Historical Markers

A Summary History
by Philip Lord, Jr.

Program Origin
In 1923 [L.1923 Ch.687] the New York Historical Association was directed to suggest possible celebrations for the upcoming "150th Anniversary of the American Revolution". Small appropriations were made in 1924 and 1925 for planning purposes, and early in 1926 [L.1926 Ch.786, 5/5/26] the Commissioner of Education was directed to arrange the commemoration of the Sesquicentennial, including "...markers to designate sites that are of historic significance in the colonial, revolutionary or state formative period...".

Funding was provided in support of the erecting of markers, and an application process was established. While details are sketchy, apparently markers could be acquired from the State Education Department for as little as $2, after an application form detailing the text, location, and supporting historic documentation was filed and approved. Most of the historic markers seen along highways today were erected in this period; roughly between 1926 and 1936. Funding through a regular state appropriation appears to have run out as early as 1939, but active coordination and assistance by the Office of State History of the Education Department continued into the 1960s.

Legislative History
In 1960 the responsibility of SED for the erecting and maintenance of historic markers was officially re-established [L.1960 Ch.394] as follows: "The education department is authorized to erect, or cause to be erected, markers or signs, identifying and describing the historic sites of this state, and to maintain such signs in areas that are not serviced or maintained by the department of public works". The provision of this law empowered SED to erect markers on any state lands, such as highways, rest areas, camp sites, etc. This was the origin of the program initiated by the Education Department with the Thruway Authority to install those over-sized "Historic Area Markers" one sees along the Thruway, and with the Department of Public Works [now NYSDOT] to install similar ones at rest areas along major state roads.

This legislation was not directly intended to replace the traditional small roadside markers with a new type of historic marker program; but it had that effect. It was, at that time, generally considered inappropriate to erect small roadside markers on high-speed thoroughfares. But this issue was not addressed in the bill. Rather, this legislation was seen as the beginning of the first real state historic marker program in New York. The 1926-39 program was discounted by legislators as a temporary, commemorative project - which it was. The 1960 legislation, on the other hand, was seen as the start of an on-going program to identify historic sites for educational purposes.

The first, and somewhat "experimental" manifestation of this mandate was, however, the erection of the large format "Historic Area Markers". The small markers remained unfunded, lending support to the idea they had been eliminated. And this impression was promoted by staff of the Office of State History, who, by the late 1960s, were encouraging communities to undertake their own local historic marker projects, using small-format signs. They suggested, however, that these privately funded markers have a different design and colors than the very recognizable "state" markers. There is no evidence this suggestion was ever carried through and cast markers of the traditional size, style and colors continued to be erected, using private funds.

The 1960 law was repealed in 1966, and functions were transferred to the State Historic Trust by Conservation Law [Ch.815] in an attempt to consolidate historic resource services in a new agency. The historic marker function was now expressed in a more general fashion: "To designate particular places, whether or not owned, operated or maintained by the state, as places of historic interest, and to take such action, including the erection of a sign or marker, as may be appropriate for public recognition and appreciation of such site".

A following section of this law titled "New York State Historic Trust - Education Department - Functions" [L.1966 Ch.816] identified the "...identification, restoration and educational interpretation of historic sites and places of historic interest..." as the responsibility of the Education Department, and empowered that Department to "...prepare interpretive literature, the texts of signs and markers, exhibitions, and other presentations designed to utilize the educational potential of historic sites".

The program initiated in 1960 continued under this legislation, and dozens of the large format "Historic Area Markers" were erected by the late 1960s. A guide to these signs was even published by the Education Department in 1970. However, the appropriation was not ongoing, and this program did not continue.

There was apparently no state funding available under this scheme to grant the numerous requests for small roadside markers, although there is little doubt that people continued to order and erect historic markers in consultation with the Office of State History.

It is of interest to note that by the late 1960s, the function of the historic historic marker program had shifted from a short-term commemorative program to a long-term educational program. But the apparent rejection of the smaller, less expensive signs as roadside hazards in favor of the large, extremely expensive area markers, worked against this new program's viability.

In 1972 the functions of the State Historic Trust passed to the Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, but the language outlining the historic marker function was carried forward into a section of that law [L.1972 §19.11] titled "Functions of Education Department" as follows: "Preparation of interpretive literature, the texts of signs and markers, exhibition, and other presentations designed to utilize the educational potential of historic sites".

It will be noted that this is virtually the same language under which the Education Department provided this service to the State Historic Trust previously.

However, in the OPRHP law, these functions of SED are undertaken "...upon the request of the commissioner...[of OPRHP]", and therefore are less directly attributed to SED than they were prior to 1972. Such functions would be, however, congruent with the current mandate of the Office of State History within SED [L.1983 Ch.876; Article 57 of Arts and Cultural Affairs Law], and it appears to be the intent of the legislation to have these services provided by SED.

Program Operations
During the period of the original commemorative program [1926-c1939], the State Historian [SED] provided application forms to the field, and applications were reviewed and approved. The State funded the casting of the markers and coordinated their installation. An inventory of erected markers was also prepared.

