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State Historic Preservation Office looks to revise these symbols of Nevada’s past.
Photo: Matthew B. Brown (Unionville, Marker 145)
Anticipating the 1964 centennial celebration of Nevada’s birth, the state erected a historical marker in 1963, the first in a series that has amounted to more than 270.
This original monument might have memorialized Nevada’s 1864 admission to the Union in the midst of the Civil War, the 1905 founding of Las Vegas, or the important role downtown Reno played in early Nevada history. Instead, the first marker celebrates the Empire and Carson River Mills, once located near Carson City. The mills processed Comstock gold and silver ore in the 19th century. It was perhaps an inauspicious beginning for the marker program, but it typified what the commemorative plaques do best.
In the intervening five decades, wide-ranging groups of history enthusiasts have commissioned each marker to tell visitors something special about a wide variety of places. Much of the series focuses on small, intimate portraits of the past.
Marker 240 in Reno describes how the Coney Island amusement park entertained young people for several years beginning in 1909. The history of a mercantile store in Panaca is recounted on marker 93. Marker 86 reminds passersby that Tule Springs in Clark County has remarkable remnants from the ice age.
There are, of course, some weightier topics. Marker 190 describes the important life and career of Las Vegas founder Charles “Pop” Squires, while on the other end of the state, a marker deals with the fight of the century on July 4, 1910, when Jack Johnson defeated the “Great White Hope,” Jim Jefferies, for the heavyweight championship. Reno remembers the event with marker 220.
The Nevada Division of State Parks originally created the Nevada Historical Marker series. The agency scattered nearly 200 plaques across the state, installing the monuments at a rate of about one a month. The program shifted to the State Historic Preservation Office in 1977, where staff added new markers, answering demand that all aspects of Nevada history receive acknowledgement.
Unfortunately, budget cutbacks slowed the program, and for years at a time, there were no new markers, and those in the field were subject to a harsh climate, little maintenance, and an occasional bullet.
The Nevada Commission on Tourism intermittently came to the rescue with funds to address what was too often becoming an embarrassment, as markers presented shabby faces to those who dropped by to have a look. More recently, the Nevada Department of Transportation has provided funding so that the markers could greet tourists with more dignity. But a greater problem lingered.
Anticipating Nevada’s 150th birthday in 2014, the SHPO took stock of a program that has served the state so well for five decades. After reviewing the early marker texts with an eye on creating an online database, it became clear that several of the plaques needed to be reconsidered. Misspellings, grammatical errors, and an inclination to use quaint “old timey” words presented a less-than-professional message to visitors.
Reviewing more than 270 marker texts and revising many in fundamental ways took months of effort and volunteerism—the SHPO is supported by a grant from the National Park Service, which prohibits activity dealing with historical markers. This meant that employees had to read and edit the language in their own time. The final product offers a broad spectrum of ways to learn from Nevada’s past. Because the office has placed the new marker texts online at nvshpo.org, there is an opportunity for an even wider audience to enjoy these tidbits from the past.
The program still lacks the funding to address markers that need to be changed. The online versions represent the way the texts will eventually appear, using language that is not always reflected in the field. To begin the process of changing the actual markers, the SHPO is asking for donations. Refurbishing the markers will open a new chapter in a program that has done such great work in promoting the state’s heritage while welcoming its visitors.
And what of that first marker, placed near Carson City in 1963 at the start of a statewide effort to interpret the past? A few word changes aside, the text stands the test of time and the marker survives as a symbol of how Nevadans celebrate the legacy of their past.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Nevada State Historic Preservation Office
901 S. Stewart St., Suite 5004,
Carson City, Nevada 89701