Concrete arrows tell Reno’s airmail history

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RENO, Nev. (AP) - Not far from Reno’s popular Steamboat Ditch Trail, a route utilized by hundreds of hikers and mountain bikers each year, rests a relic of Nevada’s and the nation’s aviation history.

Few people have seen it and fewer still know its significance, a situation Reno’s Marvin Mattson, a Nevada history buff, would like to see changed.

The relic is a concrete slab in the shape of an arrow that was a critical link in the transcontinental delivery of mail for the U.S. Air Mail Service in the 1920s and ‘30s. As part of the effort to help pilots successfully navigate the route between New York and San Francisco, the arrows (usually painted yellow) and an accompanying tower equipped with a gas-powered beacon were installed at roughly 10-mile intervals across the country.

The airmail pilots - generally young, military trained fliers - flew open cockpit biplanes on the route.

Reno’s most-famous flier was William Blanchfield, who had served his native Ireland as a pilot for the Royal British Flying Corps during World War I, immigrated to the U.S. after the war and applied for citizenship. As an airmail pilot, he was assigned the Reno-Elko run in Nevada. His exploits in making sure the mail arrived became the stuff of legend.

The Nevada State Journal described one winter flight this way: “During the month of November 1922, Blanchfield made his phenomenal run from Elko on the wings of a hurricane. The thermometer registered 16 degrees below zero at Elko and the field manager there told him it was impossible to make the flight. But Blanchfield, with that soldier tradition of generations, demurred. He said that the mail must go. And he won. But the fight he made with the blizzard is still talked about in aviation circles.”

There were many other stories of blizzards, epic windstorms and crash landings.

Reno’s children knew him as “Big Bill,” and he was famous for his friendly manner and fearless attitude. He died in a plane crash on Ralston Street in Reno while paying tribute to an airmail colleague who had died, and the Reno’s Air Mail field, now the site of Washoe Golf Course, was renamed in his honor.

Aviation buffs compared the fearless fliers to the famous Pony Express riders of the 19th century.

“These guys were flying in all kinds of weather,” said Ben Scott, a retired Reno auto executive and pilot who has twice made airmail commemoration flights across the country in his 1930 Stearman 4E Speedmail biplane. “Going through the canyons, they were practically running their toes down the river. So the arrows were there to help them navigate the route.”

In addition to New York and San Francisco, the transcontinental route included 13 intermediate stops where mails were exchanged and aircrew relieved. In Nevada, the stops were in Elko and Reno. Others included Bellefonte, Penn.; Cleveland; Bryan, Ohio; Chicago; Iowa City, Iowa; Omaha, Neb.; North Platte, Neb.; Rawlins, Wyo.; Rock Springs, Wyo.; and Salt Lake City.

The concrete arrows were placed about every 10 miles between the stops, generally in remote areas often hard to get to. The Steamboat Ditch arrow fits that description. It’s a hike from the area known as “The Hole” to reach it, and it has apparently been largely unknown to all but a few.

Neither Phillip Earl, the emeritus curator of history at the Nevada Historical Society who has researched and written about Nevada’s Air Mail Service, nor Scott, has ever seen the arrow.

History buff Mattson said he learned of it through fellow history enthusiast Cary Yamamoto of Reno, who said he saw a post on Facebook mentioning the arrow and that sparked his curiosity.

“Cary came to me and said, ‘Marvin, do you know anything about this,’ ” said Mattson, 62, who works as an insurance estimator for State Farm Insurance. “I said I didn’t and he said, ‘This sounds like another quest for you.’ That’s what got me interested.”

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