This story first appeared on Make It Missoula in September 2010.
By MAKE IT MISSOULA
At 620 feet above the city of Missoula on the slope of Mt. Sentinel sits a symbol that has become synonymous not only with the University of Montana, but also the city itself. Although it’s just 3/4 mile to “M,” it seems much further with its steep incline and 11 switchbacks. (For those curious, it’s 1-3/4 miles to top of Mount Sentinel.)
First constructed in 1908 by university students, Missoula’s hillside “M” has evolved over the years to become what many consider to be the most recognizable landmark in Missoula.
Originally made of whitewashed rocks and only measuring 25 feet by 25 feet, the very first ““M”” was poorly constructed and ultimately replaced by a wooden “M” in 1912.
This “new and improved” version of the “M” cost $18 and was different from the structure we recognize today in that it stood upright on the face of Mt. Sentinel.
A larger, wooden version of the “M” was built in 1913 and upkeep of the structure was formally charged to each year’s freshman class.
When the large wooden “M” was destroyed by a blizzard in 1915, an even larger version was constructed of whitewashed granite. Once again the freshman class was tasked with annual renovation of the symbol, beginning a new tradition.
Each year from then on, University of Montana freshman made the hike up to the “M” to apply a fresh coat of whitewash and remove any weeds and grass that had grown in and around the structure.
The annual tradition ended in 1968 when a 125 by 100 foot concrete “M” was built at a cost of $4,328. Behind the decision to replace rock with concrete were maintenance issues.
With the coming of the 60s, UM students of the time exhibited waning enthusiasm for the annual trek up the hill and for annual upkeep of the “M.” The current concrete rendition of the “M” you see today resolved traditional maintenance concerns.
Although the annual whitewashing went by the wayside, one tradition that lives on today is the lighting of the “M” during the University’s annual Homecoming celebration each fall.
Originally lit by a group of students on October 9, 1919 following the fall whitewashing, the event was so popular that students have continued to light the “M” each year during Homecoming week.
Every year during Homecoming Week, UM students adorn the “M” with special beacons that light up the “M” to welcome former students back to the University — and to Missoula.
Although it remains a symbol of The University of Montana, the “M” has come to be widely acknowledged as a universal icon that also represents the city it overlooks from the mountain to the east. All you have to do is look toward Mount Sentinel and you know that the “M” means Missoula.
How about you? What’s the “M” mean to you? Scroll down and let us know in the “comments” section below. Like this story? You might also enjoy reading about the History of Missoula, or about A River Runs Through It.