EVANSTON — After a lengthy absence due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Uinta County Museum’s Brown Bag Lunch series returned on Wednesday, June 9, when newly retired political science professor Dave Marcum spoke about the history of the AirMail Service in Wyoming. Presentations on the AirMail Service were originally intended to take place in 2020, which was the 100th anniversary of the service’s Wyoming beginnings; however, like many things scheduled to occur in 2020, the presentations were delayed a year.
Marcum, who is also a retired Air Force mechanic, shared his expertise and passion on the subject with those in attendance at the Beeman-Cashin Building to learn about a little-known facet of Wyoming history. The first point Marcum emphasized was that the United States Postal Service began the AirMail program primarily to demonstrate it was possible to have regularly scheduled flights for commercial purposes and to help develop a commercial air industry; improving the speed of mail delivery was actually a secondary goal.
According to Marcum, although aircraft were utilized in wartime, at the end of World War I there was no such thing as an aviation industry in the United States. Given the technological limitations of aircraft at the time, air service was simply unable to compete with what was then the primary mode of service — the railroad.
In 1919, the Transcontinental Reliability and Endurance Test Project was launched to help demonstrate that planes were a realistic option for providing coast-to-coast commercial service. At the time, said Marcum, planes were seen primarily as toys that people could purchase in pieces and build themselves and people simply didn’t imagine they would prove useful or even indispensable.
While Congress allowed the USPS to create the AirMail program, it did not allocate any money for the project. Therefore, the USPS convinced communities along the planned transcontinental route to invest their own funds to build terminals, including in Cheyenne, Rawlins and Rock Springs. Lacking any other options, pilots navigated the planes by sight, often following the railroad tracks, or what was known as the “iron compass,” across the land below. The service also made use of aeroglyphs constructed on land to serve as landmarks for pilots.
Without lights, pilots only flew during the day, and the mail service was an air-train hybrid. During the day, planes moved the mail to a new location, where it was unloaded and reloaded onto trains to continue its voyage at night, and then loaded onto a plane again the next morning. By the mid-1920s it was decided the air-rail hybrid was inefficient so the decision was made to light the airways with beacons, some of which were powered by acetylene and others by wind. It was further decided that the segment to be flown at night would be from Chicago to Cheyenne because it was the flattest section of the New York City to San Francisco route.
Beacons were constructed every three miles of the approximately 950 miles from Chicago to Cheyenne, with additional rotating beacons constructed every 10 miles. The maintenance requirements for the beacons were enormous and were increased due to regular incidents of vandalism. Eventually beacons were installed across the entirety of the air route, including a wind-powered beacon in the Lyman area. As always, the Wyoming weather presented challenges for pilots, and Marcum relayed a tale of one pilot flying in near blizzard conditions who actually resorted to simply driving the plane along the ground and only flying to “hop” over fences.
By 1927, the USPS AirMail program ended when the postal service began contracting with private commercial flights. However, from 1926 to 1941, the airways continued to grow as Congress continued to see the benefit in the expansion of air service. Companies began offering commercial flights, not just for the mail but for people as well. At first, flights were limited to four passengers in a small compartment of a Boeing Model 40; later, the number of passengers increased to 10-14 in the Boeing Model 80.
At that time, the airways began “getting serious,” according to Marcum. Air service was reclassified to fall under the U.S. Department of Commerce, which developed what were called intermediate airfields every 35 miles of the route. In reality, those airfields were emergency airfields but it was deemed unwise from a public relations standpoint to call them that when the mission of the airways was to build confidence in flight as a safe and reliable form of transportation. Intermediate airfields were located in the Fort Bridger area and near Evanston at the Knight location.
Radio capabilities also expanded dramatically, allowing the broadcast of signals to help pilots with navigation in bad weather and at night and the beacon system was expanded and improved. Each beacon also had an arrow constructed next to it, made either of metal or concrete, with all arrows pointing east to aid in navigation. Thousands of such arrows were built across the United States. According to Marcum, there were beacons in Uinta County near Altamont, Piedmont and Leroy, in addition to those at the airfields at Fort Bridger and Knight. Airfields had to be staffed at all times, so caretaker homes were also built on site. The placement of airfields every 35 miles exponentially increased the amount of maintenance work required to keep the airfields functional.
Marcum said there were two crashes at the Knight airfield in the 1930s, with one pilot killed in a February 1932 crash and 19 fatalities from a crash that occurred in October of 1937.
Marcum has spent a great deal of time searching the state for remnants of the transcontinental airway in Wyoming. He has located arrows, the remains of beacons and other evidence of airfields; however, he is disappointed that many areas have not been preserved as he believes they should have been. He said he would love to see greater efforts at preservation of parts of the state’s history beyond those related to “cowboys and Indians” and the railroad and would particularly love to see other areas of historical importance promoted in terms of tourism.
He is always looking for information about Wyoming history, particularly related to airfields and events that took place in the state during the Cold War from 1947 to 1992. Anyone with information to share can reach him at [email protected]