“Learning never exhausts the mind.”
—Leonardo Da Vinci
Despite all the years I’ve explored Tooele County, I still hear interesting stories or about locations I had no idea existed.
I was riding home in my van pool from work the other day when I heard a friend talk about a post he saw on Facebook regarding giant, concrete arrows in the desert. Intrigued, I did some research and found a lot of information about these relics that have been lying in the sagebrush, right under my nose, for decades.
I learned about an incredible saga in American history that has mostly been forgotten. But with renewed interest on the internet, the story is coming back to life.
During the early days of aviation, it didn’t take long for aviators, businessmen and the government to realize mail could be delivered quickly by air. But there was a problem: there was no Federal Aviation Administration, capable radios or sophisticated navigation to help pilots find their way.
But in 1924, the federal government came up with a solution. It built a trail of concrete markers aviators could follow in daylight, combined with beacons they could follow at night. Stations were constructed every 10 miles, kind of like the Pony Express Trail, and each consisted of a 50- to 70-foot-long concrete arrow that was painted yellow, a 55-foot-tall beacon with a rotating lamp and a generator building to power everything. Some of the stations also had a keeper’s quarters for workers who maintained the line.
These arrow trails stretched across the country, from New York to San Francisco, and eventually north to south and east to west. The stations were effective at guiding aircraft both day and night.
There are several theories as to why the arrows went out of service. One theory suggests that as World War II approached, advancements in radio communication and aerial navigation gradually replaced the arrows. Another states many arrows were removed to prevent becoming navigational aids for Japanese and German bombers during World War II.
We are lucky in Tooele County because some good arrows remain that can be easily visited. The first one is right off Skull Valley exit 77 on Interstate 80. After exiting from I-80, turn as though you were going to the salt company, but just before the entrance, turn right and follow the road around the perimeter of the salt facility. The road will curve a bit and then you will arrive at an old weather-beaten kiosk that has some information on the Timpie Springs Wildlife Management Area.
Park your vehicle and notice an old, deteriorating fenced enclosure beyond the sign. The fence protects the first arrow. The arrow is largely intact, but you would never know it was there due to sagebrush. Timpie Point and the cliffs at the northern terminus of the Stansbury Range can also be seen there.
While in the area, continue along the pond dike to the locked gate and you may see some interesting birds. When my daughter and I did this a few weeks ago, we saw a great blue heron, some mallard ducks, a brown bird with a long, black narrow bill, and the largest white pelican I have ever seen.
This pelican was sitting calmly in the water, but as our vehicle approached, it took off at a lumber, reminding me of a large plane using the entire runway to get airborne. Some mallards got spooked and ran along the top of the water as they took off.
If you visit the area, make sure you take insect repellent. Swarms of mosquitoes and gnats formed cloud-like formations around our vehicle when we stopped. Needless to say, we stayed inside the vehicle at that point.
The next arrow is my favorite of all. We headed west on I-80 to exit 62, which is the Lakeside/Military Area exit. I wasn’t sure where the arrow was, but I knew it was somewhere on Skunk Ridge.
Using my poor judgment, I decided to follow a road that headed north up through an old gravel pit near the exit. It was rough and faint in areas, but then it topped out on top of Skunk Ridge and provided a breathtaking view. We parked the truck and walked over to the edge of a limestone reef that looms over Puddle Valley. Range grass rippled in the wind and the air was fresh and clear as we observed the expanse of Puddle Valley and the Grassy Mountains beyond.
We got back in the truck and continued northeast along the top of Skunk Ridge, and after a rocky steep pitch that I will never drive again, we arrived at the arrow. What a surprising location for such a thing. The arrow is completely intact and someone has gone through the trouble recently to paint it yellow again.
As we stood on the arrow, I imagined flying across the country looking down on these markers, or scanning the horizon in the dark for the next beacon flash. It’s not quite as dramatic as a Pony Express rider spurring his horse on at full speed to outrun hostile Indians, but interesting all the same.
The views down onto I-80 and east toward the Stansbury, Oquirrh and Wasatch mountains, were stunning from that bleak desert perch. As we walked around, we noticed cactus flowers blooming yellow, peach and red. The desert is pretty and enjoyable if you give it a chance. Also, the arrow experience taught me no matter how long you explore, you can never see and know it all. I wonder how many more secrets and stories the desert conceals?
If you go looking for this last arrow, take exit 62 off I-80 and then turn right and find a place to park. You can follow an old two-track road from that point past a few old concrete platforms as it climbs up to the top of the ridge to where the arrow is located. This is a much better plan than beating up your vehicle. Distance is less than a mile. Take plenty of water, sunscreen and watch out for snakes. A visit to this arrow is well worth the effort, as you can stand there and consider the past as you survey the scene.
For more information on the arrows, check out the Cibola County History page, as they have a completely restored and intact station in Grants, New Mexico: www.cibolahistory.org/aviation-heritage-museum.html.