Filed Under East Helena

Spokane Hill Airway Beacon

The Spokane Hill airway beacon guided nighttime pilots flying between Bozeman and Helena along the Northern Transcontinental Airway’s east-west airmail route between New York City and Seattle. The Spokane Hill beacon was one of six such structures lit on September 12, 1935. Five days later, Northwest Airlines made its inaugural nighttime flight between Bozeman and Helena. Ignition of the MacDonald Pass beacon west of Helena on November 10, 1935, completed Montana’s east-west beacon system. The International Derrick and Equipment Company of Columbus, Ohio, fabricated the towers, which were paid for with funds from the Works Projects Administration, a Depression-era federal program designed to create jobs. This fifty-five-foot-tall, steel structure held a revolving, one-million-candle-power beacon originally encased in a glass dome. Red and green directional lights on the tower indicated the route, while flashing red course lights identified the beacon in Morse code. Gas-powered generators housed in a nearby shed powered the beacon until the early 1940s when it was connected to electrical lines. Before the advent of radio navigation, airway beacons served as a critical nighttime navigational aid, guiding pilots along routes between airports. From 1926 to 1938, the U.S. Bureau of Air Commerce created 18,000 miles of airway corridors and installed 1,550 airway beacons to mark the routes for night flying. Though most of the country’s beacons were replaced with ground-based radio stations by the mid-1970s, Montana’s private pilots successfully lobbied to keep seventeen beacons lit through 2017. As of 2021, several adopted beacons still light the night sky, recalling Montana’s aviation heritage.

Images

Spokane Hill Airway Beacon, Broadwater County View looking north at beacon platform and light housing Source: National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Montana Historical Society Historic Preservation Office, Helena, MT. Creator: Mitzi Rossillon, photographer Date: May 2019
Spokane Hill Airway Beacon, Broadwater County View looking north at beacon tower structure Source: National Register of Historic Places nomination form. On file at Montana Historical Society Historic Preservation Office, Helena, MT. Creator: Mitzi Rossillon, photographer Date: May 2019

Location

Public

Metadata

Montana Historical Society, “Spokane Hill Airway Beacon,” Historic Montana, accessed February 4, 2023, https://historicmt.org/items/show/3337.