The Block U emblazoned on Mount Van Cott, is lit up during home games for football, basketball, and gymnastics. If you see the red and white lights flashing the Utes have won another game or meet.
The “U” can be seen from many areas across the valley, east of the University of Utah campus in the Wasatch Mountain Range.
University of Utah seniors first painted their graduation year on Mount Van Cott in the early 1900s. In 1905 the students decided to put a “U” on the hill using limestone instead of changing the number every year. Two years later the administration wanted something more permanent. A 100 foot concrete “U” was fabricated on the hill. Lights were added in 1969.
Sue Christensen, a University of Utah alumnus, initiated the “Renew the U” project in 2006. The $400,000 restoration project included 240 wireless controlled red and white led lights, a water diversion barrier and a drainage system to stop erosion.
The landscape department at the University of Utah maintains the grounds. “I send a team up to weed whip the native grasses down twice per year,” says Lisa McCarrel, University of Utah Landscape Supervisor, in an email.
The mountain is named for Lucy May Van Cott, the first Dean of Women (1907-1931) at the University of Utah. She is the daughter of John Van Cott, a member of the Quorum of the Seventy and one of the Seven Presidents of the Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The first hillside letter built was an “L” for Lahainaluna High School on Mount Ball, in the west Maui Mountains in 1904. UC Berkeley built the first hillside letter in the U.S., (Hawaii didn’t become a state until 1959) on Charter Hill overlooking the campus in March 1905. The Block U has the distinction of being second to Berkeley, although there is some controversy between the “U” and the “Y” over who painted theirs first. California (81), Montana (80), and Utah (73) have the most hillside letters. “X” is the only letter not found on a hillside by itself. You can find an “X” in “DIXIE” on a hillside in St. George, Utah. The ideal location for a mountain side letter is a fairly steep hill that is treeless, undeveloped, and accessible. Most hillside letters can be found in the American West.
There was a myth that early pilots who air-dropped mail used the hillside letters to identify communities from the air. The letters originated to end rivalries between graduating classes at universities and to celebrate winning teams.
Take a hike to the top of the “U.” It is steep, but less than a quarter of a mile. You will be rewarded with a beautiful view of the valley.