By Dennis Steele
The block Y, overlooking Utah Valley, located on the mountainside directly east of Brigham Young University, is a symbol rich with history and tradition.
The hillside letter plans were first constructed more than 100 years ago in April of 1906 when President George H. Brimhall commissioned surveyors for the letters “B,” “Y” and “U.” To ensure proper alignment on the mountainside, the Y was to be constructed first.
Larger in overall size than the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles, the Y is the largest collegiate symbol in the United States. It is made of concrete — 380 feet high and 130 feet wide.
During its creation, students formed a zigzagging line up the mountain, stood eight feet apart and passed a load of lime powder from one person to the next. It took all day to complete just one letter, the Y, and there it stood alone.
Former BYU student Jennie Hare recalls her grandmother telling her the story of when students would go dump the lime powder on the Y.
“I still tell my children about it today,” Hare said. “We love to hike the Y as a family, and they love to hear about their great-grandparents white washing the Y. It is a fun activity, and I am glad they can feel a part of that piece of history.”
Because of the constant attention required to maintain the lime powder, a layer of rock was added in 1907 in an attempt to make the symbol more permanent. The following year, 20,000 pounds of sand and cement were carried up the mountain to form a three-foot wall to encase the letter and preserve its shape.
Several years later, concrete blocks were added for maximum effect. Then in 1975, in order to keep the Y bright and white, BYU started using a helicopter to carry thousands of pounds of whitewash for repainting. The repainting is now redone about every five years.
It is a BYU tradition for incoming freshmen to hike the Y, as it is one of the dominating features of Utah Valley. From the summit, the view stretches across Provo and Orem, and on a clear day, the shore across from Utah Lake can be seen.
Many avid hikers flock to climb the Y trail and enjoy the majestic scenery from the lookout. Ryan Carlisle, a BYU student majoring in marketing, said when he climbed the Y it felt like it was part of his initiation to the school.
“As a freshman you are always trying to find something fun to do,” Carlisle said. “Hiking the Y was one of those things everyone talked about, and if you hadn’t done it, you pretty much felt out of the loop.”
Five times a year the Y is illuminated for special events. The celebrated events are freshman orientation, Homecoming, Y Days and April and August graduations. A club known as the intercollegiate Knights is in charge of lighting the Y. The Knights are dedicated to chivalrous principles and maintaining traditions.
The tradition of lighting the Y has also sparked the interests of rivalry shenanigans. For example, the Y has been the target of pranks that have involved red paint, the color of BYU’s archrival, the University of Utah. Most recently it was painted red by members of the Utah baseball team in 2004.
Former BYU student Jeff Strong was attending BYU during the red painting of the Y and remembers how humorous and enraging the prank was.
“It was a pretty crazy thing,” Strong said. “I thought it was pretty funny at first, but then I saw that it got a lot of people wanting to get back at them. Being destructive to a symbol of school pride like that is just taking it a little too far.”
Although such pranks can be fun in nature, the repairs can reach well into thousands of dollars. In the 2004 incident, the cost of re-painting the Y was $6,000, and the perpetrators who were involved were initially charged with second-degree felonies.
BYU is known around the world as simply “the Y” because of the iconic symbol that can be seen from miles away. A camera shot of the Y on the mountainside is common among national broadcasts of sports and other publications produced by the university.
On May 20, 2006, the 100 year anniversary of the Y was celebrated. Many people hiked the Y that day to celebrate such a dominant symbol of tradition.