Idaho is generally not a state on anyone’s must-see list for lighthouse tours, but the small town of Dubois on the eastern side of the state might be well worth a visit since it has the only intact and operational airways beacon station still in its original location in the entire western United States.
Known on the Department of Commerce list as Salt Lake-Great Falls Site 24, Dubois Intermediate Landing Field, the station was constructed sometime between 1928 and 1929, but did not have the beacon installed atop a 51-foot skeletal tower for nighttime travel until 1932.
This all took place during the U.S. Lighthouse Service era when they were given oversight of the Airways Division for approximately six years between 1927 to 1933, though they had been involved in an ancillary capacity since 1919 right after WWI. It was a natural fit for the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses to be involved during these early years since they were experts at nighttime illumination and using lights for guidance.
The main transcontinental air mail route from New York to San Francisco was established in September of 1920, but only for daytime travel. The pilots utilized local landmarks to fly from location to location as this was before the advent of the radio beacon. It was an extremely hazardous profession in those early days as 31 of the first 40 postal air mail pilots died in the line of duty between 1919 and 1926. Never did the post office adage of “Neither rain, nor snow, nor sleet, nor hail shall keep the postmen from their appointed rounds” have such dire consequences. It was obvious that the routes needed to be upgraded to help pilots better find their way.
There was a flurry of building activity that took place in the 1920s that included the installation of poured concrete arrows to guide pilots in the day and then towers with mounted beacons for night travel which officially began in 1924. North-south routes were added toward the end of the 1920s after the U.S. Lighthouse Service had taken the reins.
This was facilitated by the Kelly Bill in February of 1925 which authorized the U.S. Postal Service to award air mail contracts to private companies. In May of 1926, the Air Commerce Act was passed which allowed the Secretary of Commerce to designate air routes, develop air navigation systems, and license pilots and aircraft. By 1930, branching routes had been established and were in the process of adding the towers, beacons and generator sheds necessary to run the lights for night flights.
In addition to the nighttime equipment, concrete directional arrows were poured under the towers to show the way to the next station on the route 10 to 20 miles away. The generator shed roofs were painted with the route and site number, while the airways keepers’ dwellings had the name of the station location spelled out on them. It is thought that Dubois had the last concrete arrow installed on the Salt Lake-Great Falls route as eventually, mountainous high-altitude locations switched to metal arrows above ground level so they would not get covered by the snow in winter and decrease the visibility from the air.
Radio beacon equipment followed and Morse code was utilized in course lights also mounted on the towers to flash the station identifier. All of these measures added security and safety to the pilots flying the routes in a variety of unpredictable weather conditions.
Commercial interests expanded in the following decades and many of the beacon sites were incorporated into local airports owned by the cities. At some point following WW2, the town of Dubois took over the lease on the site but still sub-leased a portion to the Civil Aeronautics Administration to continue the radio communication station.
In 1948, there were five homes built for station personnel on the property. Unfortunately, there is not much known about the airways keepers who manned this station and were in charge of the light and radio, especially in the early Lighthouse Service years. Hopefully, further research can be done down the road to discover this information. The radio station remained in service until 1962 and the beacon was still in use.
A couple of decades later, the city council leased the fields surrounding the airport to a local farmer. In 1982, the farmer accidentally plowed up and broke the wires that ran to the runway lights on the airstrip and rather than fix them, the city council decided to turn the beacon and lights permanently off at that point. But that was not the end of the light, though it sat unattended and largely abandoned for the next 30 years.
In 2014, Greg Cobia of Blackfoot, Idaho took flying lessons from local Dubois resident Richard Engelmann. Richard was a science teacher at the middle school and high school and very interested in aviation. He owned several planes and he and Greg eventually shared ownership in one. In 2015, Richard unfortunately passed away and his daughter Kaarin, who was living in Germany at the time, came home for the funeral. She and Greg met and immediately formed a friendship.
She stayed in Idaho for a while and the two did a lot of flying together. They attended the fly-in at the Dubois Air Days and noticed the dilapidated beacon station. They decided to restore it to its former glory as a homage to Richard.
According to Greg, “The generator shed was a disaster. It had critters living in it and windows busted out. Crop dusters were storing things inside”. When Kaarin returned the following year, they cleaned off the weeds and dirt covering the concrete arrow and repainted it to its original yellow color.
The two did research to find out what the numbers and letters meant on the shed and Greg then cleaned and painted it. They then asked the Dubois city council for permission to restore the beacon to its original operational state. Since it hadn’t been in service for 30 years, Greg asked some local people for assistance who knew how to rehab it and get it working.
They worked on it on and off over the next three years and their restoration efforts were completed in time for the 100th anniversary of the first regular airmail service in May of 2018. On May 19th, they had a big party and town celebration. 200 people came and 15 planes flew in for the event.
For Kaarin and Greg, it was a wonderful experience to honor Richard Engelmann as a pilot in addition to recognizing the part that Idaho played in early commercial navigation. The two had so much fun restoring this beacon that they decided to tackle more. They are currently in the process of working on two other Idaho beacons and several in Montana. The two also formed a group on Facebook, the Idaho Aviation Heritage, where they post information on these historic beacons and their projects.
Just as many in the lighthouse community are passionate about restoring and maintaining lighthouses, these two aviation aficionados are just as passionate about restoring airways beacons. We share a common bond in wanting to see the lights shine again and in preserving the history for future generations.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2019 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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