The Internet of the 1920s: The Transcontinental Airmail Service
Even after the Victory Highway offered an actual paved cross-country highway, there was still a need for fast mail service, not just coast to coast, but between cities of large to medium sizer nationwide. This inspired the first US Airmail service in 1918, but it was fraught with problems. The planes could not navigate at night, so airmail was a strange hybrid: at night, the mailbags were thrown onto trains, and at dawn, the trains stopped near the nearest airfield where workers threw the mail bags from trains to trucks and then onto airplanes that flew all day, then new workers threw the mailbags from the planes to trucks and back onto another train. It was slow, exhausting, and inefficient.
In 1920 though, Congress voted funds to build a national system of 24-hour navigational beacons. There were funding issues: President Calvin Coolidge cut the budget, and the Postmaster himself thought the idea was stupid. Still, the Postal Service built the first leg of a transcontinental system, from San Francisco to Salt Lake City, via Reno. In 1921, the "Transcontinental Air Mail Pilot's Log of Distances, Landmarks, and Flying Directions" gave this description of the Reno airfield: "The air mail field at Reno lies two miles west of the city. The main runway lies east and west. The field is marked by a T and wind indicator. And landing from four ways is unobstructed. Reno is 4,497 feet above sea level. Whenever possible it is advisable to leave the Reno field on the east-west runway, taking off to the east. A slight downgrade enables the ship to quickly obtain flying speed. Just beyond the east edge of the field the ground is extremely rough and there is a huge ditch here."
Starting at the airfield in Concord, California (not actually in San Francisco), the Postal Service built a series of giant concrete arrows on the ground, each one pointing to the next one. They were painted “Chromium Yellow” with a six-inch black border for high visibility. They were 50-70 feet long. Each one also had a steel beacon tower that broadcast a light at night. Generators, fuel, and electrical equipment were stored in a small shed, and the arrow number and route abbreviation were painted in large symbols on the roof.
A Contemporary Diagram of a Beacon and Arrow: #41 on the Denver-Kansas City Route
Set approximately every ten miles, the first set of arrows stretched across the US and across Nevada. Many of the arrows are still there, though almost none of the beacons or sheds in Nevada are still there. The Postal Service then built more routes, east-east and north-south, but Reno was the key hub in the very first 24-hour airmail route. Though the technology seems primitive now, it was a huge undertaking to design a night and day navigation system in 1920, and to build hundreds of beacons across the country.
Airmail Planes at the Elko Airfield, 1920s
An Ad for Airmail on the Side of a 1931 Postal Truck
Note that this is the middle of the Great Depression, but the woman is well groomed, well dressed, and has nice makeup and hair. She also has $5+ per letter to spend. Who is the audience for this ad? The truck is a 1931 Ford AA on display at the Seattle Museum of Flight.
The Less Glamorous Part: Transferring Airmail Bags from a Plane to a Truck at Night
Omaha Nebraska: 1:50 AM on July 1, 1924. These postal employees are moving as fast they can to transfer the mail from the plane to a truck, then onto a train for a night run before the entire route was finished. The completed system of beacons allowed planes to fly the whole way, night or day.
Obviously, the Transcontinental Airmail Service catered to the wealthy, and after the start of the Great Depression, that became even more the case. Still, the service grew over time, expanding to more and more cities. The US Postal service sold airmail specific stamps until 1975, by which time most first-class mail was going by airplane anyway. This illustrates how delivery (and life in general) kept speeding up throughout the 20th century, as faster became better for most people.
You can find an excellent history of airmail routes told through maps here:
The first air mail routes used US Army pilots and planes. As the demand for air mail service grew, the Postal Service began offering private entrepreneurs the chance to fly “Contract Air Mail” (CAM) routes. Each was numbered and each was operated at a profit (hopefully) by private companies, some of which later became the first commercial airlines. CAM 1 was between New York and Boston, while the route from Chicago to San Francisco became CAM 18 on July 1, 1927, years after that route had been opened. But the most significant route was also the first one to open, and the only CAM to have a Nevada terminus: CAM 5 from Pasco Washington to Elko Nevada.
