Concrete Arrows and the U.S. Airmail Beacon System
Dec 4, 2013
Scattered across the United States are 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 or 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.
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early airmail flight
Boise Airmail Station
Intermediate Field with tower in Nebraska
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.
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.
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
In 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.
U.S. Airmail Beacon Lamps, Un-restored and Restored
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Watch: Restored U.S. Airmail Beacon lamp rotates
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. (List is continually updated as submissions are received):
[ Listed alphabetically by state: number of locations identified ]
• West of Phoenix, Arizona, the remains of beacon #33 of the Los Angeles-Phoenix Airway are crumbling. The concrete arrow is no longer visible, but the radio tower remains – albeit in poor condition. S-I reader C. Alexander Leigh visited the beacon and shared his Flickr photo set which contains an excellent collection of images of the collapsing tower. (photo below courtesy C. Alexander Leigh)
• On Black Mountain, in between Hornbrook and Yreka, the remains of an arrow are still visible underneath some shrubs (beacon number unknown, courtesy S-I reader David Callahan).
• S-I Reader Art Wilson tells us of the beacon tower at the airport in Blythe, California, which used to be at an emergency landing strip in Goffs, California, west of Needles (pictured at right, courtesy Art Wilson). Art elaborates: “When the Goffs strip was dismantled in 1936, the beacon was moved to Blythe, but at a different location from the current site.” Recently some $6,000 was spent on its renovation.
• The concrete arrow of the former MX1095 Beacon can be seen just east of the airport in Montague, California.
• There is no concrete arrow or steel frame tower, however the original light from the Mount Diablo beacon has been restored and replaced atop the tower at the peak of Mount Diablo.
• The remains of a beacon power shed are keeping a concrete arrow company tucked away in the hills off I-15 in San Bernardino County, California not far from Halloran Summit. (photos abovecourtesy S-I readers Paula and Travis Cottrill. 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.
• A two-arrow, two-tail beacon is vandalized, but visible in Walnut Creek, California. (courtesy S-I reader Bob Simmons, beacon number unknown)
• About five miles east of the Manzanita Reservation and ten miles north of Interstate 8 in Southern California, the collapsed remains of the generator shed from Airway Beacon 5 of the San Diego – Tucson Airway are still visible. (courtesy S-I reader James Martin, Airway Beacon 5, photo at right)
• North of Weed, California the remains of a concrete arrow are on private property, but still visible. (courtesy S-I reader Corey Scysen, beacon number unknown)
• The remains of a concrete arrow have recently been discovered and are undergoing restoration at Bethany Airport, CT(pictured below, Courtesy S-I reader Mark Scott). Thanks to Ray Hawkins, we know the Bethany arrow “Bethany CAA 9 – 2000×1375 – irregular shaped; 1.25 miles north of town and 9 miles north of New Haven; In the 1927 Airway Bulletin No. 78, listed as CAA site 9, and as an irregular shape and supported the New York to Boston airway.”
• The last surviving airway beacon in Georgia is five miles east of Cartersville, Georgia, the remains of the Atlanta-Nashville route’s Beacon #3 concrete arrow have been preserved and were dedicated in a ceremony on October 7th, 2016. The arrow is not publicly accessible nor is it visible from Satellite view, hidden under a canopy of trees in the Waterside Estates gated community just off Arrow Mountain Drive.(Beacon #3 of the Atlanta-Nashville Airway, courtesy S-I reader Nancy Reeves & Michael Suter)
• There are a host of arrows which have been discovered around Boise, Idaho. A concrete arrow just off Interstate 84 about 25 miles SE of town is all that remains of Beacon 27. (photo at right and below).
• A complete beacon is intact and visible in Dubois, Idaho. This location sits near a 4,750 foot gravel runway which is open to the public. This beacon still has its tower and accompanying power shack, although the equipment inside is long gone. (Beacon number unknown, ID & photo at right courtesy from S-I reader Jerry Muller.)
• A complete beacon shack and tower are still standing in Malad City, Idaho. The concrete arrow is no longer visible, perhaps paved over, but the shack is sealed and appears to still be in use.
This beacon is located on an open public airport. (Beacon number unknown, ID & photo at right courtesy from S-I reader Jerry Muller).
• 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).
• The faint outline of a concrete arrow is hidden in some corn fields just off German Road in Steward, Illinois. NOTE: The arrow isn’t visible unless the corn has been recently harvested (courtesy S-I reader Jeremy Nesemeier, Omaha-Chicago Airway, beacon number 31 or 33. photo at right courtesy Erik Croy).
