Imagine that you’re exploring America on a two lane road out in the middle of nowhere when your dog lets you know he needs a potty break. There’s not much traffic and you spot a wide pullout where you can safely park, so you get off the road and let your four-legged buddy out to do his business while you stretch your legs. Fido is off in the bushes when you hear him barking and you wander over to see if he’s spotted a jackrabbit, but instead, you find a giant concrete arrow, some seventy feet long. That could sure get your imagination off and running!
What have you found? Evidence of a race of giants that once roamed the land? Proof that extraterrestrials do exist and have visited Earth? No, the explanation is rather simple, but it’s still a fascinating story. You have stumbled upon a reminder of the Transcontinental Air Mail Route.
Long before the internet, before cell phones and texts and instant messaging, people actually wrote letters on pieces of paper, stuck them in a mailbox, and sent them on their way. Depending on where you mailed it from and where it was headed, that letter might make its way to the recipient in a day, or a week, or even longer. The country was still young and we had not yet conquered vast distances at the speed of light.
If your letter was addressed to a friend in the same city or a nearby community, it wasn’t too complicated. But what if that friend was all the way across the country? Depending on when in history you lived, the mail might be carried on a stagecoach, or a train, or even the hard riding Pony Express. But the times, they were a-changing.
On August 20, 1920, 60 years after the Pony Express shut down, the United States inaugurated its first coast-to-coast airmail delivery route. And just as the Pony Express riders had been fearless young men who braved the harsh landscape, bandits, and marauding Indians, the first mail pilots were bold men who took to the air in open cockpit airplanes and little in the way of navigational equipment.
In those days, the few aviation charts that existed were often unreliable, and pilots found their way across the country by following a compass and landmarks on the ground. Flying in inclement weather or at night was difficult, if not impossible.
To help speed mail delivery, the Postal Service created a series of beacons that extended from New York to San Francisco. This would become the world’s first ground-based civilian navigation system.
Every ten miles or so there was a 50 foot steel tower with an illuminated rotating beacon and a giant concrete arrow painted yellow pointing the way. The arrows could be seen from high in the air, some say as high as ten miles, though I don’t know if those early airplanes were capable of flying at that altitude. Think of it as the proverbial Yellow Brick Road, but with no Wizard of Oz at the end.
The system worked well for about twenty years, then advances in technology replaced it with more modern aircraft that navigated with radio beacons and radar. The steel towers were torn down and their material used for other purposes in World War II, and the old system was all but forgotten.
But even today, many of the old concrete arrows still exist and can be found in fields across the country, a reminder of a different place and time, and a breed of pilots who literally flew by the seat of their pants to get the mail there on time.
Today is your last chance to enter our Free Drawing for an audiobook of Fight For the Kingdom by Victoria Schwimley. It’s the story of two boys who go on a camping trip and find themselves on a magical adventure in another land. This is one your grandkids will love. To enter, click on this Free Drawing link or the tab at the top of this page and enter your name (first and last) in the comments section at the bottom of that page (not this one). Only one entry per person per drawing, please, and you must enter with your real name. To prevent spam or multiple entries, the names of cartoon or movie characters are not allowed. The winner will be drawn Sunday evening.
Thought For The Day – If you are sitting in public and a stranger sits down next to you, stare straight ahead and say, “It’s done and the mess is cleaned up. Did you bring the money?”