Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

On a September day in 1946, three men stood alongside U.S. Route 22, fourteen miles east of Harrisburg, inspecting a distinctive blue and gold sign that had just been erected. They were James H. Duff, chairman of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (who in four months would be inaugurated the Commonwealth’s thirty­-fourth governor), and Commission members Charles G. Webb and Thomas F. Murphy. This roadside plaque, entitled “Hanover Resolves,” was the first of the state historical markers that would eventually appear throughout Pennsylvania’s sixty-seven counties and which now – exactly a half century later – number more than sixteen hundred.

The formal marking of historic sites, however, was not new to Pennsylvania. Bronze plaques had been installed between 1914 and 1933 to commemorate significant individuals, events, and landmarks by the old Pennsylvania Historical Commission, predecessor to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC). An act of the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, approved July 25, 1913, established the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, mandating that it “mark by proper monuments, tablets, or markers, places or buildings, within this Commonwealth, where historical events have tran­spired, and … arrange for the care and maintenance of such markers or monuments.”

During two decades, nearly one hundred and fifty bronze plaques were placed in forty-­one counties. They were usually dedicated in conjunc­tion with county or local historical or patriotic societies. Often the dedications were impressive affairs, with carefully planned ceremonies attended by state and local officials, area residents, and school children.

The first bronze plaque, marking the site of Fort McCord in Franklin County, was jointly dedicated by the Enoch Brown Association and the Pennsylvania Historical Commission in October 1914. The following year, twenty-one plaques were dedicated – the most in any year until 1929 – and included sixteen commemorating the 1777 Battle of Brandywine in Chester and Delaware Counties, and five marking events in Dauphin, Northumberland, Snyder, and Franklin Counties.

During the next eighteen years, plaques were dedicated in every year except three. Of the twenty-six plaques placed in 1929, twenty-scattered throughout Northampton, Monroe, Luzerne, North­umberland, Wyoming, and Bradford Counties-com­memorated the Sullivan Expedition of 1779. Two other special series included a group of thirteen placed in Bedford, Somerset, Westmoreland, and Allegheny Counties in 1930 to mark the Forbes Road of 1758, and eight dedicated in Delaware County and Philadelphia in 1932 to commemorate sites associated with founder William Penn. Many of these plaques highlighted Pennsyl­vania’s colonial history, Native American settlements and trails, frontier forts, and early military figures.

Ten plaques dedicated in 1924 heralded a new era in the program’s history. A design introduced by the eminent Philadelphia architect Paul Philippe Cret featured a distinctive rendering of the Commonwealth’s coat of arms. Although several were affixed to buildings or structures, most were attached to large stones and boulders. Both the plaques and the dedication ceremonies were usually underwritten by private contributions. Joining the public, state and local dignitaries, and participating children at the dedications were the Commission’s chairman, Henry W. Shoe­maker, and its secretary, Albert Cook Myers, as well as Strong Wolf and War Eagle, each identified as an Indian chief. (Strong Wolf appeared, quite incorrectly, attired in full headdress.) At an appropriate time in the program, Strong Wolf or War Eagle would offer an invocation to the Great Spirit. Attendance at some of these events numbered in the hundreds.

The eight bronze plaques placed in 1932 were followed by only one the next year. Commemorating the 1780 Sugarloaf Massacre, dedicat­ed at Conyngham, Luzerne County, in September 1933, it proved to be the last marker erected by the Pennsylvania Historical Commission. This Commission continued for twelve more years, but it concentrated on other major programs such as historical and archaeological research, publications, acquisition and restoration of historic properties, and support of the endeavors of historical societies. During the late twenties and thirties, the construction of straighter and smoother highways accelerat­ed automobile speeds, and the bronze plaques, handsome though they were, became impossible to read – and sometimes even to see – from a speeding vehicle. It became obvious that a different type of marker, better suited to a faster-paced era, was need­ed-but in Pennsylvania its inception was to await the end of World War II.

