On a hillside 60 miles northeast of Las Vegas, a giant concrete arrow draws an invisible line across Mormon Mesa to Interstate 15 in the distance.
It looks like it was poured there within the past few months, perhaps as a playful piece of modern art or maybe directions for invading aliens.
The arrow actually points toward Salt Lake City and the past. Only the encroaching brush hints at its true age.
In the earliest days of commercial aviation, before the advent of radio guidance, the federal government constructed a system of beacons and arrows to literally light the way from state to state and coast to coast.
Every 10 miles or so along established airmail routes, pilots would find a tower roughly 50 feet tall and topped with a rotating light.
Beneath most of the towers, they would find concrete foundations between 50 and 70 feet long and shaped like arrows stitched along the flight path.
The first beacons went up in 1924. The Airways Division of the U.S. Lighthouse Service lit the last of the route from New York to San Francisco in early 1929.
The concrete arrow at the edge of Mormon Mesa was poured about the same time, but for a different airmail route.
“It’s how we got the ability to fly across the country,” historian Mark Hall-Patton said of the lighted airway program. “Before that, you could not safely fly at night. There was no way to know where you were. Flight was a daytime activity.”
Archaeologist Dave Valentine studied Northern Nevada’s network of arrows and towers during his time with the Bureau of Land Management field office in Winnemucca.
He said the transcontinental airmail route crossed the state along much the same path Interstate 80 now takes.
Some towers were topped with electric lights fed by available power or small generators.
Other beacons were lit by burning acetylene, Valentine said.
More than 80 years later, many of the arrows remain, but the towers are largely gone.
Valentine knows of only a few of the towers that still stand in their original locations, mostly in remote mountain ranges and other hard-to-reach spots.
“There are not very many towers left, because a lot of them have been taken down for scrap metal,” said Valentine, who left Nevada in 2008 and now works as an archaeologist for an Idaho power company.
Some towers were recycled in other ways.
Valentine found one next to a house in Elko County, where it had been turned into a giant television antenna.
“I drove by and saw it and came to a screeching halt,” he said.
He also has seen at least one ranch windmill that looked like it might have once been part of the aviation network.
The concrete arrow northeast of Las Vegas, just over the hill from the town of Glendale, marked what was known as Contract Air Mail Route 4 between Los Angeles and Salt Lake City.
Western Air Express, a precursor to airline giant TWA, made its first flight on the 650-mile route in April 1926 and began carrying passengers — one or two at a time — along with the mail a month later.
Western Air pilots made the trip in fabric-covered, single-engine biplanes with wood-frame wings.
Hall-Patton, who heads the Clark County Museum and makes regular videos on aviation history called “Barnstorming Nevada,” said the arrow near Glendale never had a beacon directly on top of it. The tower was on a small peak nearby.
The lighthouse-style lenses that once magnified its beam are now part of the collection at the county museum.
Hall-Patton said the lighted airway program was important because it speeded mail delivery, allowed for safe cross-country flights at night and helped get the fledgling commercial aviation industry off the ground.
But it was short-lived.
By the early 1930s, advances in radio guidance had already begun to render the young system obsolete, he said.
Eventually, the beacons were extinguished and the towers torn down, leaving only arrows to point the way.
Contact reporter Henry Brean at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350.