They are windows into history.
Records of battles fought, hard times survived, great people long dead, meaningful pieces of art erected. Most are bronze. And many are disappearing.
Across Colorado Springs, plaques are being pried from walls and stones, presumably to be sold to scrap-metal dealers. A 20-pound piece of bronze can fetch about $38, says Alegra Ulibarri of Koscove Metal on West Colorado Avenue. (Ulibarri says Koscove won't buy plaques, but she can't speak for other scrap yards.)
Yet, that's a tiny fraction of what the plaques cost to produce, or to replace — if you even consider them to be replaceable.
"They can be thousands of dollars to manufacture because they're done in kind of an Old World way," city Cultural Services manager Matt Mayberry says, adding, "Anything you create now is not going to have the same look, the same feel. The way we look at them from a historical perspective is that they're valuable just because of what they were, and who created them, and their age.
"It goes way beyond the money. But the reality is, the money is going to prohibit us from replacing them."
Well, the money and the fact that there's no official inventory of all the city's plaques, let alone photos of all of them.
Mayberry explains that the city's Pioneers Museum keeps track only of plaques attached to public art pieces. The Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services Department has a loose handle on where historical plaques are located, but doesn't keep photos of all of them.
Representatives of the two entities have noted a handful of plaques missing, though they suspect more are gone than they realize. Especially those gifted to the city from private donors — when they're stolen, their messages are gone forever.
Metal theft is nothing new in Colorado Springs. For years, thieves have been stealing copper wiring, often darkening streetlights for stretches. And the Colorado Springs Parks Department has been forced to put cages over large irrigation valves in parks, because the equipment sticks up out of the ground and is made from copper. Thieves have gone so far as to cut through the cages to steal the valves, which cost hundreds of dollars to replace.
But the theft of the plaques is new territory. And the city parks staff, at least, has responded in an interesting way. Plaques that show signs of prying are being removed and placed in storage. In their stead, the city's sign shop is creating hard-foam reproductions, spray-painted to a coppery hue, and housed in Plexiglas cases. An average-sized plaque costs $50 to $75 in labor and materials to produce.
On a recent Thursday, Cindy Jones, the sign shop employee, proudly showed off the large engraving machine that's used to carve out the letters for the new signs. Jones is accustomed to replacing vandalized city signs of the common sort, but she says the plaques are a new challenge.
She's created two thus far. One is for a wall built by the Works Progress Administration along the Pikes Peak Greenway. The other marks Monument Valley Park as being on the Register of Historic Places. Each was lovingly crafted — Jones even hand-carved the eagle emblem on the WPA one — but neither is the same. The words emblazoned on the WPA sign don't have the same gravity in foam as they did in bronze.
"Dedicated to the enrichment of human lives," the sign reads. "A record of permanent achievement."
Gone, baby, gone
At the time of this writing, Mayberry and Parks manager Kurt Schroeder were just beginning to brainstorm ways to protect and keep track of the city's remaining plaques. Laments Schroeder: "They've been disappearing all over the place."
He adds, "Part of our history [is] being vandalized, stolen from us."
A 1936 plaque marking battles between Old Colorado City settlers and "the Indians" in the 1860s disappeared recently. Three newer plaques were lifted from America the Beautiful Park. Last year, one went missing from Garden of the Gods park. I recently noticed that an old WPA sign that hung at the entrance to Williams Canyon in Manitou Springs had gone conspicuously absent.
About a year ago, the plaque at the geologic column in Monument Valley Park was swiped. Mayberry said the column has historical significance, and that it was meant to mimic the rock structure in Colorado Springs, which the plaque explained.
"Without the plaque, it's just a strange thing that no one understands," he says.
Mayberry says the disappearance of these relics is worrisome. If history can simply be scrapped, what's next?
"Beyond plaques, we worry about sculpture," Mayberry says. "And I'm sure Kurt worries about the infrastructure for his irrigation."