It was in the Common­wealth of Virginia in 1927 that the nation’s first official marker program of the modern type was launched­ – one that used large, double­-faced cast-metal signs affixed to posts alongside major highways. In 1929, Virginia’s State Commission on Conservation and Development published the first edition of Key to Inscriptions on Virginia Highway Historical Markers. During the 1930s, the new type of marker program began to spread slowly to other states and was firmly established in both North Carolina and West Virginia before the end of the decade.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, created by the state legislature in 1945, consolidated the functions of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission, the State Archives, and the State Museum. Of the two committees appointed during the Commission’s first meeting, conducted in October 1945, one was a marker committee made up of Thomas Murphy, who served as its chairman, Frances Dorrance, Charles G. Webb, and Edgar T. Stevenson. During their December meeting, Commissioners authorized the agency’s executive director, Donald A. Cadzow, to ask the Department of Property and Supplies to solicit bids for at least five hundred markers. At the March 1946 meeting it was reported that Sewah Studios of Marietta, Ohio, had been the successful bidder for the manufacture of these large cast-aluminum markers – since known as the “roadside type” – at a cost of seventy­-two dollars each.

Implementation of the marker program, the PHMC’s first major initiative, proceeded rapidly. The color scheme for the markers was similar to today’s, gold or yellow lettering on a blue background, but with the color of silver for the border, frame, and post. The post was first cast of concrete but later changed to steel. The Department of Highways set aside ten thousand dollars to install the markers on state rights-of-way, but it was understood from the very beginning that the Commission would be responsible for the markers’ maintenance. Installation of markers began in Dauphin County in September 1946, and by the following month nineteen markers had been delivered and erected.

Selection of marker subjects at the time differed markedly from today’s rigorous process. County and local historical societies were asked to propose subjects for markers in their areas, and selection was made by PHMC staff. Although some of the markers approved were of statewide or even national significance, others were of local importance. Administration of the marker program was headed by S. K. Stevens, who had been state historian since 1937 and would be named executive director in 1956. In September 1947, Stevens reported that all markers ordered under the first contract – totaling four hundred and ninety-seven – had been delivered and paid for and that most had been erected. He was pressing the Department of Highways to place the remaining markers in time for Pennsylvania Week in October.

The first edition of the Guide to the Historical Markers of Pennsylvania, published in 1948, contained titles, texts, and locations for more than seven hundred roadside-type markers in sixty-two counties. Some of these had been manufactured under a second contract for more than three hundred roadside-type markers, which had been awarded to Sewah Studios in April 1947.

Developments in the marker program accelerated. In 1948, the PHMC authorized the production of a property­-type marker (similar to the roadside type but with larger lettering and a briefer inscrip­tion) for erection at historic sites it administered. Fifty state-entrance markers (also similar to the roadside type) were approved for placement on major highways entering Pe!ll)Sylvania. Smaller and cheaper were approach markers, reading “Historical Marker Ahead.” Suggestive of large historical markers in appearance, they were authorized in 1950 and numbered more than two hundred by the following April.

The most important development during this period was the inception of the city-type marker. An order for the manu­facture of these markers was given in June 1949 to Lake Shore Markers, the Erie firm that would manufacture all city and roadside markers for the following forty-two years. Unlike the larger roadside markers being erected alongside highways, the city markers were designed for installation in urban areas, usually at curbside and often in front of the site described. The first fourteen of these new markers were erected in the Cumberland County seat of Carlisle between October and December 1949. Sixteen markers were also installed in December in the City of York. Major installations of city markers took place in Lancaster in 1950 and 1951, Reading and Bedford in 1951, West Chester in 1952, Chambersburg in 1952 and 1953, Harrisburg, Easton, and Bethlehem in 1953, Somerset and Philadelphia in 1954, and Pittsburgh in 1958. A few city markers were also erected in smaller communities.

