MYSTERY WIRE — The vast deserts of the American West are home to numerous myths, mysteries, including relics left behind of long forgotten people. This includes oddly shaped structures found in some of the most remote and inhospitable spots in Nevada. The story originally aired on Nov. 19, 2013, on KLAS TV in Las Vegas.
Even from the vantage point of a helicopter, it’s not easy to pick out the odd shape that sits on the desert floor on the north side of Mormon Mesa, but there it is — a concrete arrow seemingly created for the benefit of sky people, not unlike the famed Nazca Lines of Peru, or maybe exotic agriglyphs that appear in crop fields.
Mystified hikers or backpackers occasionally stumble across one of the arrows in remote locations in the West and wonder: Are they turn signals for the planet? Or directions to some mythical place like Oz?
Dave Valentine first investigated the arrows years ago while working in Nevada as an archaeologist for the BLM. “I didn’t really have any idea what they were about or anything, so I started doing a little research,” he said.
He learned the arrows once stretched all the way across the country, including a line of arrows that slices through Northern Nevada, parallel to what’s now Interstate 80. There’s another one found just this week by the I-Team on a hilltop near Sloan Canyon, not far from Las Vegas Boulevard.
It turns out the arrows were made to be seen by sky people. Specifically, the daring pilots who made up the first transcontinental airmail program.
“They didn’t have good compasses, they didn’t have good barometers, they didn’t have good maps,” Valentine said. “You know it was all just barnstorming-type flying … and so they would fly along the railroad tracks until it started to get dark.”
In the years after World War I, America found itself with a surplus of airplanes and daredevil pilots. The initial airmail program was fraught with peril for the flyers, whose only navigational tool was their eyes. Like their predecessors in the Pony Express, some of these aerial postmen got lost or killed while carrying mail. And when the sun went down, so did their planes.
WWII pilot Creed Evans said, “It was extremely dangerous. They were beautiful pilots, those guys, and some of them were killed.”
Congress approved funding for a nationwide network of arrows and beacons along the major air mail routes, including markers outside of St. George, Utah. They were placed every 10 miles, or so, literally pointing the way so airmail pilots and later passenger pilots could pick their way across the country.
“There was thousands, pretty sure it’s over 4,000 arrows or beacons anyway, I should say. Not all the beacons had an arrow,” Valentine said.
The U.S Postal Service took cues from the U.S. Coast Guard’s lighthouse program. Typically, a metal tower 50 feet high was built in the middle of the arrow slabs, atop each one was a light. Gas lamps at first and later electric beacons.
Historian Mark Hall Patton, who has the beacon from Mormon Mesa at the Clark County Museum, said, “If you followed these, you could make it all the way from one end of the route to the other.”
Patton said this crude navigational system was vital to the development of commercial aviation and the first red-eye flights.
“Using the beacons was the one way that you could actually fly at night, which meant that you could fly further, you could fly all the time,” Patton said. “It meant that airmail could be delivered that much faster. Commercial air traffic was possible to go further and make it that much faster and really made commercial air traffic possible in the United States.”
Most of the arrows that remain are located in the West. Their photos plastered across the internet but the towers were nearly all removed in World War II for their scrap metal value. At least one has been restored to its original condition and it’s in New Mexico but a few live on as other guises.
“I actually found one of the towers at a guy’s ranch in Clover Valley, south of Wells,” Valentine said. “He saw it being advertised. He bought it, went up and gathered it and brought him back to his ranch and set it up. And it’s his TV antenna.”
Technology quickly caught up to the needs of pilots and the beacons became outmoded within a decade or two, though it wasn’t until 1973 that the last one was decommissioned.