Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Visiting with BobSkoot and Finding Some History along the Mississippi River

Yesterday afternoon, we were fortunate that Bobskoot's route to the Northeast US happened to coincide with our arrival to Holmen, WI where we were visiting my father-in-law for his 80th birthday celebration.

Bobskoot graciously diverted from projected mileage on I-90 and he arrived in Holmen shortly after I had stopped to wait for him to appear.  Good timing!

The evening was spent chatting with our hosts, Sue and Fred, who are generously providing their finished basement (with two bedrooms) and a small RV for the three boys, my two and my nephew Greg.  The adults get the bedrooms, we threw the boys into the RV.

I overslept a bit this morning, delaying Bobskoot's departure a bit (Sorry about that, Bob).  Still, we got him out on the road by 8:30 AM I believe, heading towards either Beloit or Rockford, IL to meet with another moto-blogger.

Looking a bit like a ninja....Bobskoot looks ready for anything

Bobskoot admitted to me that he'd found the R1200R Beemer to be quite the smooth continental distance crushing machine.  He was even "having doubts" about his Wee-Strom.  The Teutonic Kool-Aid process has begun.....(insert evil laughter here).

Around 9:30 AM, I took off northwards along US35 on a ride towards Cottage Grove, MN.  The route would basically parallel the Mississippi River, taking turns riding on the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides depending on which crossing I took.

The day was hot and humid with bright sunshine.  I was sweating in no time but I was on a mission.

A cool railroad bridge that is raised out of the way for the taller boats 
sailing along the Mississippi.

About three hours or so later, quite sweaty and hot, I found my objective: AVIATION BEACON 33 OLD 37.  What the heck is that you ask?  Well, let me tell you.

One of the riders I'd met on my trip to Alaska, GaryAK, had emailed me a photo of a concrete arrow with the following:


This Really Exists: Giant Concrete Arrows That Point a Way Across America

Cement Arrows, Transcontinental Air Mail Route
Courtesy of Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research

Every so often, usually in the vast deserts of the American Southwest, a hiker or a backpacker will run across something puzzling: a ginormous concrete arrow, as much as seventy feet in length, just 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

A re-creation of a 1920s map showing the route of airmail planes; the dots are intermediate stops along the course.

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.

Much internet based research later, I'd found a couple of spreadsheets maintained at atchistory.org that listed the airway beacons and whether concrete arrows were still believed to be onsite.  There's not many of the arrows or towers left for that matter.  Progress and decay are both to blame I guess.

Drawing of an Airway Beacon Station
Note how the tower is built in the middle of the concrete arrow.

So that's why I was riding in the heat and humidity, on my stalwart 2011 URAL Patrol Sidecar Rig, Valencia today.  While Bobskoot raced for the eastern part of the US, I rode along the Mississippi to capture a bit of history.

googlemaps satellite image of the arrow

a partial view from on high, of the arrow

a google "Street View" shot of the arrow.
I bet most folks just drive by the property, paying no attention to
strange concrete on the lawn.

The concrete arrow in question, lies on private property but can be seen from the edge of the road.  As I was taking pictures, the gentleman who owns the property came out to see what I was doing.

Jim, had spotted my rig riding by and then had seen it again after I'd parked her across the road from his property.  He came out and we had a nice little chat about the concrete arrow and the beacon tower that once stood where he is standing in the picture below.

  Jim stands on the leading edge of the square which is located in the middle
of the 70 foot arrow.  The metal tower's four legs stood in in the corners.


He told me that the tower was torn down in 1954, one year after he graduated from high school.  He recalled stories such as how the light beacon was so bright it used to shine into neighboring houses windows at night.  He also remembered how in the last year or two, the automatic lighting mechanisms started failing and they would have to turn the light on and off manually sometimes.

Jim also mentioned I should meander a couple of miles north to see what he described as a house which looks a lot like the White House in Washington, D.C.  I was of course, intrigued.  After I thanked him and we said our goodbyes, I headed north and found this:

The Cedarhurst Historic Country House, est. 1868.
Apparently, its hosted presidents as guests.

I now motored on back to Holmen, WI.  Pretty much re-tracing my route but switching over to the Wisconsin side at Wabasha, MN.  The temperatures peaked at 90F but it felt much hotter at times.

There's some big fishes in the Mississippi....

