History of the Y on the Mountain

image of Y mountain with fall colors

“The Y on the mountain welcomes you to Provo: home of Brigham Young University,” Stacey Harkey claims in a recent BYU commercial. That’s true; it does. It is a welcoming site as you enter the city, but how long has it been there? A LOOOOOONG time.

In 1906, the class of 1907 carved the first symbol—the numbers 07—on the mountain, but that upset the senior class who promptly went up the mountain and “overwrote” it with a giant 06. Following an inter-class fisticuffs conflict, then president George H. Brimhall declared that there would be a sole symbol on the mountain for the entire university. The plans for the mountainside letters, yes—all three, were first planned when the university was only 3 years old.

Construction began with the center letter, for proper alignment, and did not continue due to the unprecedented time required to complete just one letter. The Y is five times larger than the H of the Hollywood sign in LA, and is the largest collegiate symbol in the United States registering in at 380 feet high and 130 feet wide. The letters were expertly surveyed out by Dr. Harvey Fletcher (and some of his drafting students) who designed the elongated letters intentionally: to look normal from the valley floor. Eventually, the serifs were added in 1911.

A zigzagging line of 1906 BYU students standing eight feet apart passed bucket after bucket of lime powder all the way up. Subsequent years saw the creation of Y day, a day the students gathered as the “Y Brigade” lining up the trail to reapply a fresh coat. Through the years, rock, sand, cement, concrete blocks, and plaster have been carried up the trail; however, things changed in 1975 when the university began flying thousands of pounds of whitewash paint up by helicopter to keep it bright, and continues to do so about every five years. Today, the student body celebrates Y day as a day of service across campus and throughout the community.

Earlier years saw lines of torches up the mountain to light balls of motor-oil-soaked mattress batting placed around the edge of the Y ablaze! Eventually this tradition was deemed unsafe—shocker!—and has now been replaced by generator-powered strands of lights. In 2016, the lights were replaced with LEDs that can be turned on/off from campus. The Y is only lit five times a year: freshman orientation, Homecoming (you may have seen it last week), Y Days, and the two graduation celebrations.

As a result of this iconic symbol in various broadcasts, publications, and social media outlets, our great school is known around the world as “the Y.”

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