The Forgotten Concrete Arrows of Early U.S. Airmail

The pathway of light, concrete, steel, and paint that united East and West. 

Originally published in 787xx magazine, January 2014.


I’ve spent this last month in the high desert of Joshua Tree, California. Like every time I’m given the freedom to set my own schedule, I’ve become somewhat nocturnal; up just before sunset and asleep with the sunrise. Working at night, I’ve gotten into the habit of watching the dawn from the back porch, which has one of those big padded futon couches that hurts your back but you nap on anyway. It faces the eastern mountains and the dirt road that cuts through the pass.

At first, around 6 am, the outline of sky against ground is almost invisible, defined only by the headlights blinking on as they crest the horizon, each one more the color of a campfire than a star. The cars kick up dust, and it catches some promise of the morning light that has yet to seep into the air; it floats like a ghost against mountain and sky both. As the cars descend the pass, the lights of the houses flicker out, and their beads are replaced with the pale gradient of blues that heralds the purples and pinks of morning. This is the hour of the jet trails.

My mountain is some sort of apex of morning travel, it seems, because all at once the sky is rent with the comet-tails of dozens of planes. High in a cloudless sky, they catch the gold of the sun that has yet to break the mountains; they appear as rifts in the fabric of the air, fires against water. The trails are short and broad and fast, and seem more astronomical oddity than American Airlines. If I continued to watch the sky, I would see the air grow golden and then white, camouflaging the trails, and then the small bright sun would break the mountains and climb quick into the day. But I don’t continue to watch the sky, because invariably, I can’t keep my eyes open. Sometime in the next few hours I’ll startle awake at some sound or the heat of the day, and I’ll groggily pull myself and my blanket to bed, my back hurting.

All this means nothing, except that I fall asleep every night thinking of flying.

60 years after the Pony Express ran its last route, the Postal Service began coast-to-coast airmail. On August 20th, 1920, a inaugural carrier passage was flown from New York City to San Francisco, and back. It was heralded as the future of information and parcel exchange. It promised a quickness and ease unreachable by ground transport. It made splashy headlines and set steep rates. It also took longer than the train. Airways, at the time, were mere concepts; aviation charts did not exist. Instead pilots used landmarks to fly, which took them on long detours. They got lost often, and flying in bad weather, over clouds, or at night was completely impossible.

This was a problem. Seeking a solution, the Postal Service set some of the nation’s brightest designers and inventors to the task. They met and discussed and brought their research and numbers before Congress, outlining the bright future of mail technology that they envisioned. Across the entire continent, every 10 miles, the US government was to build an arrow. Giant, bright yellow, concrete arrows. At the base of each arrow, a 51 foot steel tower would cast a million-candlepower beacon onto the concrete. These arrows would span the entire route, rendering the need for complicated maps and instruments all but obsolete.

And Congress went for it. They passed funding for the project in 1923, and by 1924 a line of the giant arrows stretched from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Cleveland, Ohio. It worked; even the most dense of pilots seemed unable to get lost in the face of such a blindingly obvious path. The delivery time matched the train, and then passed it. An English aviation journalist wrote in 1924, “The U.S. Post Office runs what is far and away the most efficiently organized and efficiently managed Civil Aviation undertaking in the World.” By next summer, the system reached New York, and by 1929 it spanned the entire continent.

I just want to pause a moment and point out how very odd this must have looked from above. This was before the era of rural electrification. Cities were small, and clustered around the coasts. When one flew at night, the sky was lit with stars, but the ground was nothing but a great black sea, stretching out in every direction, forever. Except, now, there were thousands of cartoon-bright yellow arrows, floating on little islands of florescent million-horse-power-lights, literally pointing from one end of the country to the other. Okay. Back to the story.

I think we all know how this ends. Only a few months after the completion of the last great arrow, the stock market crashed. Demand for overnight packages and letters dropped. Maintenance on the towers was cut, and then new advances in radio and radar made the beacons obsolete. The Commerce Department decommissioned the project in the 1940s, sending each steel tower to the war effort as it came down. Perhaps some of them were made into airplanes.

But recycled concrete doesn’t have much use in war.

The arrows are still there, hundreds of them; maybe thousands. Their paint is gone, the concrete is cracked and weathered, but they still span the country; sitting derelict in fields or on rocky slopes, as suburban developments and strip malls grow around them. They don’t have much use; pilots don’t spend time looking down anymore, as their machines do it for them. The arrows don’t look like much from the ground, they are too big to comprehend as a marker or a symbol. Instead, they resemble nothing more than a concrete slab, or a parking lot. Maybe a runway.

But, unlike in 1924, or 1940, or any of the decades that followed this first foray into aviation, one doesn’t have to own a plane to watch from above. Our machines can do it for us.

If you visit 40.886, -111.9493 on a satellite map, you’ll see an arrow on the banks of a river. 37.1805, -113.4003 is on a rocky cliff near a lake. And there are hundreds, maybe thousands, still pointing from one sea to the other.