March 22, 2013

Guiding Lights

Montana’s Lighted Airway System

by Kate Hampton
Community Preservation Coordinator, Montana State Historic Preservation Office

The Montana Historical Society Research Center houses a fascinating study that illuminates the history of one of Montana’s most unique treasures.  Brenda Spivey’s “Airway Beacons:  An Integral Part of Montana’s Night VFR Navigational System, Past History, Present Service, and Present Value” may appear to be a dry government report, but it tells an important story.  I first learned of it while giving a talk at the Montana Pilots Association.  Several people came up to me and asked, “Do you know about the beacons?”  They offered all kinds of great information, got me in contact with Mike Rogan who maintains the historic beacon system for the Montana Aeronautics Division, and led me to a lot of resources, including Spivey’s report.  Here’s what I learned:
By 1911, though still in its infancy, aviation promised to revolutionize transportation and commerce around the world.  One idea for its use stood out to the U.S. government – its promise to enable more rapid and reliable mail service.  To that end, the U.S. Postal Service introduced the concept of “airmail.”
The first regularly scheduled airmail service began in May 1918, when a fresh-faced young pilot named George Boyle attempted a route from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia, with President Woodrow Wilson looking on.  He flew north, then “inexplicably” turned south, and by then hopelessly lost, landed in Waldorf, Maryland, just 25 miles from his starting point.  Despite this inauspicious beginning, the experiment continued, and by 1921 more reliable compasses, altimeters, and turn and bank indicators helped pilots navigate better.
Still, pilots depended on visual aids like landforms, waterways, and railroads to fly accurately and safely – and therefore they limited flights to the daylight hours.  Airplanes that carried mail had to land and transfer their cargo to trains by nightfall.  This process proved inconvenient, laborious, and expensive, so administrators looked for a more efficient alternative.
Determined that airmail succeed, the U.S. Postal Service Office director found private funding to continue the experiment.  By 1923, electric or acetylene beacons lit routes between Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Chicago.  Just three years later, the Federal Airways Division installed its first beacon in Moline, Illinois.  By 1933, the national lighted airways system covered 18,000 miles and included 1,500 beacons, including at least 39 in Montana.
McDonald Pass Beacon, photo by Jason Savage, used with permission.
The beacons guided pilots successfully for more than three decades, but by 1965 advances in navigational equipment and the ongoing maintenance expenses spurred the Federal Airways Division to consider which beacons to extinguish.  Of the 39 Montana beacons, they determined that 19 could be decommissioned or moved.  The remaining 20, however, were important to navigating the mountainous terrain of western Montana–so important, that the state’s Aeronautics Division advocated they stay in place.  The FAA and Montana Aeronautics Division shared responsibility for them until 1971, when the FAA began to bow out.  Over the next several years, the State took charge of them.  Montana is now the only state that maintains these historic nighttime lighted airways.
Since the 1970s, the idea of turning off the beacons has come up several times, and a couple have been decommissioned – at Boulder Hill and Bozeman Pass.   The Montana Aeronautics Division maintains 17 beacons.  Three mark high terrain:  Stoney Point north of Helena, Monida at the Idaho border, and Silverbow near Butte.  The other fourteen mark the airways between Lookout Pass, Missoula, Helena, Great Falls, Bozeman, and Butte– and I’ll bet you’ve seen them without realizing what they were.  Look for the towers with their distinguishing orange and white paint and two-foot dome lights.  Each rotating beacon emits 2 million candlepower flashing in regular sequences and red course lights to guide planes through the steep terrain.  Try it!  It’s a fun road-trip game.
Airway beacons currently maintained by the Montana Aeronautics Division
Idaho Border to Missoula then to Helena

Lookout Pass
St. Regis
MacDonald Pass

Idaho Border to Helena then to Great Falls

Monida Pass
Canyon Resort
White Tail
Stoney (Rehberg)
Wolf Creek

Helena to Bozeman then to Minneapolis

Spivey, Brenda.  Airway Beacons, an Integral Part of Montana's Night VFR Navigational System: Past History, Present Service and Present Value.” Embry Riddle Aeronautical University, 1995.

