"Wire Mountain (Big Beacon) from the University of Utah.
By Lynn Arave
Completion of the transcontinental railroad in Utah in 1869 was a milestone in the state's transportation legacy. But a lesser-known key travel event took place over Utah in the early 1920s when the first airmail planes crossed the continent.
Using planes to deliver mail shaved 22 hours off coast-to-coast mail delivery by the former all-railroad system. But mail still had to be put on trains when the sun went down each day because airplane flights at night were considered too dangerous.
In those days, pilots were forced to truly fly by the seat of their pants, lacking radar and most of today's sophisticated navigation technology. Theirs was a simple "fly by sight" system. Even their so-called instrument panel had to be painted with luminous paint.
The U.S. Postal Service, operator of those early planes in the 1920s, was under pressure to increase the speed of mail delivery. The only quicker alternative was to fly at night. Previously, mail was flown at night only over the flat 885 miles between Chicago and Cleveland.
In 1921, the U.S. Army began installing rotating beacons along the coast-to-coast route to assist navigation at night, according to information from the National Archives of the U.S. Post Office.
Creating a lighted air corridor from Rock Springs to Salt Lake City cost $29,234 for the 169 miles.
"Wire Mountain" (Big Beacon) is straight above the curved arrow, as seen from 400 South.
The 417-mile flight from Cheyenne to Salt Lake City had three regular airfields, 20 emergency airfields, 16 electric beacons and 75 gas-powered beacons, the 1925 annual report from the postmaster general said.
By July 1, 1924, some 185 beacons of three different configurations were in place over 2,669 miles from New York to San Francisco, and the first nighttime delivery was made.
Utah was a key Western component to this path. One beacon was installed on "Big Beacon," a 7,143-foot mountain east of Salt Lake City and directly east of 200 South Street. (Today, this peak is more commonly known as Wire Mountain.) This peak has microwave relays on top of it, as well as an old fire lookout tower.
The high-intensity beacons were placed on 53-foot towers about 10 miles apart. They contained a 24-inch parabolic mirror and a 1,000-watt bulb. They could emit a 1 million candlepower flash every 10 seconds.
The beacons revolved six times per minute and were visible to pilots on clear nights from as far as 75 miles away. Beacons were maintained regularly, and some could only be reached by foot or on mule. Surprisingly, historical reports indicate it was ultimately harder to install the lights in the populated Eastern United States than the mountainous West.
The 24-hour-a-day airmail flights meant letters could be delivered from west to east in as little as 29 hours. The time from east to west was 32 hours and 30 minutes. The time difference was due to prevailing westerly winds that aided eastward flights but slowed those in the opposite direction.
Pilots and planes were changed six times en route — at Cleveland, Chicago, Omaha, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City and Reno. That meant each pilot flew an average of 381 miles. Floodlights at these airports aided nighttime landings, and many buildings had arrows or numerical designations painted on them to be visible from the air. The trans-nation air service utilized almost 600 employees and 76 planes.
The beginnings of the Salt Lake City International Airport came from this airmail effort, according to a history obtained from the Salt Lake City Airport Director's Office.
Some 100 acres were purchased by Salt Lake City for $40 an acre in a marshy pasture area called Basque Flats. Previously, a small cinder-covered airstrip had been built in 1917. The new, larger airport was named Woodward Field in honor of local pilot John P. Woodward. World heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey came to christen the airfield. (By 1930, Salt Lake's airport had expanded to 400 acres and was renamed "Salt Lake City Municipal Airport.")
Besides "Big Beacon" mountain, the Salt Lake area had other beacons, but none remains today.
The early airmail pilots were unsung heroes of aviation — the round-the-clock service ended up costing 34 pilots their lives, or about one of every six pilots. Flying in open-cockpit biplanes, they were exposed to the weather. More than 1,700 forced landings were reported, half due to mechanical problems and the remainder from severe weather.
A 1991 interview by IFR Magazine with the late Elrey B. Jeppesen, alias "Captain Jepp," who flew along the 1920s mail routes, talked about the problems of flying around Salt Lake City with all its mountains.
Jeppesen said despite beacons, the Salt Lake airport manager had a telephone put in the corner of the field where it was quiet. Then, as pilots radioed they were near Salt Lake City, he'd listen for their engine "blurp" and could tell them if they were past the mountains on dark or cloudy days.
Postage costs in those days were 8 cents per ounce for each of the plane change zones, or 24 cents for the entire route. The service carried more than 9.3 million letters in 1925.
Eventually, the U.S. Congress decided it was wiser to let private companies transport mail. This led to the 1925 Contract Air Mail Act and the Air Commerce Act in 1926. This aided the creation of the airlines and passengers service as well as mail delivery. Varney Air Lines, Western Air Express and National Air Transport were among these early private carriers.
(-Originally written by Lynn Arave in the Deseret News, Aug. 24, 2007.)
-NOTE: The author, Lynn Arave, is available to speak to groups, clubs, classes or other organizations about Utah history at no charge. He can be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org