Historical Highway Markers
With their texts of black lettering against a silver background and their distinctive shape, Virginia’s state historical highway markers are hard to miss along the commonwealth’s roadways. There are now more than 2,500 of them erected in Virginia to commemorate people, places, or events of regional, statewide, or national significance.
Virginia’s historical marker program is the oldest such program in the nation, beginning in 1927 when a handful of markers were erected along U.S. 1 between Richmond and Mount Vernon. Originally the Conservation and Economic Development Commission was tasked with creating historical markers. In 1949, the Virginia Department of Highways was assigned the responsibility for installing and maintaining new markers, and in 1950 the Virginia State Library took over researching and approving new makers.
Per the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (DHR) is tasked to “Approve the proposed text and authorize the manufacture of highway historical markers.” As such, DHR serves as a point of contact between marker Sponsors, the DHR contracted foundry, VDOT and the IDSP Contractor. DHR administers the application and review process for new markers, including review and approval of the historical content with the DHR Board (for historic significance and accuracy), and orders new markers from the foundry. DHR hosts a public website for describing the program and for making inquiries on Historic Markers which draws from the Historical Marker Database.
For more information about Historical Highway Markers please visit Virginia Department of Historic Resources
Historical Marker Application Process
Each year individuals, historical societies, civic groups, businesses, and local governments sponsor the creation of new historical highway markers. Since 1976, the Commonwealth of Virginia has required that a sponsor pay for the manufacture of an approved highway marker. Today that cost is about $1,770, as determined by the Ohio-based foundry (Sewah Studios) that manufactures the markers. In some jurisdictions, the sponsor also may be responsible for payment of expenses associated with installation of the sign.
The first step in proposing a new marker, however, costs nothing. It simply requires that a sponsor submit an application to DHR.
If you have an idea for a potential marker honoring an historical person, place, event, or institution in Virginia, be sure that the topic meets the first criterion: It must have significance beyond the local level and extend, at the very least, to a regional level within the state (e.g. the Shenandoah Valley, Northern Virginia, Tidewater, etc.). For additional guidance and information about topic eligibility, see “Highway Marker Criteria” in the application form and directions (see the link above).
Once an application is received by DHR for a proposed marker, DHR staff will determine if the marker fulfills the required eligibility. If the topic qualifies, the proposed marker’s text likely will be edited by DHR staff in consultation with our external advisory and editorial committee and with the sponsor to create a mutually agreed upon text. The goal during this process is to write a concise, polished, and historically accurate marker. After this phase is completed, DHR staff must then present the proposed marker to the Board of Historic Resources, which is authorized to approve state historical highway markers.
Where can I find a list of historical markers in Virginia?
There are several sources for lists of Virginia historical highway markers. If you follow the link “Marker Online Database Search” in the box to the right, it will take you to a page offering three options for searching Virginia’s highway markers online.
Also, A Guidebook to Virginia’s Historical Markers, compiled by Scott Arnold and published in 2007, is available from most bookstores or directly from the University of Virginia Press. Published in January 2007 in celebration of the marker program’s 80th anniversary, this book is an excellent and handy reference and guide. The book includes marker texts and several different indexes that list the markers alphabetically by geographic region and by topic.
How many historical highway markers are erected in Virginia?
There are more than 2,500 roadside markers that carry approved historical inscriptions, commemorating sites, individuals, buildings, and events of statewide or national interest.
What does an official Virginia historical highway marker look like?
Virginia historical highway markers are in most cases approximately 42-by-40 inches. The markers are painted silver and currently cast in aluminum with black lettering for the text, which appears on both sides of the sign. The signs also include each marker’s unique topic title and assigned alpha-numeric identification code; the Seal of the Commonwealth within an upside down equilateral triangle positioned at the top of the sign; and the following signature line along the bottom: “Department of Historic Resources, [and the year in which the marker was created].” Alternative signature lines that appear on Virginia markers include the names of other agencies that once managed the program including The Department of Conservation and Historic Resources; The Virginia Historic Landmarks Commission; The Virginia State Library; and the Conservation & Development Commission.
New State Seal design for Historical Markers: In 2017 VDOT entered into a contract with Sewah Studio’s, a marker foundry in Marion Ohio, for the manufacture of all new historical markers. With this contract came a new Silver on Black design for the state seal approved by the Department of Historical Resources (DHR) that appears on the top of the marker. All new markers dated 2017 and moving forward will contain the new state seal design, are manufactured from a solid aluminum alloy and powder coated for many years of service.
What does the letter and number code mean at the top of each marker?
These represent the unique code assigned to each marker to identify it. When the marker program was created in the late 1920s, the letter on the sign usually referenced a specific road (for instance, the letter “E” was assigned to markers installed along U.S. Route 1) and the number differentiated each sign within a letter grouping. Today the department assigns an alpha-numeric code based on what letter is most prominently affixed on current signs in the region where a new marker is to be erected. The number given is the next available one. Please note, however, in a few cases during the history of the program, the same alpha-numeric code was mistakenly assigned to different signs.
What is the meaning of the markers tagged with a Z letter identifier and number and where can I find information about these signs?
Markers with the Z letter followed by a number at the top of the sign represent markers that are placed at a county or state line. Unlike other markers, each side of a Z marker has different texts–one side of the marker provides information on the jurisdiction a traveler is entering, while the other side gives information about the jurisdiction one is leaving. The 1948 edition of State Historical Markers of Virginia has a list of these signs and their locations. DHR hopes to be able to provide the public an updated list online of these marker locations in the future.
I noticed that a marker is missing or damaged—whom should I contact?
To report a marker that is missing or damaged, please contact Jennifer Loux at 804-482-6089. Please, if possible, provide the title of the marker, the location, and when you noticed the marker was missing or damaged. (Note: The Virginia Department of Transportation annually takes down many signs to repaint them.)
What topics qualify for a historical highway marker?
To qualify for a state historical marker, the topic must be about a person, place, event or institution that has statewide or national significance. To see whether a potential topic would be eligible for the marker program, see “Topic Criteria for Virginia Historical Highway Markers” on the marker application form.
Who can submit a topic?
Historical societies or organizations, fraternal organizations, colleges and universities, local governments, private organizations, or individuals able to fund the marker can propose a new marker by submitting an application packet to DHR. Ultimately, a new marker must be presented to the Virginia Board of Historic Resources, the body authorized to approve all historical markers. Markers currently cost $1,770, including tax and shipping. (In some jurisdictions, the sponsor may be required to pay an additional charge for the marker’s installation.) For more information about nominating a new marker, see Application Process.
Can churches and cemeteries get historical markers?
The following types of churches may qualify for state historical markers: (1) colonial churches, (2) emancipation/reconstruction-era churches, (3) churches that were the first of a denomination in a locality, and (4) churches that present significant architectural qualities. Most other churches would more appropriately be noted on a local marker.
Cemeteries should be listed on the state or national historic registers or be the final resting place of someone significant in state or national history. For more information, see “Topic Criteria for Virginia Historical Highway Markers” on the application form.
How can I research Historical Markers?
Please visit DHR’s website.