Photos from the Vault

How a daring student dangling from a rope gave Cal Poly its second P

The lesser-known Cal Poly P, seen here in faded form on the open face of Bishop Peak at right, was first painted in 1926.
The lesser-known Cal Poly P, seen here in faded form on the open face of Bishop Peak at right, was first painted in 1926.

You may not know Walter Lumley, but you have seen his work, adorning San Luis Obispo’s grandest mountain for nearly a century.

But more on that in a moment.

Scraping the clouds with an elevation of 1,546 feet above sea level, Bishop Peak is the tallest of the nine Morros, the extinct volcanic plugs strung from Islay Hill to Morro Rock that haven’t been active for 20 million years.

According to the Sierra Club, it is actually one of 21 peaks and hills in a chain, including some that are unnamed.

The unnamed hills wish they were located in the flattest American states, where they would get a name or perhaps even a state park.

As it is, Bishop Peak towers over the tallest points in Florida, (345 feet), Delaware (445), Louisiana, (535), Mississippi (807) Rhode Island (812), Illinois (1,235), Indiana (1,257) and Ohio 1,550 and comes up just short of Iowa (1,670).

Initialing landmarks

SLO County’s hilly terrain has inspired people to create letter landmarks. Templeton High School, Mission Prep, Camp San Luis, Cal Poly and many others have made their mark on the local hillsides.

In fact, Cal Poly has its P on two San Luis Obispo hills.

The Robert E. Kennedy Library calls the original block P, above the campus, one of the oldest hillside initials in the West.

Poly P_1921_bw
People gather on the hillside around the Cal Poly P in 1921. Cal Poly Special Collections

First mentioned in the Polygram student newspaper in 1919, the letter may have grown out of a rivalry between San Luis Obispo High School and the the Polytechnic High School.

At one point, the two schools spelled out P or H in stones on the hillside.

Eventually, Cal Poly filled the rock outline with lime, and freshman dorm students were tasked with keeping the P looking good.

In the spring of 1957, an enlarged letter was set in concrete by Delta Sigma Phi. Over the years pranksters have modified the letter with bedsheets including to spell out “Springsteen.”

Poly P
A hiker takes the trail to the Cal Poly P, which was painted red, white and blue in December 2014. David Middlecamp

The other P

It is much more difficult for pranksters to disturb the other P, which is located on a nearly vertical gray wall of Bishop Peak.

This is where Walter Lumley comes in.

In 1926, the idea of painting the wall became an obsession for the Cal Poly student, who wrote about it in a letter in the university archives.

Lumley convinced a teacher in the agriculture department to let him borrow a long rope, paint, brush and a small bucket.

He and three other friends drove as far as their old truck could wheeze uphill, then set out on foot. With a rope around his waist, Lumley then slithered down.

“Boy, was I scared at first, but then I got use (sic) to it. I found the rain had caused small holes where one could get a toe hold to take the weight off the rope and make it easier to paint,” Lumley wrote.

He got the vertical straight leg painted the first day. The next day, he borrowed a megaphone from the pep team, and a spotter below used it to shout guidance, telling Lumley how to angle his brush to complete the P.

It took 10 gallons of lead paint and a lot of strokes with a 4-inch brush to make a letter, that’s said to be 40 feet tall and 24 feet wide.

Lumley ended up catching a cold but was invited to Sunday dinner at President Benjamin Crandall’s house for his efforts.

His story was corroborated by the student newspaper — by then renamed El Mustang — on Oct. 30, 1947.

It said Lumley was assisted by W. Ellsworth Stewart and John Hamm.

That year, a new coat of paint was added for Homecoming though a nest of yellow jackets enlivened the task.

The Bishop Peak P has streaked and faded over the years, and today lead paint would not be environmentally acceptable.

Actually, no paint would be — as the recent rogue painting of a Bishop Peak rock as a slice of watermelon has shown.

Today, Lumley would be charged with vandalism.

Thanks for this column go to Jay Thompson at Cal Poly, who shared links to the Kennedy Library resources.

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David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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