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Arrows Point to Answers
In the History Mystery Examiner we learned about BLM archaeologist David Valentine and his mysterious discovery of a large concrete arrow in the Nevada desert.  After some library research, David found some answers about the biggest arrowhead he had ever found.

Who made the arrows?

The United States Postal Service first made the arrows in 1924. What? The Postal Service? Why did they make the arrows? In the early 1920s, airplanes hadn’t been around for very long. The Postal Service was experimenting with using airplanes to deliver mail. The Postal Service established routes along which to fly airmail. They called the routes “airways.” The Postal Service decided that pilots needed to be able to fly during both day and night to deliver the mail quickly. So they came up with the idea of building arrows and beacons. They built the towers in the middle of the concrete arrows. These giant arrows were the foundations for electrical beacons. The postal service hired people to turn on the beacons every night to guide airmail pilots flying airways in the dark. These people were a lot like lighthouse keepers. How far apart were the arrows? They placed the beacons about every ten miles along an airway. The beacons or lights sat on top of tall steel towers, between 20 and 87 feet high. The beacons were two, very bright lights (1,250,000 candlepower). They ran on electricity and rotated so that a pilot would see flashes. They were only 10 miles apart so that when a pilot arrived at one beacon, he could see the flashes of the next.  Did the arrows all point the same direction? No. The arrows pointed towards the next beacon along the airway, so pilots could use them to stay on course during daylight hours. The towers and foundations were painted with bright colors (yellow and black or orange and white) so pilots could see them easily.

Air Way Beacon control roomConcrete ArrowAir Way Beacon Foundation


Was the Postal Service always in charge of the beacons?

No. In 1926, the Postal Service turned the beacons over to the Department of Commerce. This was because airmail was becoming more important and was leading to the development of airlines. The Postal Service only wanted to take care of the mail, not airlines.

What did the Department of Commerce do to improve the beacon system?

The department worried that beacons were not good enough to guide pilots during bad weather. Soon it experimented with radio and radar, since these might be more efficient methods of guiding pilots. As these methods improved, the department decommissioned the lighted beacons. The department removed most of them by the mid-1940s. They took down the steel towers to be used for other things in other places. They left the foundations to confuse future archaeologists that were born years after they were removed.

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