• Between Moscow and Milroy the remains of a concrete arrow are still in good condition, about 15 miles east of Shelbyville in Indiana (part of Cincinnati-Indianapolis Airway, beacon number unknown, courtesy S-I reader Marvin Runge).
• A concrete arrow from beacon sits in good condition at Shelbyville Municipal Airport (KGEZ), about 25 miles southeast of Indianapolis in Indiana (part of Cincinnati-Indianapolis Airway, beacon number unknown).
• Just west of Underwood, Indiana, the remains of a beacon are well-hidden deep in the forest. Only the tower remains, and it is mostly hidden by the trees (part of Indianapolis-Louisville airway, beacon number unknown, photo at right courtesy S-I reader John Barthold).
Thanks to S-I readers Denver Alt, Darwin milkman, Jesse Finney, and Aaron Stephenson, who made the trek out to the Underwood beacon in June of 2017 and sent us the photos below. Denver says “The tower is still climbable and the decking is intact… The pad for the generator station has been broken up, and there is no longer evidence of the arrow. It looks like they broke up the pad with a sledge and let nature take its course… Interestingly, we found the remains of several light bulbs. It seems to reason that the guy why climbed up there to change them just chucked the old ones off the top… Tower measures 50′ and has 39 rungs of ladder to the top that each has 15” of spacing between them.
• Just outside of Anthony, Kansas the remains of a concrete arrow and a beacon tower are visible near the entrance to the municipal airport (beacon number unknown, identification & photo at right courtesy S-I reader Becky McClintock).
• About 10 miles southwest of Wichita, Kansas, the remains of a concrete arrow from the Amarillo – Kansas City route sit less than 50 feet off West 87th Street S (beacon number unknown, courtesy S-I reader Randy @ LocoJoe.com)
• 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)
• Near Hickory, Missouri, the remains of Amber Airway 4, Beacon 7’s tower can be seen in the Nodaway Valley Conservation Area.
• In Tarkio, Missouri, the tower from a former beacon sits in the front yard of Congressman Sam Graves, just off State Highway O (the tower is visible in Google Streetview, courtesy Sam Graves).
• The faint outline of a concrete arrow and generator shack is still visible in Buffalo Valley, Nevada(beacon number unknown), near Battle Mountain. Of note at this particular site is the former emergency airfield in the shape of a giant triangle.
Thanks to S-I reader Mike Herberth, we know that the airfield’s tower is now gone, but just south of the arrow the foundation and some metal work from the beacon tower remain. Runways of the emergency airfield were marked with concrete curbs and metal cones, some still visible. The airfield itself is visible from Google satellite view (pictured at right), however due to overgrowth it is not as visible on the ground.
• Ten miles west of Mesquite in the desert of Clark County, Nevada, the remains of a concrete arrow are still visible (courtesy S-I reader Steven Belknap, beacon number unknown).
• In Enterprise, Nevada (pictured below, just south of Las Vegas), the concrete remains of a well-preserved two-piece arrow are still visible (photo below courtesy S-I reader Eugene Vezzetti, beacon number unknown)
• Just outside of Fernley, Nevada sits a lone beacon tower missing the concrete arrow and generator shed (pictured at right courtesy S-I reader Ken Nussear, beacon number unknown).
• A concrete arrow is visible off Old Highway 40 near Golconda, Nevada(beacon number unknown).
• In Humboldt county, Nevada, the remains of an angled concrete arrow sits halfway between the Golconda and Winnemucca beacons (beacon number unknown, courtesy S-I reader Richard Woods).
• In Lovelock, Nevada, another concrete arrow can be seen (beacon number unknown).
• Up on Beacon Hill Road in the Moapa Valley region of Nevada, a concrete arrow is still visible (photos below courtesy Scott Alvar, beacon number unknown).
• There is a right-angle concrete arrow, originally from Beacon 50, still visible in Montello, Nevada.
• Just outside the Toiyabe National Forest in Reno, the remains of an eastward-facing concrete arrow can be seen in the mountains south of town. (courtesy S-I reader Mark Walker, 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)
S-I reader and EAA #402 member Barney Kemter is restoring this beacon. He has already restored and painted the arrow (see below). He also has plans to re-paint the generator shed (with “C-P” on the roof) and eventually add a historical marker. Barney tells us Beacon #2, which dates to 1930, is the last remaining arrow on the CAM #34 (Columbus to Philadelphia) route. Flights started October 25th, 1930, by Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT). Barney also revealed the concrete arrows were placed, not poured.
photos courtesy Barney Kemter
• Just above Grants Pass, Oregon, the remains of a concrete arrow are still visible. A radio tower on site is currently being used by KFMJ-FM (courtesy S-I reader Eric Steinbrenner, beacon number unknown).
