The Forgotten Giant Arrows that Guide you Across America

By

15th Nov, 2013

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.

Photo via Core77

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. Photo via here.

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.

Anyone feel like getting lost on purpose to go on a treasure hunt for these giant arrows to the past?!

Sources: A very welcome tip from a reader! as well as Core77, this forum, The History Mystery Exaxaminer.

:::

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You might also like

Comments

More in Don't Be A TouristEditor's PicksMy Secret Paris

Hot Off the Press

Editor's Picks

nightclimbers4

The 1930s Secret Cambridge Club of Rooftop Climbers

As night fell on Cambridge University in the 1930s, a dapper gang of undergraduate students regularly met in secret to climb up historical buildings, illegally exploring their campus via its roo...

Trending 1,080
cocaevolution

How a Wine and Cocaine Cocktail became Coca Cola

I think by now most of us have heard the story about our world-famous soft drink, Coco-Cola, once containing a significant dose of cocaine until it was removed from the recipe in 1903. But lesser...

Trending 14,325
Processed with VSCO with c7 preset

5 Hidden Paris Enclaves

If you stay in Paris long enough, you'll no doubt end up with your own list of urban secrets. This city is full of them. All Parisians lay claim to favourite hidden spots which they unexpecte...

Trending 15,666
tornade-meteo-photo-ancienne-01 (1)

Fearless Photographs of the First Tornado Chasers

I must have watched the movie Twister nearly 30 times. You could say I was slightly obsessed with the critically-panned 90s blockbuster about storm-chasing starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton...

Trending 6,020
sampuru

The Alluring Art of Fake Food in Japan

They say we first eat with our eyes, and no one seems to understand this better than the Japanese restaurant industry. From a pot of thick gravy mid-pour over a perfectly cooked steak to an ice crea...

Trending 11,658