The Historical Highway Markers program has been around for a century, but some local areas find themselves with a scarce amount of markers.
There are only seven historical highway markers in York County. In Williamsburg, there are only five.
Those numbers are small compared to surrounding localities such as James City County, which has 37 markers, and Gloucester County, which has 29.
The reason for the discrepancy in numbers doesn’t have anything to do with the history of the area or the size of the locality, but rather with the community participation.
Jennifer Loux, highway marker program manager for the Department of Historic Resources, said highway markers used to be funded by the state but in the 1970s, it switched to an application-based method. This meant individuals or organizations had to apply and pay for the highway markers, which now cost around $2,000.
Applications are approved by the Department of Historic Resources and require the marker to represent an area of regional or state historical significance, not just local.
“I think certainly York County would qualify for more than it has, but applications haven’t been received,” Loux said.
But the history of the highway marker program represents a sense of travel and education for localities throughout the state.
The program started in the 1920s when the highway system was first starting to take off. They were designed to draw people out to the highways to learn more about history and potentially promote tourism.
“We kind of see it as an open air museum where you can drive around and learn about different sites and see the actual landscape of where those events took place,” Loux said.
While there was a lot of interest when the program first started, World War II caused it to essentially go dormant and participation in the program dwindled throughout the years until the program started its application-based system in the 1970s.
The program has since continued to grow and has more interest now than ever, Loux said.
The cause for program growth could be related to an uptick in public history interest, she said, but it’s also because of the growing interest in African American history. More African Americans and organizations in recent years are applying for these markers in places like post-Civil War era black churches and schools from segregation-era Virginia.
“I think in general there’s been a lot more interest in telling different stories in this public way,” she said.
Many of the markers in York County represent Colonial-era history, such as one on Capitol Landing Road that remembers colonial surgeon Patrick Napier. Napier was one of the earliest surgeons in Virginia in 1655 and attended to patients across the region by horse and boat.
The five markers in Williamsburg also represent Colonial-era history but there are also some that tell stories of African Americans. For example, a marker on North Boundary Street tells the story of the School for Black Children, which was founded in 1760 and educated enslaved and free black children.
Loux said it’s possible for the program to grow in York County and Williamsburg.
While the program does not actively market for applications, it encourages Virginians to apply for the makers through dedication and unveiling ceremonies and word-of-mouth in communities.
“The program is thriving,” she said. “A vast majority of them [come from applications] so the amount in one area depends on local interest or awareness.”
To learn more about the program or the current historical markers, visit the Department of Historic Resources online.
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