Made it back by 4:30 PM or so, Valencia did great, and I found one of the few remaining arrows used by the Air Mail Service of yore.....a good day of riding!

More information here on this blog about the Airway Beacon System:  LINK

Gary A. of Alaska sent me this link to a news video on the navigation arrows: LINK


RichardM said...

Nice that you got to visit with Bob again. I was having doubts on whether he would like the R1200R since it seemed like there was a string of issues. I was following his Spot track and it seemed like he was on a mission. Then I saw La Crosse, WI, show up on the map.

I had not heard of the arrows before but had heard of the beacons. Only ten miles apart is a lot of beacons.

Gary France said...

Good that you got to meet up with Bob. I like the bridge, but my main comment is about the arrows. I was told they were for the larger of the Native Indians. Is that not right?

Coop a.k.a. Coopdway said...

Disappointed that Bob didn't get to stop closer to Rochester, I am glad that you two were able to gather down in Holmen and so close to his planned path!

Very interesting about the arrows and beacons; I had no idea. This Cottage Grove arrow is almost in my neighborhood, a buddy lives only a few short miles from there and before long, this will be a residential area as the city grows.

redlegsrides said...


I believe he's fully intoxicated with the Beemer koolaid by now....the R1200R's power and smoothness is quite addictive.

As to the number of stations, it was apparently 190 of them, covering the 2000 mile length of the route.

redlegsrides said...

Hi Gary

Trying for a comedian's job are we? :)

redlegsrides said...

Hi Coop

Sorry I diverted Bob at the last minute....but he got free room and board so it worked out. :)

As to the arrow, yep I saw signs of civilization encroaching on the man's farm.

Trobairitz said...

Thank you for this interesting write up Dom. I'd never heard of the concrete arrows before. What a cool bit of history. I like that you were able to meet Jim and hear some stories too.

You are so good to take Bobskoot in for the night. I think he needed a friendly face to recharge his batteries for the rest of the ride alone.

agent713 said...

Those arrows are rather random but what a cool thing to go for a ride to find!

Lucky said...

I wish I'd known sooner you were going to be in Cottage Grove. That is very, very close to me. Nuts!!

Re: Aircraft beacons. I'm excited to know there are some still around!! I learned about those in ground school, but figured they were all gone now! :D

Old school aviation was pretty nuts.

I'm going to have to try and track some down.

Canajun said...

Like others I'd never heard of the arrows before. Cool story. Thanks for sharing.

redlegsrides said...


The spreadsheet I found, shows only one entry for a still existing concrete arrow: Try to find it: LINK



redlegsrides said...

Agent713, glad you liked the posting.

Lucky, the one in Cottage Grove is the only one still listed as existing for MN that I could glean from the spreadsheet's info. If you go to atchistory.org, you can get the sheets and perhaps check out neighboring states? Thanks for commenting and reading this stuff.

Canajun, thanks for the comments and for reading this stuff.

Back Road said...

Great Article. Sounds like you are an aviation person as well as a bike. Well so am I. I grew up near the Toledo airport and there was a beacon just west of what is now Toledoe Express airport. It stood for many years. I don't know if there was an arrow associated with it or not as I was never actually on the land, just drove by many times. There was another farther west near my great granddads house out near Delta Ohio. But I was young and don't recall anything much about that one. I think I'll try to find some of these great arrow/beacon navaids. Thanks for the information!

redlegsrides said...

Hello Backroad, no, not really an aviation buff....I've fallen out of planes and helicopters but that's about the extent of my involvement....I was clued in by a fellow rider who is a pilot in AK.

Unknown said...


Never knew about those concrete arrows. So many things to learn about the past and so little time.

How I wished that I could have stayed another day to ride where you rode. But, as you know, something came up and I had to arrive in State College one day earlier than planned.

Plus I had a lunch date in Beliot, WI which could not have been changed to Wednesday.

Sometimes the pieces to the jig saw don't match but I am sure we will cross paths another time soon.

thank you again for your Hosts, Sue and Fred's hospitality and I hope RD had a great birthday party

Riding the Wet Coast

redlegsrides said...

Hi Bob, you just missed a long and sweaty ride....or maybe, you didn't..... :)

the views of the mississippi river were a bit "lacking" to my eyes that day....could have been because the heat was parboiling my eyes...


redlegsrides said...

updated this posting to include link to news video re navigational arrows.