Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On the Historical Trail: Signs From the Sky

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote a novel, Sirens of Titan, where a stranded Tralfamadorian explorer has humans build the Great Wall of China, the Kremlin, and Stonehenge to be messages to his superiors of the need of a spare part for his ship. In the Chariots of the Gods?, Erich von Daniken postulates that the Nazca Lines in Peru were designed as a means for “ancient astronauts” to come back to Earth. But did you know, in the real world, there are signs on the landscape to actually assist travelers?

In the years after World War I, the United States Postal Service utilized surplus war planes to initiate Air Mail Service across the country. Most of those pilots were Army flyers who, still in love with the new flying contraption, were looking for work after they came home. It was a perfect fit between the flyers and the Post Office.
1924 Airmail Route

In 1923, the Federal Government passed legislation to fund a system of way-finding signs for these pilots as they flew over the relatively empty spaces between cities, especially in the Southwest. The next year, funding was allocated for this project. In its most basic terms, large, 70-foot, concrete arrows would be built along established air routes.

These arrows were painted bright yellow and spaced about ten miles apart. Next to each arrow, the government constructed a tower with a rotating light so the arrows could be seen at night, when most of the flying was undertaken. There also was a caretakers house built at each site so they could maintain the arrow, the tower and the light.

The usage of these lights and arrows was not very long lasting. With the advent of radio, the way-finding system was considered obsolete. By World War II, they were shut down, and the towers razed and donated as scrap metal for the war effort. However, the concrete arrows remained. They’ve lost their paint. They’ve crumbled away. They’ve been built over by urban sprawl. Still, there are some out there, in the middle of fields, or in the middle of the desert.

For more information on the concrete arrows, follow this link: http://sometimes-interesting.com/2013/12/04/concrete-arrows-and-the-u-s-airmail-beacon-system/

Closer to home, there is a wayfinding marker right here in Lockport. Located at Outwater Park in the northwest corner of the City, a series of bushes have been planted and trimmed to denote the name of the city, its latitude and longitude, and possibly an approach angle number. Situated right next to the water tower (which I’d like to see painted as R2-D2), this group of bushes seems nondescript from the ground. Once viewed from the air, their message is revealed.

From south to north, a hedge writes out “Lockport.” To the east of the name of the city, there is what looks like a fraction. The top number, 43.9, is the latitude. The bottom number, the longitude, is shown today as 78.2. Directly south of his fraction is a circle with a “4” to the south of it. I am not exactly sure what this denotes.

There are a couple issues with the numbers shown. Part of it has to do with better mapping practices since the bushes were planted, and part of it has to do with dying parts of the bushes. If you were to go to the coordinates as grown today, you’d find yourself just northwest of Shu in Kazakhstan. A minus sign from the longitudinal number is missing. Still, that doesn’t bring you to Lockport. You’d end up in Lake Ontario just south of Port Hope.

When I look back through historic aerials on historicaerials.com, the 1958 coordinates are listed as 43.9, 78.42. The minus sign is still missing, but we’re getting just a bit farther west. Now we’re still in Lake Ontario, south of Port Granby. The actual latitude and longitude numbers for Outwater Park are, 43.179748, -78.700875, or thereabouts. Also, in the 1958 version of the bushes, the circle has an arrow pointing south east away from it with a number “2” at the end.

By 1963, the arrow is gone, as well as the “2.” In its place is a “5” which is located directly east of the first “O” in Lockport, and southwest of the circle. The 1995 aerial shows the “5” has disappeared and a “4” has taken over. It is located to the southwest of the circle. At some point in the last several years, the “4” in the longitude has disappeared, likely cut down when the bush died.

I find it interesting that the minus sign is missing by 1958. So, when were the bushes planted, and by whom? I’m sure there are some old pilots around the area who could explain in full detail. Does the City still maintain these bushes, or will their message slowly be lost at the bushes grow out? It is a fascinating notion of pilots utilizing bushes in a public park.

How many other way-finding signs are there across the country for early pilots? I’m sure there are plenty of lost treasures lurking in the bushes, beneath fields, or slipping under the shifting sands of the desert.

Craig Bacon hates flying, but is willing to take a trip on a plane or a helicopter to check out the bushes at Outwater Park from the air. Hint...hint.