Lake Point concrete arrow points back to early days of aviation

12 Jul

Glare from the rising sun had botched my photo efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to fly in close.  Really close.

A Western Air Express Douglas M-2 bi-plane used for Airmail in 1926 (source unknown).

The following originally appeared in the July 8, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“How’s your head?”  Brian Staheli asked as he piloted the Cessna Super Skylane in a low loop over the Great Salt Lake’s southern shore.

“All good!” I lied.

I figured my airsickness was the last thing Brian needed to worry about as he executed a highly technical maneuver.  Moreover, we both had jobs to do.  His was to safely position the aircraft over the extreme northwest tip of the mountain range; mine was to spot our target on the ground and snap a decent photo.

Glare from the rising sun had botched my efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to come in close.  Really close.

Brian made a tight turn over Lake Point and flew northward, hugging the Oquirrh flanks.  I popped my ears and steadied my camera.

“Just to let you know,” he warned, “this might feel kind of weird.”

Salt Lake City Air Mail Radio Station, March 1925 (photo courtesy FAA).

Many private aircraft owners fly for recreation.  Far fewer, I imagine, take to the skies for historical reconnaissance.  Our target that morning was a rare piece of aviation history—a 60 foot array of concrete slabs situated atop an Oquirrh bench in the Lake Point area and arranged in the shape of a double-tailed arrow.   Aside from a certain mystique, the large northeastward-pointing arrow shares another characteristic with phenomena like crop circles or the ancient Nazca lines of Peru:   it was meant to be viewed from the sky.

Brian brought this fascinating structure to my attention in 2008.  A corporate pilot and a flight instructor, he had noticed the arrow while flying around the Oquirrhs.  We did some research and identified the structure as a relic of an era less celebrated, but every bit as adventurous as the Pony Express.

The story begins in the early days of powered flight, when open-cockpit airplanes were equipped with only a compass and an altimeter, and pilots used railroad maps as navigational charts.  Seeking to speed up delivery service, U.S. Postal Department introduced the U.S. Air Mail system in 1918. This new class of delivery service had a definite cool factor, but it was wildly inefficient—mostly due to the fact that flight was restricted to daylight hours.

That changed after an experimental flight in 1921, when pilot Jack Knight completed a night flight from Chicago from North Platte, Nebraska, guided by bonfires lit along the way by Postal Department employees and helpful farmers.  Beginning in 1923, a system of tower-mounted light beacons was installed along the Transcontinental Air Mail Route, which connected New York and San Francisco via airfields that included Salt Lake City.

Airway beacons were placed at 10 mile intervals and featured rotating million candlepower lights (photo courtesy FAA).

The 51 foot tall towers were placed at 10 mile intervals and each was topped by a 1 million candlepower rotating lamp that was visible within a 40 mile radius.  Two additional color-coded course lights pointed up and down the airway and flashed a Morse code letter that identified the beacon.

To enhance daytime navigation, most beacon towers were built atop large concrete arrows, which pointed in the direction of the next beacon.  This arrow/beacon system grew exponentially when the Air Mail Act of 1925 required that Air Mail service be contracted out to various commercial airlines.

Contract Air Mail (CAM) routes were established along the Transcontinental backbone.   Salt Lake City became a major terminal field along five CAM routes, with 11 beacons housed in Tooele County.  Information on our Lake Point beacon site was scant—not even the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum could track down a construction date, though they estimate it was placed sometime between 1923 and 1925.

Sadly, all we know about the beacon is its official designation of “Airway Beacon 61A,” which it probably received during a 1934 revamp of the routes.  61A is unique in that it marked the junction of two CAM routes to Salt Lake City from San Diego and San Francisco—hence the arrow’s double tail.

The arrow is located on property owned by Rio Tinto.  Van King, a Rio Tinto asset manager, accompanied Brian and I to the site last month.  There we noted the tower’s four steel footings set at each corner of the center slab.  The tower itself had been cut away with a torch at some point, and its twisted remains lay beside the concrete array.  Traces of orange paint on both the concrete and steel provided an idea of coloration.  There were no signs of the beacon itself.

A standard airway beacon setup. When possible, beacons were powered by a small generator shack built at the arrow's tail (photo courtesy FAA).

The anatomy of Airway Beacon 61A. There is no evidence of a generator shack (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Airway Beacon 61A's arrow from the ground with the remains of its beacon tower visible just to its right (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Just how long Airway Beacon 61A serviced the routes is unknown, but most of the network’s 1,550 plus beacons had been phased out and dismantled by the early 1970’s.   Walking along the concrete “Y” shape was like stepping back in time.  And while it was satisfying to see the structure up close, the adventure wouldn’t be complete without experiencing it the way the original air mail pilots did—low and slow from the air.

I tried to picture the Cessna with primitive controls and an open cockpit as we climbed from the runway in Erda.  We explored the Great Salt Lake and the Saltair area before the sun rose high enough to illuminate the beacon site.  My head didn’t start seriously spinning until our third pass, but it was mind over body when it came to the mission at hand.

