Concrete Arrows and the U.S. Airmail Beacon System
Scattered across the United States is a network of mysterious concrete arrows. They are often found in remote locations or areas difficult to access. Some will be accompanied by a small shack, a few have a metal tower affixed to their base. Many are in good condition while others have succumbed to nature. The shape and direction of the arrows vary, but it is clear they served the same purpose.
The purpose was important: helping early pilots navigate U.S. transcontinental flights at night.
In a era before radar, pilots used ground-based landmarks for guidance. This solution worked for flight during the day, but grounded pilots at night. Before long, a system of beacons was established across the United States to guide airmail pilots around-the-clock. When radar and radio communications made the beacons obsolete years later, most were torn down and abandoned.
In the mid-19th century the Wild West was largely unexplored. There was no infrastructure and very little law governing the land. Understandably, coast-to-coast message delivery was nonexistent. It was not until a gold discovery in 1848 that California became the destination for tens of thousands from the east. The trip across the country was arduous, dangerous, and could take anywhere from three to six weeks.
By 1860, the Pony Express revolutionized transcontinental mail by offering delivery in about ten days. Nearly unheard-of at the time, this was faster than the more volatile southern route favored by others. Knowledgeable frontiersmen would race across the country on horseback, covering vast distances in shorter times.
While the Pony Express was significant in that it proved the northern/central mail route was possible, it was inefficient compared to stagecoach lines. Higher costs and poor economies of scale would see the Pony Express fail to win the mail contract beyond its first year of operation.
A year later, the threat of civil war descended upon the country and resources were diverted to the conflict. When the transcontinental telegraph line was completed in 1861, it immediately rendered the Pony Express obsolete.
In the late 19th century, reliability of mail delivery improved – but not its speed. It was not until the invention of the airplane that intercontinental mail delivery witnessed its next major breakthrough.
Early Aviation & Airmail
The Wright brothers made the first flight in 1903, and it wasn’t long before pilots adopted air transport for mail delivery. By 1911, Fred Wiseman had conducted an unofficial airmail flight carrying three letters from Petaluma to Santa Rosa, California.
The next day, a large exhibition orchestrated by Sir Walter George Windham in British India made the first official airmail flight. Windham used the event to generate publicity and raise money for charity. His pilot, Henri Pequet, would fly just over 8 miles from Allahabad to Naini to deliver 6,500 letters.
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(L to R: early airmail flight, Boise Airmail Station, Intermediate Field with tower in Nebraska)
It wasn’t until three years later the range capability of mail delivery aircraft was really tested. In July of 1914, French pilot Maurice Guillaux carried Australian mail 584 miles from Melbourne to Sydney – at the time the longest such flight in the world.
By 1918 the east coast of the United States had limited airmail service. Two years later, a North American transcontinental airmail route was finally established. On August 20th, 1920 – sixty years after the Pony Express – rapid delivery made a return to the U.S.
Beacon Tower System
Aircraft of the era lacked the advanced electronics for navigation during night flights or through inclement weather. Long before the advent of radio guidance or Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), pilots were limited to visual guidance, using landmarks to chart the route.
Flying at night was out of the question; bad weather and limited flight times meant delivery was limited and still spotty in frequency. The service was indeed faster, but it lacked flexibility and reliability of operations.
By 1924 the Postal Service developed a solution that was effective, if not elegant. A system of ground-based navigation beacons extending from New York to San Francisco would help pilots fly across the country at night and ultimately be the world’s first such system.
The early iterations of the system used approximately 1,500 airmail beacons, each constructed roughly between 3 and 5 miles apart. The beacons featured a 50-foot tower with rotating lights placed on top of concrete foundations in the shape of giant arrows measuring between 50 and 70 feet long. To increase visibility of the concrete arrows, they were painted bright yellow.
(L to R: beacon in concept, illustration, and execution)
The first towers contained acetylene-gas powered lights which were fed by fuel stored in a shed at the base. At the top of the towers, a rotating beacon with 5,000 candlepower and would flash every ten seconds. In clear weather the beacon lights could be seen for 10 miles (16 km). Below the main white beacon, a secondary set of red and green lights would flash a Morse Code letter to identify the beacon to pilots.
To accommodate for emergencies, intermediate landing fields were established every 25 miles along the route. The fields were constructed with rotating incandescent electric lights mounted on 50-foot towers set to sweep six times per minute. These less-common emergency field beacons were visible up to 75 miles away.
The program was an immediate success and continued to expand throughout its operational life. By the end of the first year the airmail service had 18 terminal airfields, 89 emergency airfields, and more than 500 beacon lights in operation.
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Rapid Growth Until Obsolete
As technology improved, so did the towers. Later versions on spur routes were built 10 miles apart and equipped with stronger beacon lights – up to one million candlepower – making them reportedly visible up to 40 miles in clear weather.
But by the 1930s, navigation and radio technology had improved to allow flight without land-based visual guidance. The Low Frequency Radio Range (LFRR) system began to replace older visual-based systems.
The airmail beacon program would continue to operate full-scale until 1933, when technology advancements and the higher cost of operation during the Great Depression – finally rendered it obsolete.
After the program was de-funded, various beacons would continue to operate in limited capacities into the 1940s. At that time, the Department of Commerce decommissioned and disassembled the towers for their steel, a resource in short supply and desperately needed to support the war effort.
The last airway beacon was officially shut down in 1973, although the Montana Department of Transportation Aeronautics Division reportedly continues to operate around 19 updated beacons in the mountains of Western Montana.
