The State Historic Marker Program, which was managed by the Education Department’s State History office as an active field program from 1926 to 1966, has now become largely an advisory and database management program. The archives of that program, as well as the records of over 2,800 historic markers across the State, are maintained by the Museum. Although historic markers are no longer funded by state appropriations, information on past markers continues to serve as a database for research, marker replacement, and tourism development. Organizations wishing to erect new markers are provided with information and procedures and this Division acts as a clearinghouse for proposals to monument local historic sites.
The State Historic Marker Program began in 1926 as a program of the State Education Department to commemorate the Sequicentennial of the American Revolution. Over 2,800 of the small, cast iron site markers (left) were erected statewide during the duration of this program (1926-1939). In spite of loss of public funding, this initiative to identify and interpret local historic sites, including many that survive only in archeological form, has continued to be an important aspect of local historic preservation efforts to this day.
By the time a new State Historic Marker Program was established in the 1960s, and public funding was restored, the nature of automobile travel had changed. With new high-speed cars and increasing traffic, it was no longer considered safe to erect little historic signs along the edge of the highway. Stopping to read them was a risky business.It was decided that funding would only be applied to larger, more detailed signs placed in various types of rest areas, including those along the New York State Thruway, where motorists could pull off the highway, park, and read the signs safely at their leisure. The installation of these signs in the mid-1960s was an early example of providing cultural information in a natural setting along major travel routes - a pattern for the "heritage tourism" programs becoming popular today.
But by placing these large signs only in available rest areas and roadside pull-offs, historians in the Education Department could not identify particular sites the way the smaller roadside markers had decades before. They had to present broadly written descriptions of regional history; often refering to places and events many miles away from the location where the visitor stood reading the sign.
In concert with the smaller, site-specific roadside markers, these regional descriptions provided a unique educational experience for the traveler stopping to read them. At the rest area they received a quick introduction to a few of the salient features about the locality where they were. And by following the side roads and byways of the region, they could encounter some of the hundreds of site markers placed in front of individual sites.
The texts of these large format rest area markers provide a summary overview of New York State history, focused on the regional differences that make the state diverse and interesting. That is why a booklet containing the full text of all the rest area markers was published in 1970 as Historical Area Markers of New York State, and copies can still be purchased from the State Museum Publications Unit. This website is based on the content of that booklet.