CAM 5: Pasco-Elko—“The Nowhere Route”
CAM 5 was arguable the most important Contract Air Mail route in history. The fact that it ended and began in Elko is just icing on the cake. The route didn’t have a lot of takers: in fact, it had just one. The route was terrible: 445 miles of some of the worst flying weather and terrain in the United States, with no arrows and no beacons. Pilots flew Swallow biplanes that were outdated even in 1926. Airplane people called it “The Nowhere Route.” When someone asked aviation pioneer General Billy Mitchell what he thought about it, he said “If they knew what they were trying to do, they wouldn’t even start it.” There were mountains, thunderstorms, and a whole lot of empty desert if they were forced to land. Walter Varney took the contract, lined up some old planes and pilots, and on April 6, 1926, two planes took off: one flying from Elko to Pasco, and one flying from Pasco to Elko, for Varney Airlines.
The flights were a Big Deal. In Pasco, the Army sent planes from three of its airfields, and a genuine stagecoach delivered the mail to the plane, symbolizing the handoff from the old Wells Fargo coaches to the newfangled airplane.
The Sendoff for the First Commercial Airmail Flight in Pasco Washington April 6, 1926
The pilot, Leon Cuddeback, had trouble starting his motor, then an uneventful flight to Boise, where he found a hand-built landing field and a huge crowd of fans. His second plane wouldn’t start at all, so he got back in the first one and flew to Elko, hitting a thunderstorm along the way, but making it in five and a half hours, and making history.
Franklin Rose, flying Elko-Pasco, had a much stranger trip. A thunderstorm knocked his light plane off course, and he had to crash land. When two men rode up on horseback, he thought he was rescued until they pulled guns and accused him of being a government agent looking for illegal whiskey stills! He tried to convince them he was airmail pilot, but they had never heard of such a thing. Eventually, they told him which way the nearest ranch was and left him. After two days of walking, he found a ranch with a telephone and called back to Elko field. The airline had search parties out all over looking for him (but in the wrong places) and was delighted to know he was alive and still had the mail. After that, there was talk about putting carrier pigeons on board each plane, so if they crashed, the pilot could send a rescue note back with the pigeon! Instead, the airlines and the government just installed better radio equipment and eventually pilots could radio for help, but on the “Nowhere Route,” that took time. His boss told the Pasco Herald newspaper:
“If Rose had had a carrier pigeon in his plane he could have released the bird with details of his forced landing and we would have known in a few hours at the most just where he was. As it was we had to wait over a day for him to get to a telephone and for the message to be relayed to headquarters here.”
The article reported that the airline was going to try to find and train carrier pigeons. It also said that:
“A Radio system is also planned to link Pasco and Elko with route headquarters in Boise,” but “at present radio communication with Pasco seems almost impossible due to some condition in the atmosphere similar to that which causes ‘dead’ spaces in radio broadcasting. Communications with Elko can be established easily, tests have shown. Such radio communication would not have hurried word of the safety of Rose, however, unless his plane was equipped with a radio sending set. The Swallows are not so equipped, however, so in the opinion of Superintendent Wrightson, the carrier pigeon may be the solution to the communication problem, especially over the nearly uninhabited leg of the mail route between here and Elko.”
It tells a lot about the time and the place that the first solution they thought of was having pilots bring a carrier pigeon along with them, or that the problem with radio communication was “some condition in the atmosphere.” It is also telling that when talking about solutions, radio was “also planned,” but not the first choice.
Eventually, planes were modernized, equipped with two-way radios, and beacons were installed along with reliable radio relays on all routes. Once the radios became the norm though, the airmail arrows and beacons became obsolete once scientists figured out radio navigation.
