Motorists traveling on 50 East in Sacramento may be familiar with this perfectly normal-looking mileage sign — on first glance, it’s like every other mileage sign along California highways listing the cities you’ll be passing with the number of miles to go.
But on second glance, this sign gives pause — Placerville is about an hour away, and South Lake Tahoe double that, depending on traffic. But why does far-off Ocean City, Maryland merit a mention?
The simple fact is that US 50 paves 3,000-plus miles from Ocean City, Maryland to Sacramento, California, but there’s more to the story.
In the 1980s John R. Cropper, Jr. worked as the head of statewide highway maintenance for Caltrans. Cropper, now 92, was the man who instigated the sign listing Ocean City, MD as 3073 down the road.
“Years ago, I was back in Ocean City, and they had a sign that said, ‘Sacramento California so many thousand miles’ so I thought, ‘well, that’s a pretty good idea, we should reciprocate,’ so we did," Cropper says.
And that was that. Cropper says he didn’t have to get approval from anyone; he had the clout to make it happen, but he was met with some resistance.
“I can remember I got a lot of static from Caltrans people because I had been conducting a campaign to get rid of unnecessary signs — and this really was an unnecessary sign,” says Cropper with a wink. “It didn’t mean anything to anybody except people who had some connection — anyway, it’s still there as far as I know.”
Cropper knew that sign maintenance was expensive. This sign ended up costing the state quite a bit of money because it kept getting stolen.
According to a 2002 article in the Sacramento Bee, the sign was stolen twice, once in 1999 and then again two years later. Caltrans redesigned the sign to include the distances to Placerville and South Lake Tahoe, making it bigger and harder to throw in the back of a truck. But when the new sign went up there was a problem with the mileage. Instead of 3,073 miles to Ocean City, the sign incorrectly read 3,037. Caltrans noticed the error and placed a cover over the last two numbers correcting the mistake.
The Bee article reported that it would have taken two to three months and more than $1,000 to replace the whole sign; the patch solution cost $10.
But let’s go back to Cropper’s original motivation for sign on US 50. Where did the “Sacramento, California” sign in Ocean City, Maryland come from?
On the other side of the continent, we found David Buck, a spokesperson for the Maryland State Highway Administration. Buck’s father, Ed Buck, was a Maryland highway engineer in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. It was his idea to mark the eastern end of Highway 50 in Ocean City.
“Highway signs obviously are very regulated, in terms of what you can put up there. So when you put something up that’s a little different, or a little unusual like this, people take notice,” says the younger Buck.
One of the people who took notice turned out to be the right person who could approve a reciprocal sign in Sacramento. David says Maryland officials did reach out to Sacramento about doing a sign of their own, but it never went anywhere — until Cropper saw the Sacramento sign himself.
“I think it’s neat that my father was part of something that lasted that long," Buck says. "It’s interesting and unique — it’s not standard.”