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Ninety years later, most of the towers have been dismantled. Many of the sites are long gone, victims of war, infrastructure growth, and aggressive private developers. During World War II, numerous concrete arrows were destroyed as well – so as to not help enemy pilots visually navigate the country.
Still, hundreds of the arrows remain. But today they lack the bright yellow paint, and the cracks in the concrete worsen with each winter freeze. Arrows on top of mountains are safe for now, but several along the highways have already been lost to redevelopment.
For the explorers out there, Sometimes Interesting has compiled a list with map links to locations with visible remains from the original airmail beacon system. This list is not meant to be comprehensive, but it does include many of the locations still visible today:
• A concrete arrow is all that is left of Beacon 68 just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
• The faint outline of a concrete arrow and generator shack is still visible in Battle Mountain, Nevada (beacon number unknown).
• A concrete arrow just off Interstate 80 about 25 miles southeast of Boise, Idaho points toward the city (beacon number unknown).
• In the wilderness outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the remote concrete arrow of Beacon 38 sits undisturbed.
• The faint remains of a concrete arrow can be seen in the defunct municipal airfield in Columbus, New Mexico (beacon number unknown).
• About 20 miles northeast of Ellensburg, WA, the foundation remains of a beacon can still be seen (beacon number unknown).
• Just outside of Fernley, Nevada sits a lone beacon tower missing the concrete arrow and generator shed (beacon number unknown).
• A concrete arrow is visible off Old Highway 40 near Golconda, Nevada (beacon number unknown).
• The generator shed is all that’s left of Beacon 61 in the mountains of Grants, New Mexico. The tower and concrete arrow may be gone, but you can still see “61″ on the roof of the shed.
• The concrete arrow of Beacon 59 sits right off US-80 in Grantsville, Utah, southwest of the Great Salt Lake.
• About 55 miles east of El Paso in the middle of nowhere, Texas, the concrete arrow of Hudspeth Intermediate Field barely pokes out of the brush (pictured above). Hudspeth was constructed in the 1930s by the Department of Commerce for emergency use by airlines, but hasn’t been used in half a century.
• The concrete arrow with twin tails from Beacon 61A can be seen just off the Lincoln Highway in Lake Point, Utah. (pictured below, courtesy BonnevilleMariner.com)
• Faint remnants of a concrete arrow in Locomotive Springs, Utah (beacon number unknown).
• In Lovelock, Nevada, another concrete arrow can be seen (beacon number unknown).
• Here’s a concrete arrow off a dirt road in Meacham, Oregon (beacon number unknown).
• Visit the Aviation Heritage Museum of the Grants-Milan Airport in New Mexico to see Beacon 62 (originally located in Bonita Canyon) restored to its original 1930s appearance, complete with painted tower and corresponding generator shack. (pictured below).
• Up on Beacon Hill Road in the Moapa Valley region of Nevada, a concrete arrow is still visible (beacon number unknown).
• The concrete arrow of the former MX1095 Beacon can be seen just east of the airport in Montague, California.
• Here is a right-angle concrete arrow from Beacon 50 visible in Montello, Nevada.
• A restored beacon tower is part of a protected monument in Rocky Butte Natural Area of Portland, Oregon. (courtesy S-I reader Scott Kessler, beacon number unknown)
• The concrete arrow from Salt Flat Intermediate Field is barely visible in lonely Salt Flat, Texas. This emergency landing field was another product of the Department of Commerce in the 1930s. This page has more detail on the now-defunct Salt Flat Intermediate Field.
• Two miles northwest of Seama, New Mexico, the concrete arrow of Beacon 64 sits behind Flower Mountain, not far from Interstate 40.
• A concrete arrow sits in good condition at Shelbyville Municipal Airport about 25 miles southeast of Indianapolis in Indiana (beacon number unknown).
• Another concrete arrow – this one from Beacon 37B – can be seen on the south edge of the Shinob Kibe Mesa in Utah.
• The concrete arrow from Beacon 37A is visible from the Bloomington Overlook location in St. George, Utah. (pictured at right)
• A concrete arrow is all that’s left of Beacon 37C at the Quail Creek Reservoir in Utah between Hurricane and St. George.
• The concrete arrow by Strevell Road near the Idaho/Utah border is clearly visible along with the foundations of other facilities, now gone (beacon number unknown).
• Beacon 14A is still overlooking US-80 in the Tahoe National Forest in California. The concrete arrow is gone, but the tower remains. A newer building has replaced the generator shed next to the tower.
• Just outside the Toiyabe National Forest in Reno, a concrete arrow is barely visible and in poor condition (beacon number unknown).
• Little other than the tower’s foundation of Beacon 5 is still visible in Vacaville, California.
* A two-arrow, two-tail beacon is vandalized, but visible in Walnut Creek, California. (courtesy S-I reader Bob Simmons, beacon number unknown)
• The well-preserved tower of airway Beacon 32 is still in use at Winnemucca Municipal Airport in northern Nevada. You can even see this pristine example in street view. (No concrete arrow or generator shed)
• In Woods Cross, Utah, there is a concrete arrow northeast of the Salt Lake City Airport (beacon number unknown).
Air Traveler’s Map, 1929
“Illustrated Map of the Route of Transcontinental Air Transport,” Rand McNally, 1929. Courtesy David Rumsey Map Collection.
Click thumbnail to view full-size (warning: large file)
Do you know of another airway beacon or concrete arrow not listed here but still visible? Contact us with the coordinates and we’ll update the list!