I was on a long drive from Las Vegas with nothing to do, out of podcasts, in between radio signals, sick of my own brain. Suddenly, a sign on the side of the highway crept into view, a brown marker for an upcoming historic plaque. I pulled off, followed the markers, and ended up staring at the Tehachapi Loop.
The loop's a circular railway innovation created in 1876, the last link connecting Los Angeles to San Francisco and, in turn, bolstering both cities. Cut through solid granite, the design allowed a train to climb from the San Joaquin Valley into the Tehachapi Mountains in such an odd circular way that, at one point, the front of the train actually passes over the back. It's hard to picture, but I was lucky since a train was pulling through at that exact moment. (An average of 36 trains still pass through each day.) All because I stopped to see a plaque.
Us plaque lovers walk a little slower than the rest, and we'll stop at a moment's notice to read some shiny brass that's been stuck in a wall. At the amazing podcast 99% Invisible there's a motto for us: “Always read the plaque.” But just how do these plaques get made? And who guards their accuracy?
“Four or five years ago, a gentlemen came to a public meeting, and he kept asking us how do you know it's the truth?” says Jay Correia, state historian for the California State Office of Historic Preservation. “Well, we're all professional. We guard against that. But I suppose it could happen.”
After the meeting, Correia found out the skeptic was a physicist at University of California-Berkeley. “He's looking for scientific proof,” he says. “But these are the social sciences. This isn't science. It would be for the next generation to discover that we screwed up.”
“There was some group in San Diego who said, 'This is the most important Civil War site in California.' I said, tell me more, and they literally sent me writing at the high school essay level, full of passive voice.”
But Correia tries his damnedest to give the next generation nothing to squabble over. In his Sacramento office, he helps manage four historically minded programs: The National Register of Historic Places, the California Register, the California Points of Historical Interest, and the California Historical Landmarks Program. While the office mainly handles attempts from property owners to have their address listed on the National Register (and, thusly, reap the benefits that designation entails), those iconic plaques with the California Bear flanked by two stars on top are under the purview of the Landmarks Program. On average, they produce one plaque a year. Not because of overly stringent methodology, but because of a lack of nominations.
“We don't receive enough,” Correia says. “We'd love to have more.”
To be considered, the landmark has to fall into one of three categories: the first, last, or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region; associated with an individual or group having a “profound influence” on the state's history; a prototype or “outside example” of a unique style of architecture. If it has one of those qualities, a person or group can nominate the place by filling out the basic archeological recordation form and writing a four- to five-page contextual history. “Not just this is where Joe built the first airplane, but also discuss the long effort for humankind to try to fly,” Correia says. “You frame it to demonstrate how significant this is that Joe built this thing that flew.”
However, it's at this point in the process that most attempts hit their biggest snag.
“The writing quality has to be at the university level of historical writing,” Correia says. “There was some group in San Diego who said, 'This is the most important Civil War site in California.' I said, tell me more, and they literally sent me writing at the high school essay level, full of passive voice. You get these local folks that aren't used to writing history. That's where it sometimes gets contentious.”
After a few rounds of edits—if there aren't enough sources to back up the claim and the applicant continues to campaign, both parties will usually settle for a California Points of Historical Interest marker, which is “kind of a consolation prize”—the application gets sent to the state commission for approval. The final person up the chain is the director of State Parks, who signs off on the marker. “I can't imagine the director saying I'm not going to sign this," Correia says, "because that's what we're here for.”
But that's not the end of the process. All Correia's office does is approve the language and placement. After that, it's the sponsor's job to actually fund it.
Plaques run anywhere from $1,300 to more than $3,500, depending on their size and their placement specifications. This is not an insignificant sum for a person to spend, which is why the money is usually fronted by groups like the Native Sons (or Daughters) of the Golden West, or the International Loyal Order of the Moose.
The most prevalent of the plaque-installing fraternal organizations in California is probably E. Clampus Vitas. The group was founded in the 1840s by miners who'd come into California for the mother lode. Around the 1900s, it died out, but was then revived in the 1930s by history buffs Carl Wheat, George Ezra Dane, and Leon Whitsell, with a historical bent. It now has upwards of 50,000 members spread across more than 50 lodges, each of which puts up two to three historical plaques a year.
