Terri Smith Ferguson has fond memories of a senior project for Corona High School’s Class of 1976 — painting a mural on the Prado Dam spillway.
She recalled how students slid down the spillway and how they painted the last “6” of “1976” on graduation day. They had no idea how iconic their patriotic “200 Years of Freedom” artwork visible from the 91 Freeway would become over the decades.
“As a young 17-year-old, I never imagined the impact this mural would ever have on people,” she told guests assembled Thursday, Sept. 8, near the artwork. “We were all a part of something bigger than what we could ever imagine.”
She and others gathered for a groundbreaking ceremony to celebrate the long-awaited restoration of the faded and graffiti-laden mural that will soon be restored to its original glory.
“Anyone who drives down the 91 will get that same feeling and sense of pride that we had back in 1976,” said Smith Ferguson, one of four former Corona High students at the event.
In addition to graffiti, the mural has endured legal threats to be removed and received thousands of support letters enroute to this day.
Forty-six years after it was painted on the dam’s spillway, the bicentennial mural “will be restored to its bright red, white and blue hues,” a Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District news release states.
The mural, on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’-owned Prado Dam near Corona, features a faded liberty bell and 13 stars representing the 13 colonies. Its slogan is faded and no longer fully legible.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, who secured $2.5 million in federal dollars to remove lead paint on the spillway, was among those who attended the ceremony.
“Over 5 billion people have viewed this bicentennial mural,” Calver said. “I doubt even that many people even have seen other monuments in the U.S. So this is a big deal for our community.”
Also present were Riverside County Supervisor Karen Spiegel, San Bernardino County Supervisor Curt Hagman and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers L.A. District Col. Julie A. Balten. Representatives from the Bicentennial Freedom Mural Conservancy, which was responsible for most of the fundraising, and representatives from the Friends of the Prado Dam Mural also were present.
In early 2015, the fate of the mural near the 91 and 71 freeways was unclear after the Army Corps of Engineers announced plans to begin removing the fading, gigantic painting. Officials wanted to raise the spillway’s height and start long-planned improvements to the flood dam, first built in 1941, and surrounding the Prado Basin.
Mural supporters and the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles sued in May of that year, seeking to end those plans. Soon after, as crews were ready to begin removing the faded mural, a federal judge issued an injunction temporarily blocking the Corps from altering or destroying the mural. Thousands of letters lobbied for saving the mural, which failed to qualify for preservation as a national landmark, officials said in 2019.
In April, a U.S. District Judge dismissed the lawsuit and lifted the federal injunction. Since then, organizers have worked with Army Corps and county officials to create a timeline for the mural’s repainting. Work is set to begin later this year.
Once lead paint from the original artwork is removed, officials estimate the mural could be fully restored by spring.
Peter Usle, of Friends of the Prado Dam Mural, says the nonprofit conservancy is still raising money for the project and has set a goal of $150,000 for new paint.
For many, the image has meaning far beyond its value as a piece of art.
Conservancy volunteer Jim McCabe, who grew up driving by the mural daily, said seeing graffiti still on the mural is “like seeing somebody step on an American flag.”
“… That’s why we’ve been fighting so hard to restore it,” he said.