BLOOMINGTON — Many area residents mistakenly assume that the steel tower standing alone near the southwest end of Lake Bloomington is an abandoned fire watch platform erected by the U.S. Forest Service or another government agency, presumably in the distant past. It has even become a local urban legend of sorts.
In truth, the tower’s purpose involved not terra firma but rather the wild blue yonder. Some 75 years ago, the federal government erected the tower to support a revolving beacon used to help passing aircraft navigate the nighttime skies. This beacon, as well as others in Central Illinois and beyond, offered solace to pre-radio era pilots who sometimes found themselves hurtling through the inky blackness on a wing and a prayer.
Located off McLean County Highway 31 just north of East 2450 North Road, the tower stands along the west side of Lake Bloomington’s slender southwest finger.
The Lake Bloomington beacon was one of a series installed along the St. Louis-to-Chicago air route in 1939 and 1940. In Logan County, there was a tower on the T.C. Green farm north of Lincoln, and another one on Everett Bock’s farm southeast of Elkhart. In McLean County, there was a tower in or near the tiny hamlet of Covell, southwest of Bloomington.
Lake Bloomington’s tower beacon carried the designation “14, SL-C Airway,” meaning it was the 14th such beacon between St. Louis and Chicago.
On Sept. 22, 1939, the Bloomington City Council agreed to lease a patch of Lake Bloomington ground less than one-quarter acre in size to the Civil Aeronautics Authority (later Administration) for $1 per year. Federal officials then saw to the erection of the tower and installation of the beacon by year’s end.
The idea to employ a series of beacons to mark air routes dates to an earlier generation of aviation enthusiasts and promoters. By the mid 1920s, to cite one early and ambitious scheme, there was a string of steel towers topped by “searchlights” spaced every 25 miles along the airmail route between Cleveland, Ohio, and Rock Springs, Wyo., the combined 2 billion in candlepower courtesy of General Electric’s Illuminating Engineering Laboratories. “What the lighthouse is to the ocean navigator, these beacons are to the conquerors of the air,” declared GE.
The same could be said some 15 years later for the Lake Bloomington beacon, which by early 1940 burned bright each and every night like clockwork.
On occasion, this beacon tower would make local news. For instance, during an August 1942 area-wide blackout drill (this being World War II), the beacon drew complaints from some local residents, as did the lights from the WJBC radio tower (though for civilian defense officials, the most galling lapse involved a Bloomington beauty shop and its neon sign left brightly buzzing for all but two minutes of the blackout).
Although the Lake Bloomington tower has been a familiar, if lonely, sentinel for area residents over nearly three-quarters a century, it served as a beacon platform for a mere one short decade.
In the fall of 1950, the Civil Aeronautics Administration removed the Lake Bloomington beacon as well as all others along the St. Louis-Chicago route. Art Carnahan, manager of Bloomington Municipal Airport, explained to The Pantagraph that the beacons had become too expensive to maintain, especially since most nighttime aircraft were now equipped with radio, making these “inland lighthouses” mostly obsolete.
According to one account, the Lake Bloomington beacon ended up at Bloomington Municipal Airport (now Central Illinois Regional Airport, or CIRA), though how it was used and for how long is unknown.
The Civil Aeronautics Administration canceled its Lake Bloomington lease and the city took possession of the now-beaconless steel tower on June 30, 1952. There was talk of moving or even re-purposing the tower, but with a cost estimate for such a job running upward of $1,500, city officials instead decided to leave the tower “as is,” at least for the time being.
“As yet no one has come up with a use for the tower,” noted The Pantagraph on June 29, 1952, “but city officials are confident they will find something better to do with it than letting it remain a bird roost.” Yet more than 60 years later, the tower has remained little more than a bird roost — albeit one with an interesting story, whether real or imagined!
Local folks interested in seeing a revolving beacon firsthand are in luck. The Prairie Aviation Museum, located on Route 9 next to Image Air and CIRA, includes an outdoor working display of one such beacon on its “Air Park” grounds.
In September 2013, volunteers completed the beacon’s installation atop an ingenious miniature tower. This beacon, though, is newer than the one that for the better part of a decade promised safe passage to pilots coursing through the dark skies above Lake Bloomington.