One of the last surviving airway beacons stands in the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum (photo by Clint Thomsen)

“I’m going to put you right over it,” Brian said before executing an uncoordinated flight aptly referred to as a “slip,” which rapidly dropped us to 50 feet above ground level and gave me a square-on view of 61A.  Whether I got the shot or not, it was time to pull out and touch back down in Erda.

King says Rio-Tinto is intrigued by the history of the arrow and is reviewing ways to protect its cultural value.  61A may be just a concrete slab, but it’s a slab pilots like Brian hope to fly over for decades to come.


Special thanks to Rio Tinto/Kennecott and Brian Staheli.


Tags: ,

26 responses to “Lake Point concrete arrow points back to early days of aviation

  1. Michelle Powell

    July 12, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    This is really cool! Thanks for another interesting article on the unknown history of Salt Lake!!!

  2. Michelle Powell

    July 12, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    You need a “share” option on your blog! I find myself passing them on to so many people, and it would make it much easier if there was a “share” option! 🙂 Keep the great articles coming! 🙂

    • bonnevillemariner

      July 12, 2010 at 2:44 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Michelle! I’m looking at several options for sharing. I’d like to at least get Twitter and Facebook share functionality. If anybody has any any tips on how I can do this, let me know.

  3. Stephen Burgess

    July 13, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Very intresting. I did not know any of this stuff. Very good article.

  4. Rollo Brunson

    February 5, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    I live in St. George, Utah, and we still have four concrete navagation arrows remaining in this area – some showing the cut-off legs of the beacon tower. These arrows were along the contract air mail route between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.

    • Paul Dalpiaz

      December 16, 2011 at 4:04 am

      Hey Rollo,
      I know of three so far, at Bloomington Ridge, Washington Dome and Quail Lake. Where is the other one? I’d guess out above the Virgin River Gorge above I-15, but would love to know where exactly.
      Paul Dalpiaz

    • Richard Baker

      March 14, 2013 at 8:37 pm

      Hi There
      I would like to see them when I go to st. George
      could you please send me a map on how to get there.
      Richard Baker

      • Dan Wilcock

        March 17, 2013 at 4:06 pm

        I have been to 3 and can point you to them. Rollo told me where the one on the Black Ridge is but I haven’t been able to locate it yet.

      • Clayton Mabey

        September 20, 2013 at 12:24 am

        I am very interested in documenting the location of the arrow on the black ridge. If you could help me with that information, it would be much appreciated. Thanks.

  5. Bill Schweikert

    June 18, 2013 at 10:33 pm

    Does anyone have GPS coordinates of these sites or URL links to Google/Bing maps?

  6. John

    June 19, 2013 at 1:54 pm

    Here’s some around St.George Utah
    Airway Beacon 37A located at 37° 3’53.17″N 113°35’43.15″W
    · Airway Beacon 37C located at 37° 7’2.66″N 113°29’15.36″W
    · Airway Beacon 38 located at 37°10’50.03″N 113°24’1.45″W

  7. A

    June 30, 2013 at 1:56 am

    Reblogged this on EnCodem.

  8. Elizabeth

    August 15, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    This is fascinating — I would love to see these arrows in person.

    I was taking a mapping class when I found this web-page, and I created a map with the locations for the three beacons in St. George, Utah:

    I would love to add any other beacons, if anyone has the lat/long coordinates.

  9. Jack

    August 20, 2013 at 4:18 pm

    I can remember in the late 50’s very early 60’s stumbling across the lighted airways in the western Virginia area. It took me about a month to figure out what hey were. There was still several hill tops lit up at night.

  10. Patrick Wiggins

    August 27, 2013 at 1:26 am

    Found another one further west.
    40° 49′ 36.51″ N 112° 54′ 21.36″ W

  11. Phil Graves

    August 30, 2013 at 5:50 pm

    Found this after reading this article today.

    History is Great!

  12. SEO

    March 23, 2014 at 1:39 am

    I’m amazed, I have to admit. Rarely do I encounter a blog that’s equally educative
    and amusing, and let me tell you, you have hit the
    nail on the head. The issue is something that not enough men and women are speaking intelligently about.

    Now i’m very happy I found this in my hunt for something relating to this.

  13. search

    September 26, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    Hi! I realize this is kind of off-topic however
    I had to ask. Does running a well-established blog such as yours require a lot
    of work? I’m brand new to running a blog but I do write in my diary every day.
    I’d like to start a blog so I can share my
    experience and views online. Please let me know if you have any kind of suggestions or tips for new aspiring blog owners.
    Appreciate it!

  14. Robert Richards

    January 27, 2016 at 5:09 am

    doesn’t anybody have any details about the ones in Wisconsin? So far I have only found one map that showed there were a number of them, but no information of they are in my state.

  15. hostinghuaraz

    July 30, 2019 at 10:58 pm

    hosting peru,Diseño Web Huaraz,hosting peru , Diseños Web peru, oferta dominios peru, hosting huaraz ,Posicionamiento Web peru,Diseños Web peru,diseño grafico peru,dominios web peru.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: