Strange Places and Things

America’s Mysterious Concrete Arrows: What You Need to Know

If you’re an avid backpacker or hiker, you might have come across these concrete slabs shaped like arrows. They measure around 70 feet in length and are found all across the country. So, really, what are these weird objects and what are they pointing at? Peculiar as it may seem, these markings were actually once used in the first-ever land-based course-plotting and navigation system in the world.  They served as markers for various flights all across the US in the early days of air mail.

How the Concrete Arrows Came About

Airmail service began in the early 1900s and with the increasing flights and stop-overs, pilots needed something to help guide them to their destination. These arrows and beacons became a necessary component of the airmail business.

Giant concrete arrows were placed across America in the 1920s. Most of these arrows had an interval of at least 10 miles and were painted yellow for clear visibility. They were positioned near beacons with gas lights so that the markers can be seen by pilots even at a 10-mile distance. In 1924, the concrete arrows extended from Wyoming to Ohio. The next year, they stretched to New York.

Before 1930, pilots were guided by these arrows all throughout the United States.  This was all needed since satellite communication and navigation hadn’t yet been invented.  Hence, the arrows were the only guides to lead the pilots to their destination.

Purpose of the Concrete Arrows

Before the onset of modern telecommunications technology, people basically relied on the United States Postal System. This was the basic mode of information delivery back when the Fed-Ex was merely even a dream. To aid in the delivery of services, the US Congress introduced the Transcontinental Airway System. It was aimed at decreasing the time spent in delivering mail from one coast to another by enabling evening flights. This is where the concrete arrows came into the picture.

Transcontinental Air Mail Route Beacon 37A

The concrete arrows were built in remote locations to literally point out where the next beacon navigational beacon was located. Beacons were more or less 50-foot towers that housed the rotating lights ultimately guiding the pilots during night time. Considering that the distance from one beacon to another were mostly greater than 20 miles, the concrete markers pointed the pilots to the correct direction.

In 1933, the Transcontinental Airway System had about 1,500 beacons extending over 20,000 miles from one coast to the other. The beacon and arrow system effectively reduced the delivery time by two days or more. In fact, this system was considered to be a cutting-edge achievement during that time. It was the first of its kind in the world and there were even plans to expand the system all across the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Fascination With the Concrete Arrows

The arrows may now be just remnants of the past, but there are still people who are quite captivated by these markers all the same. Fans of the concrete arrows continue to hunt down the arrows and share pictures in social media as evidence that these do exist. Some have even found over 100 of these arrows all across the country. Though some may not look the way they used to be due to deterioration, it was still clear that they were once the guiding markers.

Here are some of the places where concrete arrows continue to be visible:

  • Bloomington, Washington County, Utah
  • Golconda, Humboldt County, Nevada
  • Medicine Bow, Wyoming
  • Mote, Nevada
  • Pumpernickel, Nevada
  • Poverty Point, Utah
  • Cottage Grove, Oregon
  • New Mexico
  • Thayer Junction, Wyoming

The Demise of the Concrete Arrows

The beacon and arrow system had its flaws. Just like any system, it wasn’t perfect. The beacons were established to be useful for pilots who are navigating at night. They would fly as directed by the lights coming from the beacon towers. The arrows, however, were highly visible at night time.

The 1924 U.S. Air mail route

Pilots even attested that during the day, they needed to fly higher than usual to clearly visualize the concrete arrows. They mostly relied on other landmarks like mountains and rivers. The last concrete arrow was constructed in 1931. When modern navigation technology was gradually introduced, the beacon and arrow system was of no use anymore.

Today, these concrete markers serve as fun discoveries not only for their avid fans but for the unknowing hikers, as well.

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