Arrows Across Kansas

If you were ever lost in the wilds of Kansas, you might be able to find your way to civilization using giant arrows. Yes, arrows. In the ground.

This isn't a picture of one in Kansas. Click here for photo credit.
This isn’t a picture of one in Kansas. “Transcontinental Air Mail Route Beacon 37A” by Dppowell – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons –

You see, in the days before the internet, before supersonic jets, before the interstate highway system, the U.S. Post Office designed a unique method for getting mail from one coast of the U.S. to the other—the Transcontinental Airway System. They used World War I army surplus planes and more than a few former army pilots.

We may not think airmail is any big deal today, but in the 1920s, air travel was new. (Orville and Wilbur did their thing in 1903.) Air traffic controllers hadn’t been invented yet. Neither had radio navigation.

So how did those first airmail pilots know where they were going? By sight.

Image source: Wikipedia

The Post Office and the Department of Commerce teamed up to create the Transcontinental Air Mail Route Beacons. These consisted of concrete arrows indicating the direction to the next beacon, a rotating light tower, and a shed that usually held a generator and fuel tanks. These beacons were once situated every 10 miles on air routes across the United States beginning around 1923.

The 53-foot tall light tower held a five million candlepower beacon that rotated six times a minute. The lights allowed for nighttime navigation.

Many of these beacons were removed during World War II to prevent aiding enemy bombers with navigation. Others can still be seen today. (Nineteen of them remain in use in Montana.) You can visit one of the beacons, along with four of the concrete pads, in the state of Kansas. (Well, you could if they weren’t on private property.) Click here to see the locations of each one.

Anyone care to get lost on purpose, so we can find these?

2 comments on “Arrows Across Kansas

  1. This sounds like my kind of adventure! I hadn’t heard of these before and find them fascinating. If you ever go on a “get lost on purpose” trek, invite me along!

    • I definitely will, Johnnie! Until I start researching, I just don’t think of how innovative our ancestors were. I would have never come up with concrete arrows for navigation.

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