Home > Abandoned - Explained, Amazing, Americas, Aviation, Explained, History > Concrete Arrows and the U.S. Airmail Beacon System

Concrete Arrows and the U.S. Airmail Beacon System

airmail-beacon-concrete-arrow

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.

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airmail-beacon-route-1924

Early Airmail Beacon Route Map circa 1924. (does not include later spur routes)

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History

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.

airmail-beacon-Omaha1920sBy 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.

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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.

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)

airmail-service-1926 airmail-boise-idaho airmail-beacon-airfield-Nebraska1920s

(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.

airmail-vintage-ad

1926-vintage newspaper advertisement for airmail service

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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.

airmail-beacon-design airmail-beacon-graphic airmail-beacon-example

(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.

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)

airmail-envelope  airmail-beacon-stamp  early-US-airmail

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Rapid Growth Until Obsolete

airmail-beacon-62In 1926 management of the beacon system was turned over to the Department of Commerce, which continued expansion or the airmail beacon system until 1929.

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.

(Click thumbnails to enlarge)

airmail-beacon-hudspeth2 airmail-beacon-9 airmail-concrete-arrow-6

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Today

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.

airmail-beacon-8

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Mapping

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:

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• 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).

airmail-beacon-1930s• 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).

• The concrete arrow of Beacon 33 is still visible in Cottage Grove, Minnesota. It is even visible in street view!

• The concrete arrow and generator shed at Delaware Springs Intermediate Field are still visible, deep in remote Texas. Read more about Delaware Springs Field here.

• 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.

airmail-beacon-hudspeth

Concrete arrow barely visible at Hudspeth Intermediate Field

• 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)

labeled-arrow

• 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).

grants-milan-beacon

The Aviation Heritage Museum of the Grants-Milan Airport in NM has restored this airway beacon (picture courtesy cibolahistory.org)

• 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.

airmail-beacon-37A-BloomingtonOverlook• 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. (photo 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.

• A restored tower is on display in Indian Mounds Park of St. Paul, Minnesota. This 1929 example has recently been re-painted to its original black & yellow livery. (courtesy S-I reader Gerald Kackman, detailed information about this beacon can be found here)

• The faint outline of a concrete arrow is still visible just off German Road in Steward, Illinois (courtesy S-I reader Jeremy Nesemeier, beacon number unknown).

• 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 45a• 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).

• Between Trinidad, Colorado and Raton, New Mexico, a complete specimen sits in relatively good condition. El Paso Puebla Airway Beacon 45 (photo above right). (addition & photo courtesy S-I reader Marc @ Skymachines.com)

• Little other than the tower’s foundation of Beacon 5 is still visible in Vacaville, California.

airmail-beacon-pat-elliott• 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)

• A modern antenna system has been built on top of an old concrete arrow in Wolf Creek, Oregon. (tip & photo at right courtesy S-I reader Pat Elliott, beacon number unknown)

• In Woods Cross, Utah, there is a concrete arrow northeast of the Salt Lake City Airport (beacon number unknown).

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air-travel-1929-original

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)

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Click here to see the 1945 Civil Aeronautics Administration Air Marking Guide (warning: 45-page pdf). Big thanks to Steve Owen from cibolahistory.org for sharing this with us!

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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!

airway_beacons_map_clip

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  1. December 4, 2013 at 16:28

    I heard about these arrows.

  2. Alex
    December 4, 2013 at 16:35

    What a fascinating story! Those early planes must have been flying quite low, the concrete arrows aren’t the easiest to see. I guess it would have been easier with the tower attached.

    I hope some of these are preserved for posterity, this is such an important part of American history.

    Great stuff, as usual, sometimes interesting…

    • December 4, 2013 at 22:31

      Thank you, I agree, hope more of them can be preserved. Thankfully, the mostly remote locations have kept developers and vandals away.

      • Alex
        December 5, 2013 at 18:23

        The one pictured at St. George, Utah looks very idyllic in the photo supplied. When you google earth it and zoom out, it’s surrounded by new developments and golf courses. It may not last too much longer…

  3. tabularasa88
    December 4, 2013 at 18:36

    Being the sort of blowhard know it all who prides himself on knowing about all sorts of obscure things, I’m kind of embarrassed I’ve not heard of these before. And I’m with Alex above; those early planes couldn’t have been flying over a thousand feet. That arrow disappears quickly on that google earth map. Great piece as always.

