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BEACON OF HISTORY

South Boston News
SoVaNow.com / August 26, 2020
Chase City is home once again to one of the original flight beacons and towers that marked the route air transport companies used to deliver mail in the in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

The airport tower, which is believed to be one of the oldest in Virginia, was brought to the Chase City Municipal Airport from Salem around 1965 by then-Mayor Charles Duckworth.

Monty Hightower, who helped repair and reinstall the tower, said he is not certain about the age of the tower at the Chase City airport. He said it stood until about three years ago when a wind microburst toppled it.

After deeming the tower worthy of repair, Hightower and Town Council members Marshall “Tommy” Whitaker and James Bohanan, former Vice Mayor Lisa Gillispie and Rick Baldwin raised funds to cover the cost of the necessary repair work. Junior Cadets with the Civil Air Patrol from Blacksburg helped repaint the tower and local building contractor Dean McCluster and Hightower reinstalled it at the airport Tuesday afternoon.

Hightower said the Sperry Gyroscope beacon will be returned to the top of the tower within the next month. He is currently retrofitting it with new LED lights. Originally, the 24-inch light beacon was lighted with a 1,000-watt lamp that flashed every ten seconds.

In 1927, in an era before radar, the Airways Division of the Department of Commerce built a series of beacons with directional arrows that marked the route for mail carriers. The sites were developed for night and poor visibility flying conditions.

The beacons sat atop a 50-foot skeleton tower that was placed on top of a concrete foundation in the shape of a giant arrow measuring between 50 and 70 feet long. The arrows, which were painted bright yellow, pointed in the direction of the next successively numbered beacon.

In clear weather, the beacon lights could be seen for 10 miles.

The airmail beacon program continued to operate full-scale until 1933, when technology advancements and the higher cost of operation during the Great Depression rendered it obsolete. After the program was de-funded, various beacons continued to operate in limited capacities into the 1940s.

Hightower said during World War II, many of the towers were disassembled and their steel was used to support the war effort.

The last airway beacon was officially shut down in 1973. According to his research, Hightower said, there is only one other similar beacon and tower remaining on the East Coast. That one is found in Alabama.

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