A History of Western's W

Tenderfoot Mountain with W Symbol
The giant W on Tenderfoot Mountain is the largest collegiate symbol in the world. In May 1961, Western student Sam Rhoads (Class of 1962) wrote the following essay that chronicles the symbol's history. Sam's writing captures a bit of the culture at Western in the '60s and paints an accurate picture of this important artifact of Colorado history. Here is his essay, in its entirety:

A History of The W

Edited and Compiled by SAM RHOADS, Class of 1962

MAY 6, 1961

Many histories have been and are being written about Western State College and our many traditions, activities, organizations and achievements.

I am starting this short history on W-day and W Mountain, with the goal that it will be as good as, or better than, the rest. From talking to many people who have been here at Western for quite some time, I have found there is a great lack of knowledge as to the real beginning of W-day and the construction of the W.

Reading these garbled reports, I thought the best source for the facts concerning the construction of the W would be the person in charge of its construction. In TOP of the World,  May 4, 1948, there appeared this letter, written by Dean John C. Johnson, former chairman of the division of Natural Science and Mathematics.

How the W Was Built

Numerous times during the past 25 years I’ve been asked, "When was the big W built and who built it?" Here is the story:

When I returned to Western State College (then called the Colorado State Normal School) in 1915, I suggested at first assembly of the summer school that we build an N on Smelter hill, just east of the college, which we did the following Saturday morning.

The inspiration for building the N came to me while sitting on the big C on the hillside of the University of California, overlooking San Francisco and the Golden Gate. The C is about 100 feet long.

The N we built that Saturday was later converted into a G by Gunnison County High School students.

A few days after Governor Sweet signed the bill of Honorable Charles A. Cowan (representing Gunnison) changing the name of the school to Western State College, March 30, 1923, I suggested to four students – Hugh Dowed, Burtis Adams, Nowell Hamm and Herbert Axtell – that we outline a big W on the side of Tenderfoot mountain and build it of rock if a sufficient number of rock could be found nearby. They jumped at the idea.

 We went down on the campus where the football field is now, and spotted the place on Tenderfoot Mountain where we thought the W should be. 

 The next afternoon I “borrowed” two bed sheets from home and five of us proceeded to climb Mt. Tenderfoot. First, we crossed the large ranch belonging to George and John Adams. We forded Tomichi River, somewhat swollen with the melting snow. Of course we all got wet but what of that.

On arrival near the top of Tenderfoot, we pushed over four dead evergreen trees and carried them to where we thought the W should be. We propped the trees up with heavy rocks, tied the sheets to them, and went back to the football field to view the proposed location and size of the letter. Our tentative plans for dimensions were to be 300 by 300 feet.

From the football field, we discovered the letter was too short in appearance, so we went back again and added 100 feet to the length of the letter. We moved the two, lower dead trees with the half sheets flying at the top.

Inspection from the football field then showed the proportions and size of the W to be about right. A few days later, we went back with thousands of feet of heavy string and carefully staked out both sides of the four lines that make up the W. Each line of the letter was made 16 feet wide and 400 feet long.

WSC President Samuel Quigley decreed a holiday, May 2, 1923. 

Most of the students and some of the faculty members climbed the mountain to build the W. this was accomplished by student and faculty members each carrying hundreds of heavy flat rocks from the side of Tenderfoot and placing them within the borders of the lines that outlined the W.

For several years thereafter May 2 was the annual college holiday for whitewashing the letter. There was no road to the top of Tenderfoot Mountain in those days, so the upperclassmen decreed that the men students of the freshman class should carry the ton of lime up the mountain side to where the “W” was being built. The 100 lb. sacks of lime proved to be a real burden to the freshman before they reached their destination. (Freshmen weren’t allowed to be sissies then.)

In the meantime, the upperclassmen and faculty members carried other dead trees from the woods of Tenderfoot and built several large fires in the snowbanks to melt the snow. There was now water on this mountain. Every available boiler, tub, tanks, pail and gallon can was “borrowed” form the homes of citizens of Gunnison and the college dining hall and ash dump. In the buckets and cans the white wash was passed from person to person in long lines reaching form the fires to the W. Official “splashers” applied the white wash to the rocks.

By about 5pm, the job was done, with some 135 students and faculty members participating. It was a jolly crowd of real workers that carried the many tons of rock and painted the W that first day.

Of course, there was a big picnic lunch that day in the woods near the W, provided mostly by the college. Many a student consumed at least six hot dogs, along with generous helpings of potato salad, baked beans with molasses, sandwiches, potato ships, pickles, coffee and cookies.

It was a typical Gunnison sunny day, and though we felt rather proud of our job, we scarcely realized that we were building a letter to become so famous, to be seen by scores of thousands of tourists each year traveling along U. S. 50. Indeed, this highway was little more than a dream then.

The W at first consisted of just four straight lines. The rectangular blocks at the top of each line were added later, about 1932, so that the dimensions now are about 320 x 420 feet, probably twice as large as the next largest letter in the world.

The W, ever since its construction, has been one of the major parts of Western State College. The traditional lighting of the W has been one of the most impressive events during homecoming. This tradition started shortly after the W was built.

The history of the W is a long and very interesting one. Every year since its construction, something has happened that adds to its history. About 1926 to 1927 – rumor has it – a few enterprising students are said to have “borrowed” some “Rocky Mountain Canaries from the then-existent railroad yard to help them carry the lime to the top of the mountain. The following article, which appeared in the Top on May 7, 1924, would lead us to believe these students were freshmen:

“In an astonishing outburst of generosity, the upperclassmen have not only consented to allow, but have invited the freshmen to carry the lime up the hill, as well as permitting them to attend the other incident festivities of the day. The weight of this unusual honor is especially evident of what it is explained that the process of carrying lime up Tenderfoot is similar to leading an elephant over the Curecanti needle, or carrying a piano up a grain elevator.”