• There’s a concrete arrow off a dirt road in Meacham, Oregon(beacon number unknown).
• The remains of a concrete arrow from Seattle-San Francisco route’s Beacon 40A are still visible in the mountains above Myrtle Creek, Oregon (courtesy S-I reader Eric Steinbrenner).
• A restored beacon tower is part of a protected monument in Rocky Butte Natural Area of Portland, Oregon(beacon number unknown, courtesy S-I reader Scott Kessler).
• Above Roseburg, Oregon the concrete arrow is all that remains of Beacon 40B from the Seattle-San Francisco route, in the foothills above the I-5 corridor (courtesy S-I reader Eric Steinbrenner).
• A modern antenna system has been built on top of an old concrete arrow in Wolf Creek, Oregon. (find & pictured above right courtesy S-I reader Pat Elliott, beacon number unknown)
• Between Reidville and Woodruff, South Carolina, there lies a very visible arrow from Beacon 14, originally of the Atlanta–New York line and circa 1935. The arrow is also clearly visible in Google Street view(courtesy S-I reader Chris Little, picture at right courtesy Melton B.)
• 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 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.
• In Schwertner, Texas the remains of a concrete arrow are still visible on some land owned by a relative of one of our readers. (courtesy S-I reader Tommy Madden. Beacon number unknown)
• A concrete arrow is still visible just outside of Sweetwater, Texas, however it is on private land and not accessible. (beacon number known, courtesy S-I reader Thomas Howlett.)
• The concrete arrow from Beacon 37A is visible from the Bloomington Overlook location in St. George, Utah. (pictured at right)
• The arrow for Beacon 37B is still visible in the eastern reaches of St. George, Utah. (courtesy S-I reader Mike Broussard)
• A concrete arrow is all that’s left of Beacon 37C at the Quail Creek Reservoir in Utah between Hurricane and St. George, Utah. (pictured below)
• In Washington County, Utah, the concrete arrow remains of Beacon 40 sit on a ridge north of Pintura, less than a quarter mile west of I-15. (pictured at right, courtesy S-I reader Robert Ferry).
• In Woods Cross, Utah, there is a concrete arrow northeast of the Salt Lake City Airport (beacon number unknown).
• About 20 miles northeast of Ellensburg, WA, the foundation remains of a Beacon #10 from the Seattle-Spokane route can still be seen (courtesy S-I reader C. Alexander Leigh).
• The remains of a concrete arrow are still visible about a mile north of I-80 near the ghost town of Bryan, Wyoming. (beacon number unknown, courtesy S-I reader Daniel Quinn)
• A shed and tower are still visible at the Johnson County Municipal Airport in Buffalo, Wyoming. (beacon number unknown, courtesy S-I reader Gar Jorgenson)
• In the wilderness outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, the remote concrete arrow of Beacon 38 sits undisturbed (pictured below, courtesy S-I reader John Breeding).
John shared his encounter with Beacon 38: “The concrete is still in amazing shape… the ‘concrete’ is basically quartz pebbles held together with cement…that arrow is going to be there for centuries if no one messes with it. The tower supports were cut off at ground level and what appears to be the fuel oil shed foundation seems to have been broken up but is still visible. One other interesting point of note is the barren ground in the shape of the arrow just a foot or so off the edge of the concrete. My guess is they ‘salted’ the ground there to enhance the arrow shape from the air. Decades later there’s still nothing growing there.” Before you consider visiting, John notes this may be on private property.
• About six miles east of Hanna, Wyoming are the overgrown remains of Beacon 31 from the Salt Lake Omaha Airway. Head approximately seven miles west of Hanna and you’ll find the remains of Beacon 29 barely visible and sitting just off 287. (courtesy S-I reader Glenna Hansen)
• North of I-80 outside Laramie, Wyoming, the shed and arrow from Summit Radio Beacon 38 (pictured at right) from the Salt Lake Omaha Airway are visible on Beacon Hill in the Laramie Range. The concrete arrow from Beacon 40 is also nearby, about 9 miles NW of Cheyenne. (submissions courtesy S-I reader Glenna Hansen, picture courtesy Mel Duncan).
• In Medicine Bow, Wyoming, the remains of a beacon, shed, and tower are visible but in poor repair. (Beacon number unknown, picture at right courtesy S-I reader Glenna Hansen).
• About five miles south of Superior, Wyoming the remains of a concrete arrow are visible just North of I-80 (beacon number unknown, courtesy S-I reader Curtis Johnson).