City markers were praised for both design and craftsman­ship by residents of the communities in which they were being erected. The PHMC nurtured public interest by publishing, in 1952, the second edition of the Guide to the Historical Markers of Pennsylvania, containing listings for more than a thousand markers in all counties except Philadelphia. A third edition, released five years later, included the texts of more than twelve hundred roadside, property, and city markers in all sixty-seven counties. Nine years later a supplement to the third edition provided texts of eighty-one markers that had been added or, in six instances, significantly revised. As costs increased and funding diminished, the erection of markers began to decrease. However, numerous markers were erected during the 1960s and early 1970s, many of which – enjoying strong local support­ – were accompanied by great fanfare and impressive dedications.

Several markers dating from the program’s early years would not be erected today-more often than not because they commemorated subjects that would be deemed to be of local or regional significance. Others would not be approved because of their interpretation. And at least one was removed. The text of the “Tom Quick” marker erected in June 1948 on U.S. Route 6, northeast of Milford in Pike County, read: “The Indian-slayer of leg­endary fame lived in this region. Angered by the slaying of his father, pioneer settler of Milford, in 1755, he spent the remaining forty years of his life killing Indians. His tally reached ninety-nine.” After a Philadelphian strenuously objected to the marker in a letter to Governor Milton J. Shapp, Stevens responded on September 7, 1971, by pledging that he personally would see that the offending marker was removed. It was taken down two days later.

By the early 1970s, several of the procedures that now guide the marker program had been initiated, including the require­ment that new markers be approved by the members of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Guidelines for approval were adopted by the PHMC in 1975 – the year the fourth edition of the Guide was issued – and three years later the most important of these criteria was revised to require “that the person, event or site to be commemorated have had a meaningful impact on its times and be of statewide or national rather than only local significance.” Markers were at first approved on an individ­ual basis as the occasion warranted, but by 1980 the approval of new markers was based on staff recommenda­tions. Some of these markers were approved for state funding, which had been used in almost all instances in earlier years, but, with appropriations growing increasingly limited and costs rising steadily, production of other approved markers depended on private or alternative funding. By early 1978, the Commonwealth was spending more than five hundred and fifty dollars for a roadside marker – up from seventy-two dollars in 1946 – and four hundred and fifteen dollars for a city marker.

The hundreds of historical markers erected in the early years after 1946 – unlike the bronze plaques placed between 1914 and 1933 – were in most cases installed without ceremony. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, a small but significant number of local participating organizations were opting to stage dedications. A policy adopted in 1978 by the PHMC strongly encouraged formal dedication and unveiling of all future markers. The Commission set general guidelines, coordinated scheduling, and appointed an official representative to each dedication; the local co-sponsoring organizations orchestrated the event, selecting speakers, inviting dignitaries, and planning the program. The first dedication conducted under this policy was for the “York Inter-State Fair” marker in September 1978.

A major series of events in the history of the marker program was driven by the statewide celebration of “Pennsylvania’s 300th Birthday: A Celebration of Friends,” an eighteen month long observance commemorating the granting of the charter to William Penn by King Charles II on March 4, 1681, and the founder’s arrival in his Province of Pennsylvania late the following year. As part of the observance, a city marker was dedicated in each of the county seats (usually at the court­house). The markers, funded by the Commonwealth, focused on the origins and naming of the counties and their seats and included at least one distinctive fact about each county.

The first of the dedications took place at the Warren County Courthouse in Warren in March 1981, and the last was held at the Columbia County Courthouse in Bloomsburg in July 1983. Throughout the 1980s the marker program redoubled its efforts to keep abreast of the times. In 1986, a staff committee analyzed the subjects and chronological periods of the state historical markers erected since 1946. Topics found to have had extensive coverage were the period from 1750 to 1900, public officials (especially governors), military figures, churches (especially Presbyterian), houses and taverns predating 1900, educational institutions, forts built between 1750 and 1800, Indian paths and villages, canals (especially state-owned), forges and furnaces, military campaigns and battles, conflicts between Native Americans and settlers, and the French and Indian, Revolutionary, and Civil Wars (but no others). Staff members also identified areas that deserved greater coverage: history since 1865 and, especially, since 1900; minority and ethnic history; women’s history; agriculture and labor history; entertainers, performers, and sports figures; communications and the media; and twentieth­-century architects and architecture.