In the 1960s & 70s, staff of the Office of State History consulted with the field, primarily via the network of local government historians at the county and town level, and encouraged the installation of historic markers, with SED staff reviewing the proposals. There was no funding, and the relationship with the field was more consultative than regulatory. However, the staff was moderately aggressive in making sure that all persons wishing to erect a marker went through this process, and people were given a letter of approval. This letter was sent directly by the SED staff to the Walton East Branch Foundry, which was the same foundry that had, since 1926, been casting these markers for the State. It was also the only foundry with the molds already made for casting markers of this particular design. Private funding, however, had to be raised by the applicant as no state funding was appropriated. The foundry apparently required, or at least expected, the letter of approval from the Office of State History before it would accept an order and would often insert a credit line for SED on the marker for this reason. The resulting markers, however, could not be rightly considered "State" historic markers.

Today

Unlike many other states, New York State does not currently manage a historical marker program. Instead, local authorities are responsible for the approval, installation, and maintenance of historical markers. Anyone interested in placing or repairing a marker should thus check with appropriate county, city, town, or village historians or officials.

Local historians and others often work with the private William G. Pomeroy Foundation (http://www.wgpfoundation.org/) to secure funding support for markers.

Marker Listings 

The Association of Public Historians of New York State (APHNYS) is currently working on creating a comprehensive list of historical markers across New York State.  Information on their project and a working list of markers that they have can be found at http://www.aphnys.org/historical-markers-resources/

Original paper files documenting the State Education Department's management of the 1926-39 marker program contain original applications, maintenance records, and correspondence. Researchers seeking access to these files should contact the New York State Archives, Cultural Education Center, Room 11A42, Albany, NY 12230; e-mail archref@nysed.gov; phone (518) 474 8955; website http://www.archives.nysed.gov.

Maintenance and Replacement

Local authorities maintain, repair, and replace historical markers often in cooperation with local historical groups and volunteers. Anyone interested in assisting with the repainting, repair, or replacement of a marker should contact the appropriate county, city, town, or village historian (see http://www.aphnys.org/find-an-histrorian). Likewise, anyone wishing to report a missing or damaged historical marker should contact the appropriate local historian.

Guidelines for Maintenance:

The original State historic signs were made of cast iron and if not regularly repainted begin to deteriorate. Many need only a fresh coat of paint to be restored to their original condition. Others may be so rusted or damaged as to require substantial restoration and repair.

Funding for maintenance of State Historic Markers was not provided in the original legislation, which expired decades ago. Traditionally landowners on whose property markers stand have maintained them. Sometimes local civic or historic organizations have taken this on as a public service project. But increasingly there is interest in restoring individual markers that have not been included in these projects in the past.

If you are interested in undertaking such a project, you should first confirm that the marker is one under our jurisdiction. State funded historic site markers will always have a state agency identification line at the bottom, usually "State Education Department." If the marker does not carry a state agency identification, it may have been erected with private funds and therefore does not come under state jurisdiction. You need the permission of the funding organization to undertake restoration on such privately funded markers.

If it is determined that the marker you wish to restore is state property, you should first check with the landowner to obtain permission to restore the marker. Even though the marker itself is state property, the landowner has rights to be respected in terms of access to the marker and work undertaken on it if it stands on private property. It may not be clear on whose property the marker stands and you may need to check property maps or consult your local government records to confirm ownership. Many markers that appear to be on private roadside land are actually on state highway rights of way, while some that appear to be on state highway lands may actually stand on private or municipal property adjacent to the road.

Repainting is usually all that is required for restoration purposes. When restoring the blue and gold state colors, you may use standard Rustoleum® colors for gloss finishes on exterior metals as follows: "#7727 Royal Blue" and "#7747 Sunburst Yellow". You may also use other commercial rustproofing paints in colors that match or approximate the original state colors on the sign.

If there is very little rust on the marker, just wire brush the surface lightly to remove dirt and rust flakes, then paint the background blue color over the entire marker and let dry. Using a small brush or foam pad, paint on the yellow lettering. It works best to paint gently across the individual raised letters from one side and then the other without touching the background directly. Sometimes a small roller can accomplish this if it is not too soft and thick.

If the marker is more severely rusted, use a wire brush or brush attachment for an electric drill to thoroughly clean off all loose particles. Wear safety glasses for all this work. Then prime the entire sign with rustproofing primer, over which the final coats can be applied as above.

We do not recommend removing the marker from its post for restoration as they are extremely heavy and there is a risk of personal injury or damage to the sign. You may approach your local highway department to undertake this work as a community service, and they may opt to remove the sign for restoration in their shops.

If a marker is broken or otherwise damaged, a skilled welder may be able to repair the breaks or craft braces to hold the pieces together.

In some cases it may be impossible to repair the damage. If so, replacements can be cast by the same foundry that made the original. However, markers are now cast in aluminum and cost over $500 each.

Historical Markers