“That plaque took us three different times and a change of property owner to finally get it in place. But we did eventually get it up, as we tongue-in-cheek like to say.”
“We have plaques on breweries, bordellos, places of worship,” says Loren Wilson, who has written roughly 80 plaques for the organization over the years. (Wilson is a member of the Sam Brannon Chapter, named for an early Mormon settler who was excommunicated after neglecting to send tithes back to Salt Lake City, making him California's first millionaire.) “We put plaques up to things that are of local historical interest, events the state wouldn't deem worthy of a state plaque,” he says.
While the Clampers—that's what they like to be called—fund a handful of official Historical Landmarks plaques (including the first plaque on the Golden Gate Bridge), most of their plaque output is more independent, less formal. There's a Clamper plaque at the bottom—yes, the bottom—of Lake Berryessa, commemorating the town of Monticello that once existed in the valley. There's one in Parkfield, California, that straddles a fault-line and has been purposely split into two broken sections. They have one in Napa for Stone Bridge, a historic brothel.
“That plaque took us three different times and a change of property owner to finally get it in place,” Wilson says. “But we did eventually get it up, as we tongue-in-cheek like to say.”
This bawdy, unserious side of the Clampers' plaque-raising goes back to a famous hoax in 1936. The early second-iteration Clampers were mainly historians, attorneys, and college professors. One of them, Charles Bolton, was a history professor at the University of California-Berkeley who was obsessed with early English explorer Sir Francis Drake. During his famed late 1570s trip circumnavigating the globe, Drake landed on Alta California and, according to rumor, left a plate of brass to commemorate the excursion.
“The early Clampers put together this plate of brass and put it out into the Marin headlands someplace, and someone discovered it,” Wilson says. “Bolton was ecstatic. He was so sure it was authentic they could not bring themselves to tell him it was a practical joke. So they stonewalled, shut up, and for awhile it was on display at U.C. Berkeley.”
It wasn't until 1977, after the hoax perpetrators and victims died out, that someone at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory finally put the plate under a series of high-tech imaging tests and dated it to the 1930s. It's still on display at Berkeley, on the third floor of the Bancroft Library.
But while having fun is in the Clampers' DNA—each plaque dedication event is more beer-fueled cookout than stuffy speech-filled commemoration—Wilson doesn't take his job lightly. “I do not like plaques that have inaccuracies or perpetuate myth,” he says. “Occasionally, I'll find conflicting dates, or conflicting observations or reports, and I'll do my best to reconcile. When in doubt, I'll leave it out or explain there's some debate.”
While Wilson does his best to be accurate, one thing private organizations like the Clampers don't have to do in their re-telling is be politically correct. For instance, a plaque in Bridgeport, California, entitled “Frontier Justice” describes an 1891 event in which a local Chinese businessman was accused of the “cannibalistic murder of Poker Tom.” But because of lack of evidence, he was set free. Not satisfied with the result, a mob made sure “he met his fate,” in a murderous and “noteworthy example of the 1800s frontier justice.”
“It's through history we come to understand that all of us has a commonality that links us together, and in some naïve way, I hope it's a way of unifying people.”
“In my mind I'm like, well, I don't know if you could call it justice,” Correia says, noting that the plaque's wording would never make it through the California Historical Landmarks process. “It wasn't critical of the lynching, it was celebrating it.”
Occasionally, the Office of Historic Preservation will clean up plaques that were written in a less sensitive time; one such instance removed the word “squaw,” a pejorative once used for native California groups. (“We brought it more in line with today's accepted standards,” Correia says.) But how are writers supposed to navigate history without placing their own spin on it?
“We think we're writing the absolute truth, but history is more about the present point of view,” Correia says. “We hope that citing sources and basing it on widely accepted research would prevent some of that re-interpretation. But the human mind is so influenced by its own bias.”
Ultimately, what is the importance of all these plaques anyway? Why spend countless hours and thousands of dollars installing a marker that, in all likelihood, will just be glossed over by the people hustling down the street to get to their destination?
“It's through history we come to understand that all of us has a commonality that links us together, and in some naïve way, I hope it's a way of unifying people,” Correia says. “Regardless of whether our history was good or sad or glorious, it all is connected, and we share that.”
The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.