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History of San Luis Obispo’s huge hillside letters

Posted at 11:07 AM, Jul 05, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-05 13:42:32-04

With summer now underway, many people are spending more time outdoors taking in the beautiful Central Coast landscape.

On several local hillsides, some people have made their mark as a sign of their local pride.

The huge hillside letters are hard to miss.

James Papp, the city of San Luis Obispo’s Cultural Heritage Committee Chair, says the letters are the products of school pride.

“This is primarily a western phenomenon, these hillside letters, and that’s because we have pretty bare hillsides compared to the East Coast,” Papp said.

There’s the giant “M” on Cerro San Luis near the Madonna Inn.

“That’s not a letter for a hotel,” said Papp. “That is a letter for a school.”

M is for Mission College Preparatory School.

“It was a Mission Prep junior named Ray Cattaneo, the local barbecue king ultimately he became, who with a group of friends went up there in 1964 to 1965,” Papp said. “It took them a while to construct it.”

It was an engineering feat for the teens, determined to build the 40 by 40 foot concrete M that dozens now hike to every day.

“They hauled up five-gallon buckets of dry concrete through a multiple pulley system because it wasn’t a straight shot up and down there,” Papp said. “Then they damned a spring at the top of the mountain to get water and mixed the concrete up there and built this huge M.”

A few years earlier in 1957, Cal poly poured the concrete P that now overlooks campus. However, its first iterations date back decades earlier in a rivalry with San Luis Obispo High School, when Cal Poly was a polytechnic high school.

“The contemporary accounts are that a bunch of H’s appeared on a bunch of hills around the city in 1919 for San Luis High and Cal Poly was challenged by that so they changed the H’s to P’s,” said Papp.

Historical records show the H’s and P’s were first done with lime stone and later with bed sheets.

In 1927, Papp says some Cal Poly students painted a P on the side of Bishop Peak that faces campus. It’s now smeared and difficult to make out.

It’s unclear when San Luis Obispo High’s “H” was changed to the “SL” that overlooks the football field today.

A common misconception is that hillside letters are visual markers for pilots but they actually do not serve any aviation-relation purpose.

Another hillside landmark is the eagle on Highway 1 across from Camp San Luis. Papp says that was built by Italian prisoners in WWII to thank the Americans for treating them well.