Sunday, January 19, 2014

Off the Steamboat Ditch Trail: a once-yellow-painted concrete arrow helped airmail pilots finding their transcontinental route

The history of the Emigrant Trail and the fate of the Donner Party around Donner Lake and Roller Pass south of today's Mt. Judah Loop Trail is well known and belongs to common lore of Reno-Tahoe residents. The above-the-ground version of transcontinental ambitions is much less known: in the 1920s, when transcontinental paths and railroad connections had been well established, U.S. airmail pilots began navigating between the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Next to the Washoe County Regional Parks & Open Space Department at Plumas Street in Reno, a plaque marks the site of the Reno Air Mail Field (now the site of the Washoe County Golf Course), which was once operated by the United States Post Office Department Trans-Continental Air Mail Service. The plaque tells us that the first scheduled mail-plane landed there on September 9, 1920. The above picture shows the plaque's relief sculpture illustrating a historic U.S. airmail plane (top picture).

East-pointing arrow with Verdi Range in the background
Such open-cockpit biplanes were typically flown by young, military-trained pilots. A system of concrete arrows and airmail beacons was then installed across the United States [1]. Guy Clifton writes that to help fliers “successfully navigate the route between New York and San Francisco, the arrows (usually painted yellow) and an accompanying tower equipped with a gas-powered beacon were installed at roughly 10-mile intervals across the country.” [2]

Steamboat Ditch Hole and trail ascending to the arrow
One of those ground-based landmarks for flight guidance still exists between Reno and Verdi off the Steamboat Ditch Trail above the two holes in the wall. The right-side picture shows the steep trail ascending from the Reno-side hole to the ridge. Once on top, turn right and follow the dirt-road trail north to its end. While enjoying views of the Verdi Range, Peavine Peak and the Truckee River, you may finally realize you are treading or standing on a concrete slab, unless you already saw it on your approach. That's it: a weathered and cracked arrow (shown above) pointing towards northwest Reno, Elko—and New York. Hikers and mountain bikers are often coming up and meet for a “break at the arrow.” Obviously, there are higher locations all around. But, I guess, the actual arrow-site was chosen to direct planes along a flight closely following the Truckee River Valley.

From the east, planes came via Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, across Nevada to continue to San Francisco, California [3]:

The initial westbound trip was made at the rate of 80 miles per hour and was flown without a forced landing, either for weather or mechanical trouble. The plane carried 16,000 letters, which arrived in San Francisco 22 hours ahead of the best possible time by train, had the train made all its connections.

Like the early emigrants and Pony Express riders, the pioneer pilots had to manage all kinds of weather and sometimes fight a blizzard. Infrequently, the arrows must have been covered by snow and pilots only had landscape features and the beacons to spot for orientation. With the emergence of the radar era, the arrow-beacon system became obsolete.  To commemorate the pre-radar navigation system, the preservation of the slowly sliding Reno concrete arrowthe Steamboat Trail Arrowwould be a nice achievement. Guy Clifton writes about Nevada history buff Marvin Mattson, who likes to see this happen:   

The ultimate goal, he [Marvin Mattson] said, would be preserving a unique piece of Reno and Nevada history. While there are many historical markers and references to the Pony Express route and former stations in Nevada, there is little recognition of the airmail service.

I guess, there is some difficulty in convincing people to preserve concrete slabs. But it should be worth while to keep history visible within our landscape. And outdoor enthusiasts will certainly appreciate a concrete arrow viewing terrace above the Truckee river.

View of the Truckee river from the site of the concrete arrow
Keywords: aviation history, air mail, transcontinental flights.

References and more to explore
[1] Concrete Arrows and the U.S. Airmail Beacon System:
[2] Guy Clifton: Pointing the Way. Mysterious concrete arrow tells of Reno's airmail history. Reno Gazette-Journal, January 12, 2014, pages 1D and 4D (also see the online update, January 15, 2013).
[3] Air Mail Pioneers:

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