July 16, 2015

The True Story Behind Those Giant Concrete Arrows

  • By: Lauren Walser
Giant concrete arrow

photo by: Dppowell/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Giant concrete arrows were first installed by the Department of Commerce around 1927 to guide commercial pilots.

In the days before high-tech navigation systems, pilots flying across the country had slightly simpler tools to point them in the right direction: a network of beacons and giant concrete arrows.

Some of those arrows still exist today—huge, mysterious, brush-covered artifacts, generally in remote reaches of the country. To an unsuspecting hiker, it might be a startling discovery. But together, these beacons and arrows tell the story of how the country’s earliest airmail and commercial airline pilots navigated the skies.

From 1918 until about 1926/1927, the Post Office Department operated the nation’s airmail service. This was the early days of air travel, and the department needed a way for pilots to get from point A to point B safely and reliably, especially during nighttime flights or in bad weather. The solution? The department installed a system of 50-foot lighted beacon towers across the country, spaced several miles apart from each other.

Eventually, the Post Office Department turned airmail delivery over to private contractors. In 1927, the Department of Commerce took over responsibility for the airways, and they continued to build additional flyways and expand existing ones. And it was around then that they installed the 70-foot-long concrete directional arrows at the beacons.

It was an easy enough system: The beacon towers were each assigned a number. The arrows would point to the beacon with the next highest number. That way, whichever direction you were flying, you would know which way to go to find the next beacon on your path.

Large beacon towers.

photo by: National Postal Museum

Large beacon towers, equipped with lights, would guide early pilots across the country.

A beacon tower at North Platte, Nebraska.

photo by: National Postal Museum

A beacon tower at North Platte, Nebraska, as seen in the mid-1920s.

It was an imperfect system.

The beacons were designed to be especially useful at night, as pilots would fly from one light to the next.

But at night, they weren’t able to see the concrete arrows on the ground.

And during the day, the pilots would often fly too high to see the arrows clearly, anyway. Instead, they relied on rivers, mountains, and other landmarks.

The last arrow was constructed in 1931, and as new navigation technology advanced, the arrows and beacons were essentially obsolete.

While pilots haven’t looked to these land-based navigation aids for decades, many still remain as relics of early days of air travel. And, of course, they remain exciting discoveries for anyone lucky enough to stumble upon one.

A concrete arrow in Lovelock.

photo by: Google Maps

A concrete arrow in Lovelock, Nevada, as seen from the satellite view on Google Maps.

What about you? Have you ever seen these arrows in the wild? If so, let us know. We’d love to see your photos.

Many thanks to Jenny Lynch, historian and corporate information services manager at the United States Postal Service, and Nancy A. Pope, curator/historian at the National Postal Museum, for pointing us (pun intended) to the right information.

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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