If you’re ever really lost on a road trip across America, and I’m talking really lost (let’s say the battery on your smartphone just died along with that compass application you downloaded for situations just like this), perhaps you might be lucky enough to find yourself next to one of the giant 70 foot concrete arrows that point your way across the country, left behind by a forgotten age of US mail delivery.
Photo by Clay Fraser
Certainly a peculiar site to come across in the middle of nowhere, 50 foot, possibly 70 foot long, with weeds crawling through its concrete cracks, abandoned long ago by whoever put it there. This arrow may point your way out of the desert but it’s also pointing to the past.
Long before the days of radio (and those convenient little smartphone applications), the US Postal service began a cross-country air mail service using army war surplus planes from World War I, many piloted by former army flyers. To get the planes and everybody’s mail safely across the country by air, the postman was going to need a little help.
In 1924, the federal government funded enormous concrete arrows to be built every 10 miles or so along established airmail routes to help the pilots trace their way across America in bad weather conditions and particularly at night, which was a more efficient time to fly.
Painted in bright yellow, they were each built alongside a 50 foot tall tower with a rotating gas-powered light and a little rest house for the folks that maintained the generators and lights. These airway beacons are said to have been visible from a distance of 10 miles high.
The Air Mail route from New York to San Francisco with beacon locations.
A model of one of the arrows and beacons at the IPMS (International Plastic Modelers Socity) Nationals contest in Loveland, CO, which you a pretty good idea of the layout.
By World War II, radio was king and the airway beacons were obsolete. Taking anything they could get, the government took down the towers and recycled them as scrap metal for the war effort.
It’s unknown exactly how many airway lighthouses remain (project anyone?) but one preservation program called Passport in Time has protected three beacon sites from falling into complete disrepair, saving the generator huts and a neighbouring 1930s cabin that served as a residence for the fire lookout.
There is also this fully restored restored tower and its generator shack in New Mexico.
While no one bothered to remove the concrete arrows, many have probably been caught up by development but an outline could still be visible from the air if they were just covered over by a grass lawn. Or maybe you might just come across some concrete remains that seem very out of place in the middle of a field…
Image by Henry Brean for Las Vegas Review
Here’s a link to one of the giant arrows on Google maps as well as a website listing the original locations of Eastern and Western beacons, siting which ones have been found/ destroyed/ preserved etc.