Work to fix trail leading to Cal Poly 'P' is underway

Members of the California Conservation Corps work on upgrades to the area around the Cal Poly "P."
Members of the California Conservation Corps work on upgrades to the area around the Cal Poly "P."

For decades, the oversized Cal Poly “P” has been a point of pride for the campus — and for groups that like to paint the giant letter emblazoned on the hill overlooking San Luis Obispo.

The prominent landmark has looked down on the campus since 1919. But for the past year, the “P” has been off limits because of erosion and unsafe footing on the trail leading up to it.

For the next few weeks, the California Conservation Corps is working to reroute 900 feet of the trail, divert water that deteriorates the pathway, and stabilize the steep section around the “P.”

A fire road also will be installed so university crews can easily access the feature.

“This is a tradition that’s a huge part of the Cal Poly spirit and livelihood,” said Brady Hiob, chairman of the University Union advisory board. “People were painting it almost every week. They spelled out names of candidates before elections and painted it to show Cal Poly pride and spirit. This dates back to the old rivalry between Cal Poly (when it was a vocational high school) and SLO High.”

The university’s Associated Students Inc. has allocated $80,000 for the restoration project, money from its reserves.

In past years, students have hiked up the campus hillside to paint the “P” — including a stars-and-stripes decoration after 9/11, a rainbow to celebrate the LGBT pride flag during Pride Week and hearts for Valentine’s Day.

Fraternities and sororities have spelled out the letters to their names, historically using bedsheets to tack on the additional lettering.

Students who gain university permission to manipulate the “P” are expected to repaint the letter white once they’re finished.

But if they miss their deadline, a university crew does the repainting, and the students are fined. The road access will make the restoration work safer and more convenient for staff.

Though students weren’t prohibited from hiking the mountain at their own risk, Cal Poly shut down its permission process for decorating the letter several months ago because of the trail conditions.

The history of the Cal Poly “P” dates back decades, with its origins in the early 1900s when the school was a four-year polytechnic high school.

Cal Poly students changed an original rock pattern of an “H” — for “High” representing San Luis Obispo High School — to a “P” for “Poly" as part of their rivalry.

San Luis Obispo High students responded by arranging several large stone “H” displays on hills surrounding the city.

Cal Poly students then countered by changing each “H” to a “P” before eventually concentrating on just preserving the “P” on their hill.

Instead of using rocks, the students constructed a more permanent fixture, forming a “P” from recycled barn doors that had burned in a fire.

A 40-foot-tall, 30-foot-wide concrete iteration was built in 1939, requiring 500 gallons of paint.

In 1957, the concrete “P” was rebuilt and enlarged to 50 by 35 feet in size — the current dimensions of the landmark.

In the 1960s, when students at UC Berkeley and UCSB were clashing with police during protests of the Vietnam War, Cal Poly students added a “G” and “O” before the “P” to show support for the Republican Party.

In the 1970s, an arrangement was crafted to spell “POT.”

In the 1980s, a local fan base incorporated the “P” into “SPRINGSTEEN” to spell the name of the famous rocker.

Curtis McNally, the project manager for the Cal Poly “P” restoration, said the work is expected to be completed by mid-August in time for decorations in the fall quarter.

“Part of the work will be installing new steps near the ‘P,’ ” McNally said. “It’s really steep up there. It will make it much easier for students hauling buckets of paint to get up there.”