NEAR GOLD HILL, Ore. — When airplanes began carrying mail and passengers for the first time, navigating up and down the Pacific Coast was a challenge. Flying over high mountains and low valleys called for creative ways to guide those early pilots.
Rising from the treetops on Nugget Butte behind Gold Hill is a 50-foot tall steel tower that was once the platform for a beacon light that guided airplanes flying up and down the Highway 99 corridor. It was one of dozens that operated until the 1950′s.
Most of the towers were set up by the federal government in the mid or late 1920′s, when air mail and the first passenger planes began making night flights. This clipping from the Ashland Tidings announced the construction of several towers in the area, topped with two million candlepower lights, sweeping the dark night sky six times a minute. Veteran pilot Elmont George of Ashland, who began his flying career in the 1930′s, remembers the beacon lights.
“There was a beacon up on top of the Siskiyou summit area. And then, this beacon down on Beacon Hill. And then there was one in Talent; and then the airport,” said Elmont George, a veteran pilot.
There was also a beacon one on top of Nugget Butte, and another at Beacon Hill in Grants Pass, and another on Mt. Nebo at Roseburg. George says there were different colored lights on the beacons that helped pilots identify their location.
The base for the tower at Gold Hill has a concrete arrow pointing to the Medford Airport. It’s hard to see now because of the brush, but the concrete base for the old tower on Beacon Hill at Grants Pass is very distinct, pointing toward the Merlin Airfield.
“The main route, was those and airplanes at that point didn’t fly very high. They didn’t have that power to really get up high and go. So they followed the low areas, and the beacons were set to go through pretty much like the freeway goes through now,” recalled Elmont.
In addition to the federal aviation administration beacons were the giant, hundred foot tall Richfield beacons; 34 of them, located about every fifty miles along Highway 99, from El Centro, In Southern California, to Tacoma, Washington.
On two sides of the towers were eight foot tall neon letters spelling out the word “Richfield”, and often they had a gas station nearby. One at the Siskiyou Summit survived until Interstate 5 brought a highway re-alignment.
At Mt. Shasta, another tower and old station is still in place. The beacon at Grants Pass was apparently a Richfield beacon, but only the concrete foundation arrow remains. It’s not clear when the Siskiyou and Grants Pass towers disappeared.
In addition to the Richfield beacons all along Highway 99, there were several along Highway 101 on the California coast. Three of those stations remain…in Willows and Mt. Shasta in California, and near Eugene, in Oregon. They all have other uses today.