of their accomplishment, and it was a lot of fun!” The marker is a result of compromise: one school had the winning design, while another school had the winning text.
The interpretive marker in its final form was dedicated on a cold, drizzly January day in 2020. Despite the weather, nearly 75 people attended the dedication, including three of the students who had worked on the winning design.
In Virginia, the State’s Department of Education partnered with DHR to sponsor three contests in which K-12 students submitted ideas for historical markers during Black History Month in 2020 and 2021, and during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month in 2021. The best entries were selected, resulting in 20 new markers that cover such people and topics as civil rights activist Barbara Johns, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, Tuskegee Airman John L. Whitehead Jr., Filipinos in the U.S. Navy, and Vietnamese immigration to Northern Virginia. These contests “were examples of hands-on, relevant, real-world learning at its best,” Lewis Longenecker, history teacher at Cumberland Middle School, observes. “Students had the opportunity to use their voice to ensure lesser-known historic figures acquired the recognition they deserved.” Participants “gained an understanding that there are common values, such as the importance of education, unselfishness, service to others, and a love of democracy that people of all backgrounds share,” he adds.
Marking a Path Forward: The Future
As the Virginia marker program looks forward to commemorating its 100th birthday in 2027, it can point to many successes. The program, featuring nearly 2,600 markers, now highlights a wide variety of topics, from the Shoeless Wonders Football Team in Lynchburg and the Roanoke Life Saving and First Aid Crew to the 1889 Thaxton train wreck and the origins of Virginia’s chapters of the youth development program 4-H. Although Virginia’s marker program was slow to begin diversifying, it now features more than 430 markers that focus on African-American history.
Looking toward the future, a priority is to use available technology to make the historical content of the marker program more easily accessible to the public. While DHR’s website already offers a searchable marker database, the agency is working with VDOT on a new, more flexible ArcGIS app that will allow users to search for markers by keyword, subject, or locality and view the results on a map. In ways that couldn’t have been imagined a century ago, the program will forge ahead in its mission to spark interest in Virginia history, draw visitors to historical sites, and educate the public about a wide range of significant people, places, and events that shaped the past and influenced the present.
The MoDOT Historic Preservation Section’s interpretive panel program also looks forward to securing more partnerships through identifying resources that will benefit from panels, identifying appropriate locations on or off MoDOT rights-of-way, and providing feedback on drafts of interpretive text to ensure local perspectives are captured and critical errors are avoided. Similarly, opportunities to establish a growing network with local partners (i.e., cities, historical societies, and special interest groups) exist in locations that are accessible to the public (and in areas where the risk of vandalism is low) and where the consulting parties and the public have an interest in the resources. There must be local interest and support for the development and placement of interpretive panels to be considered as a good Section 106 mitigation measure by MoDOT. Nonetheless, MoDOT will work with stakeholders to develop the necessary support to continue to mark State history.
Karen L. Daniels, MoDOT’s architectural historian, has a B.S. in historic preservation from Southeast Missouri State University and a master’s in heritage preservation from Georgia State University.
Mike Meinkoth, historic preservation manager at MoDOT, has a B.A. in anthropology from Southern Illinois University and an M.A. degree in archaeology from the University of Illinois.
Jennifer R. Loux is highway marker program manager at the Virginia DHR. She received a Ph.D. and M.A. in history from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. from the College of William and Mary.
For more information on the MoDOT Historic Preservation Section, visit https://www.modot.org/historic-preservation or contact Karen Daniels, 573-526-7346, email@example.com. For more information on the Virginia marker program, visit https://www.dhr.virginia.gov/highway-markers/ or contact Jennifer Loux at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Old Greenville Interpretive Panel Consultation
Old Greenville is a community that was relocated for planned dam construction in the 1940s. Much of the town site survives as archaeological remains on the Wapappello Dam reservation and the town site is listed in the NRHP. In 2005, MoDOT planned improvements to U.S. Highway 67—which runs adjacent to Old Greenville—and those improvements would have destroyed a small portion of the site and had an adverse effect under Section 106.
Instead of traditional archaeological mitigation, consisting of excavation of the site, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) and the Old Greenville descendant community asked MoDOT to consider alternative or creative mitigation, including developing interpretive panels that would tell the history of the community. This had been on the Corps’ wishlist for many years but had never been funded.
MoDOT and the Federal Highway Administration agreed that this would be a better use of public funds than to reexamine the Old Greenville archaeological site which had already been tested. According to David Clarke, the FHWA Federal preservation officer, “FHWA’s policy regarding mitigation that utilizes public funding, including creative mitigation that is done in addition to, or in lieu of standard approaches to mitigation, is that it represents a reasonable public expenditure when considering the impacts of the action and the benefits of the proposed mitigation measures.”
The Corps, the Old Greenville descendant community, and MoDOT agreed to a list of themes that would be interpreted and a budget that the mitigation effort would not exceed. In addition to panels about Old Greenville, the Trail of Tears was also a theme since the Benge Route went through the area.
The Cherokee Nation was very involved in the development of the two panels related to the Trail of Tears. One panel explained the history of the Benge Route—a route used by only one of the 13 groups traveling west to present-day Oklahoma. Another interpretive panel was developed for and placed at the Bettis Ford site along the St. Francis River—a known, actual location the Cherokee passed through. The Cherokee Nation helped research information, edit text, and select imagery (including a painting by a Cherokee artist, to whom a license fee was paid for by MoDOT) for placement on the panel, to accurately illustrate their ancestors’ experience and ensure their story was told.
Once the panels had been drafted with text and images, MoDOT hosted an open house to allow stakeholders and the public to provide feedback. Many comments were received, with feedback from the public regarding errors in the historical record and assurances that old divisions within the community were accurately reflected were shared. The National Park Service provided comments on the illustrations depicting the Trail of Tears to the project team.
Once the comments were addressed, MoDOT had the interpretive panels manufactured and worked with the Corps on the installation. A series of dedication ceremonies were held as interpretive panels were installed and became accessible to the public.