In December 1987, in the most recent revision of the pro­gram’s guidelines, a standard was adopted, urging “that significant subjects which have hitherto been given less attention by the Historical Marker Program receive more favorable consideration (other factors being equal) than subjects which have already had fuller coverage.” Consequently, a grant awarded by the William Penn Foundation to the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University financed the placement from 1990 to 1993 of sixty-five markers chronicling African American history in Philadelphia. Among these are markers commemorating sailmaker James Forten, Mother Bethel A.M.E. Church, singer Paul Robeson, Freedom Theatre, opera contralto Marian Anderson, Girard College as a civil rights landmark, musician John W. Coltrane, and artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (see “The Resurrection of Henry Ossawa Tanner” by Stephen May in the winter 1992 edition). A group of ten markers, selected for production with state funds allocated as a part of the 1992 Columbus Celebration, recognized people and places associated with ethnic groups deemed deserving of greater recognition, such as jurist Michael A. Musmanno, lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, and Philadelphia’s Washington Avenue Immigration Station. And other special selections of markers have recently been produced with non-state funding.

Seven federally-funded markers in as many counties, from Bedford westward, were dedicated between 1992 and 1994 in observance of the bicentennial of the Whiskey Rebellion (see “The Whiskey Boys Versus the Watermelon Army” by Jerry Clouse in the spring 1991 edition and “The Tax Collector of Bower Hill” by Chadwick Allen Harp in the fall 1992 issue). Eight markers, funded through America’s Industrial Heritage Project, were erected in southeastern Pennsylvania in 1994 and 1995. Several, beginning with a marker for Henry J. Heinz, dedicated in September 1994, are currently being placed in Pittsburgh through the Pittsburgh Foundation’s Fisher Fund, named for the family of former Commissioner James A. Fisher.

In 1990, a staff review committee was superseded by two new committees. One of these, a five-member independent review panel of historians drawn from across Pennsylvania, meets in Harrisburg each year to review and recommend new markers. A committee of eight PHMC staffers screens all nominations and serves in an advisory capacity to the review panel.

The most recent Guide to the State Historical Markers of Pennsylvania, published in 1991, is far more ambitious than its predecessors. It is divided into twelve sections according to region, with a descriptive introduction for each. Material is arranged by county within each region and then geographically within the counties; numbers for the markers are keyed to numbers on the maps that introduce the regional sections. More comprehensive than previous versions, this fifth edition of the Guide includes titles, texts, locations, and dates of erection (or dedica­tion) for the plaques installed by the old Pennsylvania Historical Commission still in place – as well as for more than fifteen hundred markers erected by the PHMC between 1946 and 1991.

As the nineties progress, the marker program faces many new and unprecedented challenges. One is cost containment. The cost of a roadside marker has risen to nearly twelve hundred dollars, while the price of city markers has reached nine hundred dollars. (Because of spiraling costs and limited funding, new markers are increasingly being paid for by various sources.) Nevertheless, public interest in Pennsylvania’s state historical marker program continues unabated, evidenced by the number that have recently been dedicated – forty-eight in 1994 and thirty-one in 1995 – in conjunction with local organizations. Only about a third of the markers proposed each year are approved, a result of today’s stringent guidelines.

The materials used in the production of state historical markers have until now scarcely changed in half a century – ­other than the change from concrete posts in the early years to steel posts in the 1950s and occasionally, when required by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, to aluminum posts today. Cast aluminum has been used throughout for the marker itself. Now, new specifications call for markers similar in appearance to those standing today, but which would utilize polyplastic for the plates and composite breakaway posts. Ten markers adhering to these specifica­tions – designed for lower cost, lighter weight, and increased safety – will be erected this year to replace missing markers and to test the new design.

