The Airborne Pony Express

There is a stratum of history beneath our feet. There are shoulders we stand on. Layer upon layer, lives upon lives, replete with stress and fracture, as each generation that has passed before has tried to make the world a better place for those who follow.

I am standing next to a time portal of sorts, a thick slab of concrete floating in an obscure corner in Allendale, California. A swipe of summer baked dirt has kicked down from the road above, obscuring remnants of what is and isn’t here.

Two goats sensing a free meal — or a break in their morning monotony — meander my way, curiosity reflected in their almond slivered eyes. I watch them through the screen of my cell phone as I snap off a string of photos. After a few seconds, they give up and go about their business as I go about mine.

Remains of airway beacon station JS4520, with accompanying security detail.

Remains of airway beacon station JS4520, with accompanying security detail.

Some 90 years ago, an airway beacon once stood here, resting atop an orange and white steel scaffold taller than the trees that circle the area today. Not much of the structure is left, just a square of pavement with metal nubs at the corners where they cut the tower off at the base. What remains, points as much to the proud history of a young country then its former duty as a welcome sight on a stormy night.

In the years following World War I, trains regularly made the coast-to-coast journey in 90 hours. But the nation’s invention, the airplane, could now cover the same distance in less than 30 hours. Spurred by the rapid development as a combat weapon, the once fickle creation of the Wrights had been transformed into a dependable, hardworking machine.

With these new capabilities, aviation gathered up the reins to become the second iteration of the Pony Express. Beginning in the early 1920s, a fledgling airmail service blossomed, crisscrossing the nation from New York to San Francisco, as well as a myriad of secondary routes branching north and south.

Flying became an indispensable tool of business, but not without its challenges. The hazards of all weather flying, coupled with the financial pressure to establish nighttime service, demanded that the industry create a reliable system of navigation. Radio was in its infancy at the time — radar, the stuff of pulp fiction. So they turned to the practical, what had worked before.

Arranged like a string of lighthouses, beacons were constructed across the country, becoming indispensable trail markers to help pilots fly their routes. In intervals of 10 to 15 miles, the small stations were comprised of a 51 foot steel tower, topped with a rotating electric lamp that cast a million candlepower beam of light across the night sky. Next to the structure, a tin shack housed a generator that powered the beacon at night and provided shelter for the keeper. At the base of the tower, a large cement arrow, painted vibrant chrome yellow, pointed the way to the next beacon.

Diagram of a standard airway beacon station, including beacon tower, generator shack, and directional arrow.

Diagram of a standard airway beacon station, including beacon tower, generator shack, and directional arrow.

If you take the time, and know what to look for, you can still find traces of the system locally. The particular station that I’ve found was once part of the San Francisco to Seattle airway. Its official designation is JS4520. Running west along Interstate 5, this location, together with some two-dozen additional beacons, stretched north up the valley to the Oregon border.

From beginning to end, the airway beacon system lasted less than a decade. By 1929 the visual markers of the beacons were replaced by ground installations broadcasting low frequency radio signals to the pilots. Eventually, the now defunct steel towers were torn down and used as raw materials for the Second World War. Though most of the foundations have been razed, or lost from sight, it is still not uncommon to hear of some unsuspecting explorer stumbling across a mystery — a line of giant concrete arrows scattered across the landscape, pointing somewhere, going nowhere.

US Air Mail routes.

US Air Mail routes.

Remains of the system are scattered across California in various degrees of preservation. Some, like the Willows Glen County Airport still retain the tower, but not the generator shack, or the direction arrow. However, in the northern most regions of the state, a few miles east of Yreka, you’ll find the Yreka Rohrer Field, a small municipal airfield built in 1929. On top of a small hill overlooking the runway, there’s a well-preserved foundation of an aerial beacon, complete with an arrow. If you’re ever by that way stop and have a look. With luck, you’ll discover something made at a time when you built a country from nuts and bolts, not bits and bytes.

Foundation of airway beacon (note directional arrow). East of the Yreka Rohrer Field.

Foundation of airway beacon (note directional arrow). East of the Yreka Rohrer Field.

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