The Sunbury Airport and Mile Hill Beacon

In this day and age, we take for granted the speed in which communication travels. We receive emails and text messages instantly and effortlessly. What few of us understand is what used to happen “because the mail must go through.” In May of 1918 the Post Office Department established the first air mail route in the United States between New York and Washington D.C. with a stop in Philadelphia, later that year the postal service developed transcontinental routes which moved significant amounts of mail across the country. Airplanes moved the mail during the day to sites where railroad access was close by and transferred it to trains to continue its journey at night because lighted runways were rare and safety was a concern.

It was quite by accident that the idea of establishing an airport on the island between Sunbury and Northumberland occurred. In 1920, low clouds and fog forced air mail pilot, E. M. Allison to land in a farmer’s field on the island and when he talked to the owner of the farm discovered that another air mail pilot had done the same thing a few weeks earlier. Shortly thereafter, the U. S. Department of Commerce designated the island an official emergency stop for aircraft and established a charted airfield on the farm. Its location was ideal because it was midway between several stops. If weather conditions interrupted air travel and made flying too risky, postal workers could easily transfer the mail to the nearby Sunbury railroad station. In the entire transcontinental route, pilots considered the area between Sunbury and Bellefonte the least desirable and nicknamed it “Hell’s Stretch.”

After several years, it became obvious that if air mail service wanted to reach its full potential airplanes would have to fly at night. By the middle of 1924, the postal service implemented changes to make it possible. On April 14, 1925 ground was broken for the erection of a lighted airways beacon on Renn’s Hill overlooking the island just to the east. George W. Rockwell’s construction firm completed the structure and it was operational by July 1st for the inauguration of night service between New York and Cleveland. On February 26, 1926, the Post Office Department assigned the first caretaker and weather observer to the Sunbury Intermediate Field located on the island. He worked in a small 12’ x 12’ building which had phone service to Bellefonte.

Sometime between 1925 and 1929 officials moved the beacon light to Mile Hill and placed it on a sturdier tower. The highly magnified 500 watt lamp could be seen for 70 miles on a clear night and for about a mile in foggy conditions. Workers installed two red spotlights which guided pilots to the next beacon light to the east and west. Air navigation by radio did not fully develop until the 1950s and the beacon light system remained in place during this time. Eventually the methods by which mail traveled changed and the light was decommissioned but county officials continued to operate it for a few more years as a service to local pilots. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission decided the light should become part of its transportation exhibit at the State Museum in Harrisburg and moved it there around 1970 where it remains today.

This article previously appeared in the The Daily Item’s Once Upon A Time local history series and was written by Cindy Inkrote.