    • December 4, 2013 at 22:33

      The arrows do disappear quickly today, but at the time they were painted bright yellow. I’m sure that made them easier to see, albeit not much. But you’re right, even with a good condition example they’re still difficult to see on satellite view. I’d imagine the lighted beacon towers at night were more helpful than the yellow arrows during the day.

  4. December 5, 2013 at 04:57

    I read about these on another blog recently, but it’s always worth getting your perspective on things. Whereas much of the internet is about showing you as many strange/pretty things as possible with little explanation, you flesh out the details without giving an information overload. Thanks!

    • Aero
      December 8, 2013 at 03:14

      I agree, exellent level of detail – and great post as always

  5. December 6, 2013 at 22:44

    great stuff!

  6. December 9, 2013 at 10:52

    Great article!
    Never knew about these beacons.

  7. December 14, 2013 at 18:07

    Great article – I had no idea that these structures existed. The 90-degree angle arrow is interesting – hard left or right on the rudder to make the change of direction!

    • January 28, 2014 at 21:24

      Those were for the Redbull acrobatic air mail planes. ;-)
      Thanks for the reblog!

  8. December 14, 2013 at 18:09

    Reblogged this on Graham's Blog and commented:
    A fascinating and informative article. I had no idea that such structures existed. Hopefully some will survive encroaching development and the effects of nature.

  9. Jen Lovett
    December 17, 2013 at 13:10

    Another great story! Love the links to the views of the arrows.

    • December 26, 2013 at 10:15

      Thank you Jen, that part took time but makes for a more interactive post on the subject. I’m glad it was of use. :)

  10. December 23, 2013 at 18:38

    Very Cool! I enjoy reading your blogs- I always learn something new! Great post… again!

  11. Nancy Pope
    January 15, 2014 at 13:05

    It wasn’t that the beacons/route became too big for Post Office Department to handle. The Kelly Act of 1926 transferred all airmail routes from public hand to private contractors.

  12. January 16, 2014 at 12:34

    I really enjoyed this article

  13. January 28, 2014 at 17:10

    Very nice summary of the history – more accurate than many – and literally covering a lot of ground. Google Earth is improving in quality all the time! Your links to map/sat images are very well done. Our Grants-Milan museum website has some newer pics now – more authentic beacon eqpt and the new roof on the CAA building is completed (but trees are all bare). Open in Saturdays thru winter….

    • January 28, 2014 at 21:22

      Why thank you Steve, this is high praise coming from you. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your feedback.

      Thank you for the updated information. I hope you don’t mind I’ve gone ahead and updated the picture and included a link to the beacon’s page on the CCHS site. I’ve also fixed the omission of Grants from the name; now it should say “Grants-Milan.” Cheers!

  14. Barb Zinn
    February 4, 2014 at 16:04

    Many fire lookouts had numbers painted on their roofs, some associated with a beacon, some not. Does anyone know more about this?

    • April 23, 2014 at 08:19

      We do have a CAA “Air Marking” manual in pdf dated 1945 that includes specific guidelines for painting forest tower roofs with a north arrow and coordinates. This style became the norm for CAA structures (generator sheds, flight service stations, etc) in the mid-late ’40′s. We used the template models from this handbook to paint site coordinates on our new museum roof.

      Can’t attach the page image here….but contact us at http://www.cibolahistory.org if you’d like the manual in pdf.
      Steve

      • April 23, 2014 at 12:11

        Thanks Steve. If there’s anything you feel would be beneficial to this story and you’d allow me to post (text, images, attachments, etc), I’d be happy to add it to the article with appropriate credit/link backs to your page.

  15. KL1121
    March 2, 2014 at 20:04

    Who knows, maybe in a thousand years future humans will come upon these concrete arrows and will surmise that these are the works of aliens for navigation purposes.

  16. March 27, 2014 at 22:41

    Found one today.. Wolf Creek Oregon.. :http://www.google.com/maps/@42.7300823,-123.3843434,103m/data=!3m1!1e3

    Photos on my Facebook

    • March 29, 2014 at 11:19

      Great find Pat! I’ve added your discovery to the list, along with your photo. Thank you! :)

  17. John McNamara
    March 31, 2014 at 10:37

    Any arrows in the state of Indiana??

