In search of the concrete arrows

If you’ve never wandered up to the top of the bluff overlooking Saint Paul’s Holman Field, you probably don’t know why that white beacon keeps turning and how it got there in the first place.

The Atlantic’s City Lab saves you the trouble today with a look at the old days of flying the mail.

In the ’20s, pilots didn’t have any navigation aids except for these beacons every 10 miles. In between, there were — and in some cases, still are — giant concrete arrows.

The arrows represented a leap forward from previous nocturnal guideposts. “One of the first attempts at navigation involved setting huge bonfires next to landing strips to help guide pilots,” notes one scholar. “This idea proved very impractical.” People had such faith in the newer system that Popular Mechanics ran a story about a floating version eventually spanning the Atlantic Ocean (if Wikipedia is to be believed). Yet by the 1940s, the arrows and towers were already becoming obsolete, leading to their gradual removal or abandonment.

Today the only state using these janky beacons is Montana, where pilots rely on about 19 to fly through the mountains. But that doesn’t mean they’ve disappeared. Some peek out in aerial imagery like cryptic, alien messages in barren stretches of Utah, Wyoming, Indiana, and elsewhere. Others have fallen into the hands of property owners, who keep them around perhaps for historical value or as conversation starters.

Some of the arrows still exist and City Labs provides Google Maps photos to prove it.

Only one seems to remain in Minnesota — the one off 90th St. South in Cottage Grove. These days, it’s nearly impossible to find from the air. I’ve tried.

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The website, Sometimes-Interesting, documents the locations of arrows discovered by people who’ve been searching for them all.

  • Jeff

    Found it in Google Earth.

    • BJ

      When I looked the pin kept getting in the way

  • Inella

    Bob – this is so cool. An interesting piece of Americana. Thanks for sharing.