Wolff, Stephen J.  “The Federal Airway System, The Early Years,”  Accessed March 8, 2013.

Associated Press. “Aviation Beacons Unique to Montana.” Billings Gazette.  March 25, 2006.

Rogan, Mike.  E-mail, telephone conversation, and presentation notes.  March 12, 2013.

March 14, 2013

Pi Day and Historic Pie Recipes

Happy Pi Day! Here at the Historical Society, we celebrated with a pie baking contest using historic recipes.

Judges hard at work sampling pies
Librarian Zoe Ann Stoltz won the contest with a rhubarb pie that struck the perfect balance between sweet and tart wrapped in a flaky crust. We interviewed her to find out her secret.

Contest winner Zoe Ann Stoltz (center) and runners-up Molly Krukenberg (left) and Sarah Nucci (right) hold up the historic cookbooks they used to bake their winning pies.
Why did you choose the recipe you did?
Zoe Ann: Because rhubarb evokes spring in Montana. I looked for the simplest rhubarb pie recipe I could find.

What do you look for when you choose a historic recipe?
Zoe Ann: I look for something I like to eat!

How do historic recipes differ from modern ones?
Zoe Ann: That depends on how old the recipe is. The earliest recipes in our collection were published in newspapers dating back to the 1870s. Our oldest cookbook was published in 1881. These recipes assume that the reader already knows how to cook and offer only general guidelines—for example, instructing the reader to use a hot oven or a medium hot oven. They also use different measurements—a teacupful meant 6 oz, not the 8 oz of our standard cupful today.

What can historic recipes teach us?
Zoe Ann: There are few historical topics that we can say everyone has participated in, but eating is one. Recipes teach us about cultural, ethnic, social, and community history—I could go on for hours!

Zoe Ann’s winning recipe came from Cookery of the Prairie Homesteader by Louise K. Nickey, who grew up on a homestead in eastern Montana. You can find that recipe book and many more in our research library.

March 8, 2013

Forecast from the Past

By Eric Bond
Eric is an intern in the Archives division of the Research Center.

Recently the US Weather Bureau donated to the Montana Historical Society their surface weather observations from the 1920s to the 1980s. These observations were stored by the Weather Bureau in large binders with awful pea green covers. In order for them to enter the archives, however, they must be extracted from those binders so that these records can be stored safely. When I say safely, I don’t mean that the binders are dangerous, they aren’t, except to the eyes. The main concern is with the dangers to the materials themselves. The goal is to make these records, daily records from the Helena Airport, capable of being read and used by the public and historians for years to come by storing them in boxes that will not leech acid into the paper, and therefore extending their life. Taking the reports out of the binders is a time consuming task, with little in the way of variety and mental exercise, so naturally they gave it to me, the intern.  What is interesting is not the task, but the materials that the task deals with.

When I said daily records I don’t feel I gave a proper account of what these records are. There is a monthly summary, which includes the temperature, precipitation, wind, sunshine for each day of the month, as well as if there were thunderstorms or reduced visibility. The monthly summary also has averages of these things. The daily reports are of further interest. They have notes for every hour giving temperature, wind direction and speed, and remarks on specifics. On March 2, 1956 at 12:08 p.m. the remark reads “STNG MTNS W”, an arcane language that I don’t feel qualified to understand , but apparently the “STNG MTNS W” was done by 2:07 p.m. Trying to figure out what those remarks mean is part of the fun, a little mental exercise. They are also excellent sources for those interested in environmental history, looking for change in Montana’s environment over time, or someone looking at a specific date in local history who wanted a better understanding of the weather at that time, or maybe you just want to look at the weather on your birthday.  For all of these reasons the Surface Weather Observation records will be entering the Research Center catalog soon, after I get done taking them out of their binders and more capable hands get done with them.