The last few lines of this article show us, ironically maybe but probably almost true, what a job the whitewashing of the W must have been. I am amazed how this tradition ever got started. It must have taken some real school spirit to accomplish so much with so few.

About 1929, the road around the back of the W was completed. The big job of carrying the lime up to the top was taken care of, and the job of melting the snow was gone also, because now the water could be hauled up. Although, we must remember that, even then, few students could afford cars, and the majority of them still hiked the 3 miles to the top.

W Mountain, legally known as Mt. Tenderfoot, is the property of the State of Colorado and under the jurisdiction of Western State College. The College, acting under the name of the State of Colorado, bought the mountain from the U.S. Government in fall 1930. We paid $1,436.35 for 1,149.08 acres, at the price of $1.25 per acre. The money came from many sources: the Alumni fund, subscriptions raised from the Gunnison residents and the rest form associated donations. The 1,149.08 acres were surveyed by our own Ralph Porter and by Homer Gray of Grand Junction.

One of the most interesting aspects of the W's history is the conflict with other colleges and universities who also claimed to have the largest college letters. The following is an article that appeared in the Top of May 9, 1948:

“In the April 15, 1948, edition of the Brigham Young University student newspaper, The Y News, there screamed across the front a giant picture of the university’s Y. Below the picture, a caption read, 'The Biggest Mountain Letter in the World.'"

"Top of the World staff members grabbed their pencils and began figuring. They snatched telephones and called old hands of Western State College. 'How big is our W?' they asked.

“Telegrams were sent to the founder of the W, former Dean John C. Johnson, and to the editor of the Y news. To Professor Johnson, they asked, 'How big is the W?' To the editor of the Utah newspaper, they queried, 'How big is your Y?'

“The W, they learned, is 420 feet long on each leg and each leg is 16 feet wide. The editor of the Y news stated the Y is 60 feet across the stem and 80 feet across the bottom. The Utah editor sent photographs to prove the size of the university’s large letter in Provo, Utah.

“The Y News editor further pointed out that he knew Brigham Young’s letter was the largest in the world, because 'It’s a Fact,' a syndicated column had stated that it was the largest.

"Harvey C. McKenzie, WSC professor of Mathematics, was called in by the Top staff. He was supplied with the picture of the Y and the measurements given by the Y News and began figuring. His face clouded with doubt, and he figured again.

 “According to the measurements supplied by the Y editor, the Y covered more area with stones than WSC’s W. BUT THERE HAD BEEN A MISCALCULATION ON THE UTAH EDITOR’S PART! All the Brigham Young’s measurements agreed except one. The stem of the Y, according to McKenzie’s exact measurements, could not be 60 feet wide. IN FACT, it was barely 40 feet wide.

“Professor McKenzie and the Top staff grabbed their pencils, and began multiplying and adding. In no time at all, it was unanimously agreed that the W contained 25,560 square feet of rock.

“And then for the Y. Every angle was measured. All parts of the Y were added to find the results. There could be no doubt that Western State’s W was still larger by 1,355 square feet. Brigham Young’s letter contained only 24,205 square feet of rock.                

“The Top staff gave a sigh of relief. Western State’s W was still the largest in the world! The staff adjourned to the big O for a drop of nourishment.”

This article provoked quite a lot of interest in the W. The same issue contained other articles about the W, including a picture of the W, which took up the whole front page.

Two weeks later, the Top received an edition of the Bulldog, the school newspaper of Redlands University, California. In this paper, was a letter written to WSC. This letter was quite derogatory to both our W and to the Top. Redlands claimed our “spindle-legged” W was nothing compared to their R. The following is an excerpt from their letter to us:

“Gunnison, home of Western State College, blew its TOP. In answer to Utah’s boast, surveyors were engaged, mathematicians were mobilized. Lee Knous, Colorado governor, was rolled from bed. Women fainted. Farmers armed with pitchforks.

They gave the dimensions of the R and went on to describe how our mathematicians would have to get to it in order to measure it:

“To reach the monogram, they will have to follow a forest ranger up a treacherous pack trail. After playing mountain goat, the skeptics will see a boulder-strewn outline, hand carved from the steep tree shrouded terrain.”

Of course, this really roused up the students of Western. The editor of the Top wrote this letter in the paper and sent it to Redlands:

Zonnee Brooks

Editor, the Bulldog

Redlands, California

Dear Editor:

 Let your Bulldog growl and snap and claim Redlands has the largest college letter in the world. Although this is Colorado, there are some of us from Missouri, and we’ve got to be shown.

If the California forest rangers can take time off some weekend and escort you kiddies to your R, so you can measure it, take pictures and then send us drawings, we might consent to consider your typical California ballyhoo. In the meantime, we prefer to regard the Redlands R as a fissure in the rocks caused by some California earthquake – and not a letter at all.

As for your claim of EVERYTHING GROWS BIGGER IN CALIFORNIA – we must admit the stories you tell (to us a mild word) can’t be beat. And where in the world did you get all that information about our governor being routed out of bed, and women fainting and farmers taking up pitchforks? My! My! Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? (Now whose face is red?)

And after that, you expect us to believe your boast of having the world’s largest letter. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, Mr. Bulldog.

Regretfully yours.

Editor, Top of the World

The issue in which this appeared was the last issue of the school year 1947-48, and I could find nothing more from Redlands in issues of the next year.

Many items of interest have been left out of this history. But I hope that I have at least presented a few items that will show something about our yearly W-day and about our W.


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Monday, January 26, 2015 - 1:15pm