Giant Concrete Arrows That Point Your Way Across America…
Built in 1921 to serve the needs of the U.S. Air Mail Service, the North Platte Airport was America’s first lighted airfield. It was lit by lighting fuel barrels along the runway to guide Jack Knight when he flew the first night time airmail flight on February 22, 1921. It was a segment of the first transcontinental airmail flight, which ended in success despite terrible weather. The plane landed at 7:48 p.m. and left for Omaha at 10:44 p.m. after repairs to the de Havilland 4 aircraft.
A friend recently forwarded an email to me discussing giant concrete arrows that were used to direct the early airmail flights.
Every so often, a hiker or a backpacker, farmer or rancher will run across something puzzling: a large concrete arrow, as much as seventy feet in length, sitting in the middle of scrub-covered nowhere.
What are these giant arrows? Some kind of surveying mark? Landing beacons for flying saucers? Earth’s turn signals? No, it’s… The Transcontinental Air Mail Route.<br><br>
On August 20, 1920, the United States opened its first coast-to-coast airmail delivery route, just 60 years after the Pony Express closed up shop.
There were no good aviation charts in those days, so pilots had to eyeball their way across the country using landmarks. This meant that flying in bad weather was difficult, and night flying was just about impossible.
The Postal Service solved the problem with the world’s first ground-based civilian navigation system: a series of lit beacons that would extend from New York to San Francisco. Every ten miles, pilots would pass a bright yellow concrete arrow. Each arrow would be surmounted by a 51-foot steel tower and lit by a million-candlepower rotating beacon. (A generator shed at the tail of each arrow powered the beacon.)
Now mail could get from the Atlantic to the Pacific not in a matter of weeks, but in just 30 hours or so.
By 1924, just a year after Congress funded it, the line of giant concrete markers stretched from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Cleveland, Ohio. The next summer, it reached all the way to New York, and by 1929 it spanned the continent uninterrupted, the envy of postal systems worldwide.
New advances in communication and navigation technology made the big arrows obsolete, and the Commerce Department decommissioned the beacons in the 1940s. The steel towers were torn down and went to the war effort. But the hundreds of arrows remain. Their yellow paint is gone, their concrete cracks a little more with every winter frost, and no one crosses their path much, except for coyotes and tumbleweeds.
But they’re still out there.
North Platte and Nebraska’s Platte River Valley are situated in the very heart of the Transcontinental Airmail Route. If anyone has any information about any of these giant concrete arrows that still exist, we would love to have it! Please contact Muriel at the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau at 308-532-4729 or firstname.lastname@example.org.