UPSIDE DOWN: The Inverted Jenny, a stamp on which the plane was accidentally printed upside down, is one of the most famous and rare stamp errors that ever occurred. A poster of one hangs in the Old Post Office Café in Carnelian Bay. Courtesy photo

Editor’s note, July 21: The correct year of the transcontinental railroad’s completion is now listed.


On the wall at the Old Post Office Café in Carnelian Bay is a print of a red and white 1918 U.S. postage stamp depicting an upside down biplane. This is a copy of one of the most famous stamp errors ever printed, an original of which recently sold for more than $1 million.

The United States Postal Service intended to advertise and honor its brand-new airmail service with the correct, right-side up airplane stamp, but four sheets were printed upside down. Three were found and destroyed, but one sheet of 100 stamps was issued and sold. The Inverted Jenny stamp is one of the rarest stamps in the world.

Advertisement

Before the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad, mail delivery in the West was by stagecoach or horseback. Even then, delivery of a letter could take more than 10 days from east to west, and freight or package delivery was anybody’s guess. The famous Pony Express was a short-term, small volume effort that only lasted a year before the new railroad and transcontinental telegraph made it obsolete. The answer to the problem of high-speed mail delivery would be revealed by the most brutal and destructive war of that time.

The Great War in Europe in 1914, or World War I, introduced the use of the recently invented airplane into the war effort. As it progressed, Germany, France, and Great Britain took great technological strides forward in aircraft development and use. When the war finally ended, fighter planes, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft were well on their way to dominating the battle space, taking over from cavalry and navies as the dominant force, which remains true today. As with so much military progress, this led to civilian application of the giant leaps in technology.

In 1918, the U.S. Army launched the first airmail delivery service using surplus aircraft and army pilots. Though these first attempts were deadly to many pilots, it was somewhat successful, getting mail from east to west by air during the day and by rail at night in a remarkable three-and-a-half days.

The advantage to the military was that its pilots gained valuable experience flying and navigating for long periods of time and over long distances. The disadvantage was that many of them did not survive. Twenty pilots were killed in the first years. The biplanes were underpowered and built with an open cockpit with fabric and wood frames without any instrumentation or radios. Compasses were unreliable and rarely used. The country that pilots traversed was desolate and uncharted, especially in the undeveloped West. Maps were unreliable and had been drawn for walking or traveling overland.

There were no highways, and roads were mostly dirt and not easily visible from even low altitudes, especially in bad weather. Following the railroad was one solution, but it did not travel to all the destinations that aircraft could go. Pilots often landed in farmer’s fields to ask directions. Another challenge was that there were very few airstrips of any quality. Most airplanes were privately owned and landed in open fields or on roads.

As airmail delivery was moved from the army to private contractors, pilots realized that the speed could be markedly improved if they flew at night. The postal service erected acetylene fueled beacons about every 10 miles from New York to San Francisco, with huge painted concrete arrows pointing the way to the next beacon. Emergency fields were mapped and sited within a few miles of the beacons and were often lifesavers for the pilots as they flew in all conditions, including blizzards and rainstorms, at night.

Pilots were often military veterans flying surplus aircraft. Though the pay was good for the time, the odds were seriously stacked against these adventurers. Dean Smith, a veteran pilot of the period, said he was a member of the Suicide Club — “only pilots desperate to fly would join.”

E.E. “Monte” Mouton was an air combat veteran of World War I and the hazardous Reno-San Francisco hop over the Sierra. After crash-landing on Mt. Rose in a whiteout, Mouton said, “The boys don’t dread the landing so much, they’ll tell you, but the walk back is sure hell.”

Innovators and politicians saw that the way forward had to be to move the mail reliably in order to convince the public that air travel was not only possible, but safe, economical, and relatively comfortable. Aircraft builders began enclosing the planes and increasing engine power, enabling heavier loads. Instrumentation, guidance systems, and real airports with lighting and services quickly replaced the beacons and arrows.

The airmail contractors added more comfortable seating, heaters, and flight attendants; soon, beverage and food service and passenger flights became common. Those first airmail contractors went on to become passenger airlines, including United, American, and Pan Am.

Aviation arrows and their beacons were a critical piece of commercial aircraft progress and their brief usage illustrates how rapidly technology can advance. Though most of the beacons were removed to prevent enemy use in World War II, Truckee Airport still has one, and aviation arrows remain all across the country. You can see these strange relics from a time before a person could fly anywhere in the world in comfort. 

Go to dreamsmithphotos.com to find an arrow near you (there’s one near Mogul, Nevada), take a hike, and see evidence that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to.

BOY ALEX: aka Alex Stodtmeister, spouse of Moonshine reporter Alex Hoeft, sits atop the mail arrow in Mogul in 2017. His trusty companion, Tallahassee, pants along beside him. Photo by Alex Hoeft/Moonshine Ink

Author

  • Pat Dillon

    PAT DILLON is a 38-year resident of Tahoe’s North Shore. Having retired as a firefighter/paramedic at North Tahoe Fire Protection District after 31 years, he is interested in the history of the people of Tahoe and their adventures.

    Connect with Pat

    Visit:
    M-Tu, Th-Fr 9:30am - 6pm
    10317 Riverside Dr
    Truckee, CA 96161

Advertisement
Previous articleWhat Era Would You Visit?
Next articleKINDRED SPIRITS