Wednesday, September 24, 2014


…from the Pre- to Recent History tour
of Central Nevada and Utah

In a short 75-year span from 1850 through the late 1920s, we’d gone from walking across the continent to flying across it.  While it once took months to get a letter from the gold fields in California back to the farm in Illinois, by 1925, it could be accomplished in 29 hours using the airmail service.

I suspect that this advanced delivery system came into being because after World War I there were many skilled pilots with equipment available and time on their hands.

Prior to the advent of radio wave communication, pilots could only rely on visual cues to get from place to place.   Thus, the early air service followed the railroad across the otherwise trackless deserts of the Basin and Range.

Across Utah and Nevada, remnants of some concrete arrows may be found.  These were coupled with forty-foot tall light beacons.  Each beacon had a gasoline generated power plant to supply the necessary electricity for  the light.  The illuminated arrows were placed across the desert to route the early flyboys of the mail service without requiring visual contact with the rail line.  Some remnants are accessible along the I-80 corridor.  Some are further afield.

Recently, we found a few.

This one is nicely preserved located within the I-80 right-of-way.

Others are being overtaken by weather and weeds.

Some required access through a gate.

This example shows an angle, as it is located at a point where pilots must change their heading.  The steel remnants used to anchor a forty-foot tall beacon.

We sketched the thing and took measurements.

The arrows were constructed such that the point indicated the easterly direction.  The square at the opposite end indicated west and usually supported the gas-powered generator.  A square in the middle grounded the tower. 

We found that several of the old beacons arrows are located near where present-day cell phone or other communication service towers have been erected.

We found one example that was a challenge to get to but well worth the effort.

Silver Zone Pass is about ten miles west of Wendover, NV.  Hiking the service road seemed smarter that trying to drive up there.

Along the way, we enjoyed an increasingly panoramic view out toward the distant salt flats of Utah.

We find a nicely preserved example at the summit.

There is so much history to be found.  Some of it is granted significance because of its role in binding the continent and securing our nation like the Gold Spike National Historic Site.  Others, like these crumbling arrows may soon be lost to time and the elements, but they were no less important in binding together the nation in their day.



More information on the Beacon Arrows of the Early Air Mail Service can be found on-line.  Here’s one pretty good source:

The FAA publishes many pilot and flight specific manuals. Buried in a section called “Flight Inspection History “ we find: 

Drawing upon the methods of marine navigation, airway beacons were developed by the Post Office. The earliest lighting consisted both of rotating beacons and fixed course lights. The beacons were placed 10 miles apart and the 1,000-watt lamps were amplified by 24-inch parabolic mirrors into a beam exceeding one million candlepower. They were mounted onto 51-foot towers anchored on 70-foot long concrete-slab arrows, painted black with yellow outline for daytime identification and pointing along the airway. Course lights were also mounted on the light towers, projecting a 100,000 candlepower searchlight beam along the airway course and flashing a Morse-code number between one and nine that identified the individual beacon along a hundred mile segment of airway. Intermediate landing fields were spaced every 30 miles along an airway. These fields were primarily used for emergencies during poor weather or for mechanical difficulties. Pilots could locate these intermediate fields at night by green flashing lights installed on the nearest airway beacon.

The transcontinental segment between Chicago and Cheyenne was equipped with the beacons and nighttime service was begun on July 1, 1924. Additional segments were lit both east and west and the entire route east of Rock Springs, Wyoming, was lit by July 1925. Work continued to complete the lighting of the entire route, and the segment between Rock Springs and Salt Lake City was lit in 1926. The last segment over the California Sierras, with the most difficult terrain, was not completed until 1929 and was done by the new Aeronautics Branch of the Department of Commerce. As the airway was lit, the movement of airmail became a viable service. Even with only the eastern two-thirds of the route available for night flying, the mail could still move from San Francisco to New York in 29 hours, versus 72 hours for the routine rail service. By the mid-1920s, airmail was the greatest success story of commercial aviation and became the foundation upon which the passenger airlines were built.


“Oh, yeah, I knew about those,” my 92-year old mother said while sitting in her rocker at the independent living home.  I’d just informed her that I’d be seeking some long forgotten concrete arrows that were once used by airmail pilots to direct their flights across the Utah and Nevada desert.  “Hap (her father) used them when he flew the air mail after the war.”

“How come you never told me?”

“There’s a lot I never told you…”

Edgar W. “Hap” Bagnell was an “Early Bird” having piloted powered aircraft prior to December 17, 1916:  I was not aware that’d he’d flown airmail after World War I until I mentioned the arrows to Mom.

© 2014
Church of the Open Road Press

1 comment:

  1. You need to write a book! This would be so interesting. Actually, all of your post-retirement adventures are interesting.