Varney went on to expand to passenger service, eventually forming United Airlines. Other airlines that got their start on the CAM routes were American Airlines, Delta (which became a CAM carrier in 1934, but later merged with Western Airlines which began as a CAM carrier), Boeing, Pan Am, Trans World Airlines (TWA), Northwest Airlines, Braniff, Continental, and Eastern Airlines. Some of those airlines are gone now, but they were all huge icons of the 20th century, and some live on in movies, like Pan Am in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Later Development of the Air Mail Routes
The towers and arrows were obsolete by the mid-1930s, and by World War Two, there was a desperate need for scarp metal, so most of the towers were torn down and the steel melted for the war effort. (The same thing happened to all the steel rails on the many lumber railroads through the Sierra Nevada, including the tracks running from Verdi into Dog Valley, but the roadbeds, trestle supports, and even the railroad ties are still there, along with a bunch of junk left behind.)
Airmail continues to thrive, and in fact, most of it is Contract Air Mail flying on commercial flights. Since the CAM system originally allowed those airlines to start up and eventually to offer passenger service, it is fitting and a little ironic that the massive system of passenger flights today is what allows every first class letter to be “air mail.” Almost all the major airlines—and the very idea of commercial passenger service—began because a few businessmen/pilots were able to fund the purchase of a fleet of planes by carrying airmail, and eventually moved up to bigger, more modern planes that could also carry people. Without the stimulus of the Contract Air Mail system, and that rough and tumble Pasco-Elko flight, the commercial airline system as we know it would not have evolved when it did.
Airmail continues to move through, to and from Nevada every day, but now it is No Big Deal: it’s just part of the normal flow of commerce. But for a while, Reno and Elko were vital hubs in a pioneering, dangerous, exciting, and high-tech enterprise involving wood and canvas biplanes, concrete arrows, and gas-powered lights on steel towers. Wow!
Pasco Air Museum
Airmail Contracts 1931: 1271 Pages of Contractual Fun!
Contract Air Mail Route 5: Pasco-Elko
This article in the Tri-City Herald (the successor to the Pasco Herald) is full of inaccuracies, but fun. It is a reminder that careful research from a lot of primary sources is necessary to really understand some of the more obscure historical topics. My own primary research took place in Seattle, Elko, Reno, Carson City, and in Washington DC.
US Postal Museum
Howard Hickson’s History: Aircraft Down
Howard Hickson was the director of the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko, and Great Basin College hosts his many historical studies of Nevada. The site is worth a visit, and it can lead you in all sorts of interesting directions. So can a visit to the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko, but that’s a four-hour drive (and as I edit this, it’s also closed due to the Coronavirus). This is online, free, and always open!
Flying Magazine 1957: “Walt Varney’s Airline
This is a good older look at United Airlines and its history, through the lens of Walter Varney’s life.
Seattle Museum of Flight
Located at Boeing Field, this museum has one of the best collections of aircraft in the world, as well as a first-class research library with lots of information on the Contract Air Mail Routes. They also have a special Coronavirus “Take Flight at Home” tour!
A Boeing Model 40B: Designed to Replace the Ageing DH-4s on Airmail Routes
Boeing designed the Model 40B with the express intent of carrying mail and passengers on the CAM 18: San Francisco-Chicago. The Model 40A was revolutionary: it had an all steel frame instead of wood (gasp!) and the frame was covered in plywood, not cloth (double gasp!). It was able to carry hundreds of pounds of mail plus two passengers! The updated Model 40B doubled that to four passengers! (Quadruple gasp!) Boeing operated CAM 18 from 1927 to 1934, when Congress forbad airplane manufacturers from also delivering mail. That means Model 40s were a daily sight flying through the Truckee River Canyon and into Reno, then on to Elko. Note the restored air mail beacon tower and shed to the left, the air mail bags stacked by the left wheel, and the two other types of air mail beacon on the floor on the left.
A 1931 Ford AA Truck used by the Air Mail: Cutting Edge Tech!
Primary Source: Articles from the Pasco Herald