Giant Concrete Arrows


Credit: Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research

Credit: Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research

Here’s a little story that caught my attention recently and, frankly, struck my fancy fairly sharply! It’s about giant concrete arrows that point the way across America:

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Every so often, usually in the vast deserts of the American Southwest, a hiker or a backpacker will run across something puzzling—a large concrete arrow, as much as seventy feet in length,
sitting in the middle of scrub-covered nowhere.

What are these giant arrows? Some kind of surveying mark? Landing beacons for flying saucers? Earth’s turn signals? No, it’s… The Transcontinental Air Mail Route.

On August 20, 1920, the United States opened its first coast-to-coast airmail delivery route, just 60 years after the Pony Express closed up shop. There were no good aviation charts in those days, so pilots had to eyeball their way across the country using landmarks. This meant that flying in bad weather was difficult, and night flying was just about impossible.

The Postal Service solved the problem with the world’s first ground-based civilian navigation system—a series of lit beacons that would extend from New York to San Francisco. Every ten miles, pilots would pass a bright yellow concrete arrow. Each arrow would be surmounted by a 51-foot steel tower and lit by a million-candlepower rotating beacon. A generator shed at the tail of each arrow powered the beacon. Now mail could get from the Atlantic to the Pacific not in a matter of weeks, but in just 30 hours or so.

Even the dumbest of air mail pilots, it seems, could follow a series of bright yellow arrows straight out of a Tex Avery cartoon. By 1924, just a year after Congress funded it, the line of giant concrete markers stretched from Rock Springs, Wyoming, to Cleveland, Ohio. The next summer, it reached all the way to New York, and by 1929 it spanned the continent uninterrupted, the envy of postal systems worldwide.

Radio and radar are, of course, infinitely less cool than a concrete Yellow Brick Road from sea to shining sea, but I think we all know how this story ends. New advances in communication and navigation technology made the big arrows obsolete, and the Commerce Department decommissioned the beacons in the 1940s. The steel towers were torn down and went to the war effort.

But the hundreds of arrows remain. Their yellow paint is gone, their concrete cracks a little more with every winter frost, and no one crosses their path much, except for coyotes and tumbleweeds.

But they’re still out there. Check it out at http://www.snopes.com/travel/airline/arrows.asp.

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For me this story is a powerful reminder of the significance of permanence. Terry and I recently hosted a Rhine River cruise to parts of Europe, viewing landscape dotted by buildings, including homes, churches and castles that were built hundreds of years ago. They’ve stood the test of time, tempest and temperature.

Next year we’re hosting a “Highlights of Paul’s Journeys” cruise that will take us to places with history dating back to the first century AD. Those places also are great reminders of the power of permanence. For more information about this trip, go to www.eo.travel/Highlights14.aspx.

Some of the places we’ll visit have structures crumbled in ruins. Others have withstood the stress of wars and weather. Like giant concrete arrows, they’re still out there, reminders in many cases of the forerunners of the Christian faith, people who devoted and even gave their lives to the cause of Christ, people like St. Paul and other apostles, pointing the way to heaven.

Now it’s our turn to point the way!

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