    • Ray
      April 2, 2014 at 15:04

      Yes, at the Shelbyville Municipal Airport, just north of I74.

  18. Ray
    April 2, 2014 at 15:20

    I have been researching these for several years. By my count, there are 75 arrows still in existence. The vast majority of these are in the west. However, I have found arrows in Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. If any of your readers would like to contribute their notes, photos, and/or possible sites, I would be very greatful.

  19. Ray
    April 4, 2014 at 12:35

    For those interested, I have a KML file and an Excel spreadsheet of all the know arrows. Since my last post, I have added two more for a total of 77 arrows. To request a copy send an email to ray@soaringhawk.com

    • Skye
      May 12, 2014 at 10:29

      I found the following site where they looked up the beacon locations from the NGS database. Not all (in fact very few of the ones that I looked at), actually have arrows. KML dowloads are available. http://surveymarks.planetzhanna.com/map-of-ngs-airway-beacons/

      • May 12, 2014 at 17:55

        Many beacon sites with arrows were abandoned before the NGS /CGS did surveys. Here in NM, the 1929 mid-continent airway route laid out by Lindbergh for TAT was mostly realigned in 1930-31. The sites were stripped and beacons relocated. But by 1932 the CAA was no longer building arrows for most new sites. In some cases (CAA airfields) metal arrows, raised above the snow, were installed.

      • May 13, 2014 at 19:58

        Hello Skye, thanks for the share! I actually had several KML files linked in the article when it was first posted, but I had to remove them because the creators/owners were unhappy I was linking them here.

        I’ll defer to Ray and Steve for that stuff; they can speak intelligently on the subject and point people in the right direction. :-)

  20. Shari
    April 14, 2014 at 14:24

    Interesting article as I grew up in a home with one of the beacons on our property. It is still standing, but not working. Years ago our local paper ran an article about it and the history behind it. We always used it as a landmark to find our house when telling visitors how to find us.

    • Ray
      April 15, 2014 at 10:40

      Would you expand on your memories of the beacon? Where was the property? Any details about the beacon would be very helpful. Thanks,

  21. Joan short
    May 3, 2014 at 07:03

    Fascinating article—good old Yankee ingenuity.please keep me in the loop.

  22. John
    May 30, 2014 at 16:46

    Hello! Very informative site, thank you.

    I just over flew a beacon tower – I *think* it might 21 – on the SFO – SLC route on a ridge just south west of Fernley, Nevada. Would you like pictures?

    I am a little confused, because I couldn’t see the arrow at all, but perhaps it is covered by sand. I also couldn’t see anything that made the Fernley Intermediate Airfield stand out a bit to the east. I thought there was a bulls eye remaining, but I couldn’t see it.

    • June 4, 2014 at 07:48

      Hi John, yes I would like to see the pictures. I might be able to include them in the post if we can verify it is a beacon location. Do you happen to know the coordinates? I scanned Fernley on Google maps and it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

      A lot of cool stuff out there though, I’ll say that! Email the pictures to sometimes.interesting at gmail dot com if you don’t mind and we’ll give a closer look. Thanks!

  23. Cleo
    June 3, 2014 at 20:21

    Hi! This is so interesting to me as I have never heard of them! Does anyone know if there are any located in Arizona? Also, where are the ones in Pennsylvania?
    Thank you!
    Cleo

    • June 3, 2014 at 22:30

      Cleo, we have a friend who’s researched Arizona airways for quite a few years; there are plenty of beacon sites but it does not appear that any concrete arrows were built in the state. New Mexico has several between Gallup and Albuquerque, plus CAA airports on the southern border airway had them (Rodeo NM to El Paso).

      As a side note, by 1931 the concrete arrows were being superseded at some new airway locations by metal-panel arrows on steel frames – that did not require a snow-shovel!

  24. Dave
    June 9, 2014 at 22:21

    I had a hard time trying to bring up the arrow for Montello Nevada. Do you have the GPS for this one?

    • June 11, 2014 at 14:43

      Hi Dave, I’m sorry the link isn’t working for you. The coordinates for the Montello Nevada location are +40° 55′ 40.33″, -114° 17′ 40.03″. Cheers.

  25. June 13, 2014 at 07:29

    Nice and interesting story. I’d heard about these before, don’t remember where, but had forgotten about them. Thanks for the links to the maps. Fun to see on Google earth!

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