American Deserts Are Littered With 1920s Airway Beacons

by Laura Caseley
Laura is a writer, illustrator, and artist living in New York City.

We’ve all been lost before, and it’s no fun. Even if you have the modern conveniences of GPS at your fingertips, the uncertainty can make anyone anxious! And before that technology? Good luck!

And while people still get lost on the road, these days you hear less about people getting lost in the air. After all, planes are hooked up to satellite and radio networks that keep them safe, on track, and on time. But that wasn’t always the case.

Back in the early days of airmail in the 1920s, things weren’t as orderly as they are today, but the postal pilots knew that the mail had to be delivered on time.

After all, letters have brought people together and changed lives for centuries, like the letter that reunited a woman with her daughter after more than two decades.

So if airmail was going to take off (literally) in the U.S., a system was put into place that was so obvious that it’s almost baffling — and even a little silly.

That’s right. We mean giant arrows to point the pilots in the right direction.

Read on to see the remnants of a time past, and see how strange they look!

[H/T: MessyNessyChic, Las Vegas Review-Journal]

Imagine being in the deserts of the western U.S., where there’s nothing but sand, scrub, and sky for miles. No sign of human activity anywhere.

And then you stumble across a massive concrete arrow on the ground.

Seem unlikely?

It’s more likely than you might think, actually.

Beginning in 1923, the federal government started installing these huge concrete arrows, along with beacon towers that lit up at night, all across the country.

The concrete arrows like this were mainly used in the western area of the country.

Why? Well, this was the time when airmail was gaining popularity, and the airplane made correspondence across large areas faster and more reliable.

But the radios that kept pilots on track were still not the norm. So the next best thing? A trail of lights and arrows leading them across the country.

The arrows range from 50 to 70 feet in length, and could be easily seen during the day by the mail planes. Remember, compared to today’s jets, these planes flew at fairly low altitudes.

And at night, when the arrows would be harder to see, the beacons would light their way.

The arrows would also have been painted bright yellow for extra visibility. Today, though, the paint has long since worn away.

This model shows what the beacons and arrows would have looked like. The arrow served as the foundation, with the beacon tower and an operator’s cabin attached.

It would have looked like something right out of a cartoon, with bright yellow arrows running across the country!

Begun in 1923, the whole country had them by 1929, and mail could be delivered regularly from coast to coast.

Arrows and beacons could be found along airmail traffic routes about every 10 miles between major cities.

This beacon and arrow system, which seems so rudimentary to us, allowed for mail to get from San Francisco to New York in about 30 hours. By ground, it would take weeks.

But with the advent of radio and radar, the arrows quickly became obsolete.

By the 1940s, all planes had radio, and when World War II erupted, many of the beacon towers were dismantled and their metal repurposed for the war effort, leaving the concrete arrows behind.

Today, the ones that haven’t been destroyed or overgrown are mainly found in the deserts of California, Utah, and Nevada, pointing silently toward the coasts.

In fact, this map shows the locations of all the beacons, including the ones that have been removed, destroyed, or otherwise lost. The sheer number of them is amazing!

But they haven’t been completely forgotten.

Organizations like the Cibola County Historical Society in New Mexico has restored a few of the old airmail beacons and gave the beacon towers and cabins a bright new paint job.

They look a lot cuter this way, don’t they?

Literally creating giant arrows to show people the way might sound silly today, but in the 1920s, they system was actually celebrated as genius and made the U.S. postal service one of the most efficient in the world.

Today, you can still see some of the old arrows on Google Maps, and there’s even a website dedicated to cataloguing all of the arrows.

Check out their interactive map to see if there’s an arrow near you!

SHARE this weird but brilliant piece of history with your friends, and the next time you mail a letter, remember what it took in decades past!