Cali Vance (HIST ’19) is an intern in Special Collections and Archives. During Winter Quarter she is researching Cal Poly history for the upcoming exhibit Building the Cal Poly Campus. This is the first in a series of blog posts in which she shares some of the stories she uncovers in the archives. This story was inspired by GrC Professor Brian Lawler’s Bishop Peak Portrait Project installed in Baker Science.
As an intern for Special Collections and Archives, I do a lot of various work. One of my assignments was to research the P painted on the side of Bishop Peak and find out information about the origin and maintenance. My supervisor showed me a box in the University Archives collections about the Bishop P. I quickly got to work reading through the files and collecting data about Walter Johnston Lumley, the man who created the P.
A lot of people in San Luis Obispo do not know that there is a P on the side of Bishop Peak. They glance at the rock face and see a water stain, or a discoloration of the rock. Few people know that a P is branded on that rock face, but the ones who do know about the P have called that wall “P wall,” in order to distinguish it from other rock faces on Bishop. P wall is now know for having difficult rock climbing routes on it and being an exposed face overlooking campus. However, when the original P was created, it was not to establish a climbing area.
Walter Johnston Lumley was born on September 26, 1905 in King City.¹ He enrolled at Cal Poly at the age of fourteen, after finishing grammar school. Since he first enrolled, he had been obsessed with the lime block P on the mountain behind the dorms and could not stop thinking about adding a P on the side of Bishop Peak facing the school. In 1925 Lumley and three other students who volunteered to help him, loaded into a truck with rope, a five gallon bucket of white lead paint, and a paintbrush, and headed for Bishop. The four men headed up the right side of the protruding rock face of Bishop, then Lumley proceeded to lower himself down the face of Bishop with the white paint. He had to climb the face of Bishop several times in order to refill the one-gallon bucket he was using to hold paint. After finishing only the straight part of the P, night fell, so the four men went back to campus, to find that people had been watching their progress all afternoon.²
The next day Lumley went back up to Bishop Peak in order to finish the P. He contemplated how the curved part of the P should be painted in order for the letter to actually look like a P, and decided to have someone stand below the rock face with a megaphone and direct him, calling out “‘Walt…start the curve!'” Lumley finished the P, only to end up with influenza from being exposed to the wind for so long. The President of Cal Poly, Doctor Crandall, said that Lumley had done a fine job with painting the P. Lumley graduated in 1926, and was president of the Block P Club in 1924. He died in 1983, in San Luis Obispo at the age of 78.
In his memoirs, Lumley recalls that the P was repainted in 1953, twenty-eight years after he originally painted the P. Actually, the P was repainted even earlier. In 1947 Frank LaSalle “organized another assault on the cliff to repaint the ‘P.'”³ An article in the 1959 El Mustang, (the current Mustang News) said that several groups have taken to repainting the P.4 What Lumley started had become a Cal Poly tradition.
The majority of this information came from one folder in a single collection. The collection was an assortment of items from Lumley given to the University Archives after he passed away. The main item I used was a typed report Lumley wrote in 1983 about painting the P in 1925. Within this collection there were photographs of Lumley, newspaper clippings about Lumley at Cal Poly and his obituary. I also gathered some information from El Mustang, the school newspaper at the time. In these articles were information about the repainting of the P and the original story of the P being created on Bishop Peak.
After working with so many different primary sources, I look out the window of Kennedy Library and wonder when the next time the Bishop P will be repainted. And if the action of painting the P will receive as much attention as it did when Lumley painted it for the first time.
- “Affidavit of birth,” Folder in Walter J. Lumley Papers, UA0100, Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly.
- “The Block P on Bishop Peak,” Folder in Walter J. Lumley Papers, UA0100, Special Collections and Archives, Cal Poly..
- “Cal Poly ‘P’ Gets Fresh Coat of Paint.” El Mustang, October 30, 1947, pg. 3. Cal Poly Student Newspaper Collection. http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/studentnewspaper/442/
- “Cliff-Hanging Students Paint College’s Initial on Mountain.” El Mustang, October 13, 1959,pg. 3. Cal Poly Student Newspaper Collection. http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/studentnewspaper/798