In the mid-19th century the Wild West was largely unexplored. Discovery of gold in 1848 made California a destination for tens of thousands from the east; communication back east had it challenges.
One way, the Pony Express, used 400 horses and employed 183 men only for a brief 20 month period starting on April 3, 1860 in order to carry mail and news across nearly 2,000-miles between about 165 stations from St. Joseph, Missouri to San Francisco, California once or twice a week in 10-16 days.
Then, on October 24, 1861, wires were joined on the first transcontinental telegraph; the Pony Express mail delivery was discontinued by November 1861.
The driving of the ‘Last Spike’ at Promontory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869 brought the transcontinental railroad, into the scene. Coast-to-coast rail mail took about 10-11 days to deliver.
Then, on December 14, 1903, Wilbur and Orville Wright tossed a coin to decide who would fly first. At 10:35 am, December 17, 1903, Orville was at the controls and kept the plane aloft until it hit the sand about 120 feet from the rail – the first controlled and sustained power flight. (NPS)
To demonstrate the potential of transporting mail by air, the Post Office approved a special air mail flight as part of the festivities at an international air meet on September 23, 1911, on Long Island, New York.
With a full mail bag squeezed between his legs, pilot Earle Ovington took off and flew to Mineola, a few miles away. He banked his airplane and pushed the bag overboard. It fell to the ground and was retrieved by the local postmaster. (Smithsonian)
On February 22, 1921, four air mail flights set out to prove the mail could be flown coast to coast in record time by flying day and night. The going proved rough. One pilot died in a crash. Treacherous weather stopped others.
But the fourth flight got through, making it from San Francisco to New York in 33 hours and 20 minutes-a distance that took 4½ days by train and 3 days by air/rail (flown by day and shipped by train at night). (Smithsonian)
Early transcontinental airmail delivery was a hybrid system. In 1922, letters sent by airmail would have to leapfrog the country, traveling by air during the day and by train at night. Using this process, a letter moving at its absolute fastest might take about 83 hours to get from New York to San Francisco.
The few pilots who did try to travel at night during this time were taking their lives in their hands. Nearly 1-in-10 early airmail pilots died during the early days of the postal service’s airmail initiative, and emergency landings were common.
There had to be a safer way. Enter the highway of light — a system of airmail beacons that spanned the country. (Pope)
During the spring and summer of 1923, work on a lighted airway between Cheyenne, WY, and Chicago, IL, was being pushed forward with a view to carrying out certain experiments to determine whether cross-country night flying on a regular schedule was possible.
They wanted to see if transcontinental air mail service between New York and San Francisco could be regularly maintained. This was certainly a huge undertaking, as up to this time very little night flying had been done and there were no lighted airways in existence. (Air Mail Pioneers)
In the last half of 1923 and the first half of 1924, 289-flashing gas beacons were installed between Chicago and Cheyenne; 34-emergency landing fields between the same points were rented, equipped with rotating electric beacons, boundary markers, and telephones.
Five terminal landing fields were equipped with beacons, floodlights and boundary markers; 17 planes were equipped with luminous instruments, navigation lights, landing lights and parachute flares.
An 18-inch rotating beacon, mounted on top of a 50-foot windmill tower, was installed at each emergency field. This beacon was also set at a fraction of a degree above the horizon, revolving at the rate of six times a minute, and was visible to the pilots on clear nights from 60 to 70 miles.
A 36-inch-high intensity arc revolving searchlight of approximately 500,000 candlepower was installed on a 50-foot tower at the regular fields. It revolved at the rate of three times per minute and on clear nights could be seen by the pilots for a distance of 130 to 150 miles.
Concrete arrows, painted bright yellow, were at the foot of the 50-foot towers. The arrows were visible from a distance of ten miles, and each arrow pointed the way towards the next, some three miles distant.
In 1924 and 1925, the lighted airways were extended east from Chicago to Cleveland and New York and west from Cheyenne through Rock Springs, Wyoming, to Salt Lake City and then on to San Francisco. By the end of 1925, the US Air Mail truly had a day and night transcontinental airmail route covering a distance of slightly over 2,000-miles. (Air Mail Pioneers)
In 1926 management of the beacon system was turned over to the Department of Commerce, which continued expansion or the airmail beacon system until 1929. By 1933 the Airways Division of the Department of Commerce had completed 18,000 miles of lighted airways, installed 1,550 light beacons, and constructed over 250 airfields. (NPS)
Once the new lighted airway was in place, that same letter that used to take 83-hours took just 33-hours to get from New York to San Francisco.
But by the 1930s, navigation and radio technology had improved to allow flight without land-based visual guidance. And even though radio was all the rage — and fast becoming a coast-to-coast experience — sending a letter was still the most economical way to deliver any message among private citizens. (Pope)
In the Islands, on October 8, 1934, Inter-Island Airways made the first official US airmail flight in Hawai‘i from John Rodgers Airport. (hawaii-gov) Shortly after, on April 17, 1935, Pan American landed a survey flight crew to look at air mail service from California to Hawai‘i and on to Midway, Wake and Guam.
On November 22, 1935, Postmaster General James A Farley and Mr Juan Trippe ordered Pilot Musick, commanding Pan Am’s China Clipper, to take off on the first airmail flight, by way of Hawai‘i and the other islands, on to its Manila destination.
Twenty thousand spectators were on hand to watch festivities at Alameda, all eyes on the immense silver airplane. They saw an estimated 110,000 pieces of mail weighing nearly two tons being stowed on board. (hawaii-gov)
October 21, 1936 saw the first passenger flight. Pan Am provided weekly service along recently impossible routes. Although the first services stopped at Manila for political reasons, service continued to expand and eventually reached Hong Kong and Singapore. (Pacific Aviation Museum)