Pointing The Way Forward

On 20 August, 1920, the United States opened its first coast-to-coast airmail delivery route (the Transcontinental Air Mail route), just 60 years after the Pony Express closed up shop. There were no good aviation charts in those days, so pilots had to eyeball their way across the country using landmarks. This meant that flying in bad weather was difficult, and night flying was just about impossible.

Airmail navigation arrow in Walnut Creek, California. (Pi.1415926535, Wikimedia Commons, 16 August 2018)

Airmail navigation arrow in Walnut Creek, California. (Pi.1415926535, Wikimedia Commons, 16 August 2018)

The Postal Service solved the problem with the world’s first ground-based civilian navigation system: a series of lit beacons that would extend from New York to San Francisco. Every ten miles, pilots would pass a bright yellow concrete arrow. Each arrow would be surmounted by a 51-foot steel tower and lit by a million-candlepower rotating beacon. (A generator shed at the tail of each arrow powered the beacon.) Now mail could get from the Atlantic to the Pacific not in a matter of weeks, but in just 30 hours or so. Even the dumbest of air mail pilots, it seems, could follow a series of bright yellow arrows straight out of a Tex Avery cartoon. By 1924, just a year after Congress funded it, the line of Giant concrete markers stretched from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Cleveland, Ohio. The next summer, it reached all the way to New York, and by 1929 it spanned the continent uninterrupted, the envy of postal systems worldwide.

The remnants of Transcontinental Air Mail Route Beacon 37A, which was located atop a bluff in St. George, Utah. With concrete arrows indicating the direction to the next beacon, a rotating light tower, and a shed that usually held a generator and fuel tanks, these beacons were once situated every 10 miles on air routes across the United States beginning around 1923.
Transcontinental Air Mail Route Beacon 37A at St. George, Utah. (Dppowell, Wikimedia Commons, 30 July 2014)

Radio and radar are, of course, infinitely less cool than a concrete Yellow Brick Road from sea to shining sea, but I think we all know how this story ends. New advances in communication and navigation technology made the big arrows obsolete, and the Commerce Department decommissioned the beacons in the 1940s. The steel towers were torn down and went to the war effort. But the hundreds of arrows remain. Their yellow paint is gone, their concrete cracks a little more with every winter frost, and no one crosses their path much, except for coyotes and tumbleweeds.

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