The Concrete Arrows That Range Across The United States

By Nolan Moore on Monday, June 30, 2014
airmail-beacons01
“Life is one long insane trip. Some people just have better directions.” —Tagline, Donnie Darko (2001)

In A Nutshell

Back in the early days of airmail, flying across the US was risky business. Pilots didn’t have radar and had to rely on landmarks to find their way. Wanting to make things easier (and speed up delivery time), the USPS decided to set up concrete arrows across America, pointing the way from one coast to the other.

The Whole Bushel

If you ever take a road trip across America, you might stumble across a peculiar sight. Well, you’ll probably encounter quite a few peculiar sights, but the one we’re talking about looks like a bizarre clue from a National Treasure movie. Strewn across the US are a series of giant concrete arrows, stretching from east to west. If you happen to discover one of these strange landmarks, don’t jump to any weird conclusions. They’re not the work of extraterrestrials or any secret societies. Instead, they’re part of a project devised in the 1920s by the United States Postal Service.

During the early 20th century, the USPS used locomotives to transport letters across the country. All that changed, of course, with the introduction of the airplane. Excited by this new invention, the USPS established the Transcontinental Air Mail Route, a coast-to-coast delivery system that was successfully flown in 1921 by a group of seven pilots. Planes truly revolutionized the mail industry, cutting cross-country mail delivery down from several weeks to a mere 34 hours. However, there was one slight drawback. These were the days before radar and guidance systems. Thanks to these technological constraints, pilots could only fly during the day, assuming the skies were clear. Not only did they depend on good weather, they also relied on landmarks to lead the way.

Wanting to make things easier on the pilots and speedier for customers, the USPS came up with a rather simple plan. They’d just build a bunch of arrows to point from one coast to the other. Beginning in 1923, the government started spreading these 15–20 meter (50–70 ft) concrete arrows from New York to San Francisco, covering a whopping 4,230 kilometers (2,629 mi). Each marker was spaced 16 kilometers (10 mi) apart from the next, and they were all painted a bright yellow, a color clearly visible from the sky. In addition to the arrows, each marker was accompanied by a 15-meter steel tower equipped with a beacon. These lights flashed coded messages so pilots always knew where they were, and if conditions were right, pilots could see the next tower up in the distance. Of course, if the sky was too murky, they could always glance down at the arrows and know which way to go.

While the project was finally finished in 1929, the arrows soon became outdated. When radar and radio systems came along, the project fell into obscurity. Eventually, the Department of Commerce shut the whole thing down in the 1930s. Later on, a few of the towers were converted into TV antennas, but most were scrapped during World War II. However, the arrows are still out there. They’re all faded gray now and don’t serve any purpose other than reminding us of how quickly time and technology changes.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Core 77
The Daily Beast: The Strange Arrows That Point the Way Across America
Snopes: Mysterious Arrows
The Verge: The 80-year-old concrete arrows that helped deliver the mail