Arrows in the Desert: Rediscovering the Pony Express of the Sky

A course arrow on the old Transcontinental Airmail Route from the 1920s. This particular arrow rests just off the interstate, overlooked by travelers who are completely unaware of its existence.

Recently, I have become completely enamored with finding navigational remnants of the U.S. Transcontinental Airmail System: dilapidated concrete arrows, and sometimes 50′ tall iron beacon towers from the 1920s and 30s. Sharing history and geography with the California Emigrant Trail as well as the first Transcontinental Railroad, the airmail system adds another bit of rich history to an already unique corridor in America.

Just sixty years after the Pony Express ended, the airmail route stretched from New York to California, at a time when modern navigation systems were but a twinkle in a compass’ eye. Pilots traversed the sky in open cockpits in all sorts of weather, aided, initially, by rudimentary maps, landmarks, and seventy-foot long concrete arrows. At first, flights were only done during the day because navigation was mostly done by sight before adequate radio infrastructure was established. To make the airmail system efficient and much faster than rail transport, the Department of Commerce invested in lighted beacons to point the way at night and inclement weather.

My family and I have been enjoying finding the arrows in various locations in Northern Nevada, making short day trips to the coordinates I’ve found using info from various sites online as well as taking to Google Maps and scouring over areas like an armchair spy plane pilot from our kitchen table.

More to come, I’m sure, in the future. This piece of history is shedding its obscurity more and more as many historians, history buffs, bloggers, and local newspapers shed more light on the “mysterious giant arrows” dotting the high desert, mountain ranges, and increasingly urbanized areas.