The twentieth century has witnessed profound changes in attitudes – among the American public and in the academic community – as to what history should teach and what it should celebrate. Pennsylvania’s state historical marker program, as it enters its second half-century, is positioning itself to keep abreast of technological changes and evolving concepts of safety, accessibility, and readability. More importantly, however, the program is endeavoring to meet its obligation to interpret ever more fully and fairly, for residents and visitors alike, the great spectrum of Pennsylvania’s history – a history that has evolved during more than three centuries and has been played out across an expanse of forty-five thousand square miles, in cities and country, by men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from many walks of life, and of many ethnic groups. To interpret this history effectively, with sensitivity and with imagination, will be the state historical marker program’s continuing challenge – and its abiding opportunity – in the years to come.


Text from Selected Historical Markers

Hanover Resolves

The earliest resolves for independence in the State. Drawn June 4, 1774, by Col. Timothy Green and eight Hanover Township patriots. They committed their cause to “Heaven and our Rifles.”

Dauphin County
Erected 1946


York Inter-State Fair

Recognized as America’s oldest agricultural fair, dating its origin from a charter issued by the Penns in 1765. Discontinued after 1815, the fair has been conducted annually since 1853 by the York County Agricultural Society. The present ground has been used since 1888.

York County
Dedicated 1978


Circus History

America’s most famous clown of the Nineteenth Century, Dan Rice (1823-1900), had the winter quarters of his circus in Girard from 1852 to 1875. The nearby Soldiers’ Monument was donated by the versatile clown and showman, whose home stood opposite.

Erie County
Dedicated 1974


John W. Coltrane (1926-1967)

A pioneering African-American jazz musician, composer, saxophonist. Coltrane used African and Indian elements to create a distinctive style which at first shocked audiences but ultimately gained wide acceptance. He lived here, 1952-1958.

Dedicated 1990


Johnny Appleseed

John Chapman, an actual person as well as a folk hero, lived nearby along French Creek between 1797 and 1804. Records indicate he had a nursery there and one near Warren, Pa., before moving on to Ohio. Born 1774 in Massachusetts, he died in Indiana, 1845.

Venango County
Dedicated 1982


The Dorsey Brothers

Trombonist Tommy Dorsey (1905-56) and saxophonist Jimmy Dorsey (1904-57) were key figures of the “big band” era. Born within three miles of here, both grew up and began their musical careers in Shenandoah. Until 1935 the brothers performed together. They led separate orchestras during the next 18 years before being reunited. Frank Sinatra was a featured singer with Tommy’s orchestra, 1940-42.

Schuylkill County
Dedicated 1991



Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), this house was built in 1936 as a family retreat for Pittsburgh businessman Edgar J. Kaufmann. Widely admired for its design, it is dramatically cantilevered over a waterfall; it exemplifies Wrights desire to join architecture with nature. Edgar Kaufmann jr. presented the house to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy in 1963.

Fayette County
Dedicated 1994


For Further Reading

Beyer, George R. Guide to the State Historical Markers of Pennsylvania. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1991.

Blockson, Charles L. Philadelphia’s Guide: African-American State Historical Markers. Philadelphia: The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection and The William Penn Foundation, 1992.

Nichols, Roy F. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission: A History. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1967.

Pisney, Raymond F. Historical Markers: A Bibliography. Verona, Va.: McClure Press, 1977.


George Redman Beyer joined the staff of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission in 1961 and has served as coordinator of its historical marker program since 1977. Born in Lynchburg, Virginia, he grew up in Mansfield, Tioga County, where his father was a college professor for twenty-five years. The author holds degrees from Mansfield University and Cornell University. Before assuming his present responsibili­ties, he served as an archivist for the PHMC and directed its microfilm program.