In the 1920s, flying over the Siskiyou Mountains was a fool's game. Bumpy wind currents swirled, clinging fog turned day to night and night flying over the pine-covered peaks was a suicidal thrill ride.

In the 1920s, flying over the Siskiyou Mountains was a fool's game. Bumpy wind currents swirled, clinging fog turned day to night and night flying over the pine-covered peaks was a suicidal thrill ride.

Even when Pacific Air Transport began airmail service between Los Angeles and Vancouver, Wash., in 1926, the schedule was carefully arranged so that airplanes flying north or south would pass over those treacherous peaks in daylight.

By 1927, the U.S. government had completed a transcontinental aerial highway of lights mounted on towers to guide aviators at night, but lighting the West Coast airway was still a few years away, and although PAT placed its own beacons between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and Seattle and Portland, Northern California and most of Oregon were black.

"That's when the Richfield Oil Company came up with a great advertising campaign," said Don Sherwood, a Shady Cove resident who has been collecting vintage gasoline pumps and petroleum-related items for more than 30 years. For the past two years on Father's Day weekend, he has opened his 2,400-square-foot "gas pump museum" to visitors for a one-day tour.

"In 1928 and 1929," Sherwood said, "Richfield was constructing 34 aviation-light beacons along the West Coast, including one up in the Siskiyou Mountains.

"The towers stood 125 feet tall and were emblazoned on both sides with huge neon letters that spelled out 'R-I-C-H-F-I-E-L-D'. On top were an 8-million-candle-power light and a coded light-signal that gave the location of the tower."

Like most of the major oil companies, Sherwood said, Richfield liked to associate its products with speed.

"They not only sponsored racing aircraft but built these beacons to assist the pilots flying mail during the hours of darkness."

Sherwood pointed to a small map that showed the location of every tower, including one on the Siskiyou Summit, but admitted that he hadn't uncovered much more. No one he knew had ever seen the Siskiyou tower and he wondered where it had stood.

A few weeks ago, we arranged a search expedition into the Siskiyou Mountains. Don was excited about being asked to come along, but a family emergency at the last minute kept him on the valley floor.

Richfield began constructing what the company advertised as the "Mexico to Canada Great White Way" in late 1928. The light towers were placed roughly 50 miles apart and stood next to a gas station along a major highway.

Not until late June 1929, with snow finally disappearing, did construction begin a few miles north of the California border on the Siskiyou Summit. Richfield had leased a portion of William Norris's Summit Ranch property that already included a gas station and garage that sat alongside the original Pacific Highway. In December, Richfield replaced the old gas station with a station in the "Gothic style."

While the tower rose on the opposite side of the highway, the electric company ran a 4.5-mile power line carrying 11,000 volts to the tower. There it was stepped up to 32,000 volts and, by the end of the year, there was enough power to light the 18, 8-by-5-foot neon letters attached to two sides of the tower.

Eight months later, San Diego aviator Ruth Alexander said the Richfield beacons saved her from certain death.

The 25-year-old had been a manicurist in a beauty shop just a year-and-a-half earlier, but after earning her pilot's license she went out and set the altitude record for light planes at 26,600 feet.

In August 1930, she was flying near Mount Shasta on her way north to Victoria, British Columbia. The barely visible red sun was nearly lost in the haze of three Northern California wildfires.

"I lost my way in the smoke-filled air," she said.

Relying on her compass and flying at 9,000 feet, she pushed northward.

"Just at dusk, I was over the most rugged country you ever saw," she said.

The sun was disappearing when below she saw a rooftop sign that said "Prospect." She spiraled down to see if there was a place to land and nearly crashed in the trees.

"I got out of there pronto!"

She climbed under a vanishing moon with nothing below but black.

"I came to a valley with a railroad heading northwest," she said. "I followed it, and after a while I saw a Richfield air beacon. Then another and another, and from then on the beacons just unfolded one after another. Within an hour they led me to Portland. It's a mighty lucky thing for me."

But the lights were about to go out. The Richfield Beacons were doomed almost from their start. The government already was beginning to install lighted and radio-equipped aviation beacons that would turn Richfield's lights into simple advertising curiosities. The stock market had crashed in October 1929, and the country was on the road to the Great Depression. In January 1931, Richfield filed for bankruptcy and was placed in federal receivership. In June 1935, the company was sold to the Sinclair Oil Co. and many of its assets were liquidated.

By the fall of 1939, when the Oregon State Highway Department was widening and straightening portions of the Pacific Highway at the Siskiyou Summit, the Richfield beacon was long gone. No one knew when the light finally went dark. The gas station already was closed and about to be bulldozed. The highway that had been nearly level between the tower and station was being moved, cut deeper by nearly 50 feet and renamed Highway 99.

Our expedition to the summit found little evidence of the Richfield beacon and gas station. What are said to be chunks of the demolished station, and perhaps its fuel tank, litter the hillside east of the highway. On the west side is a concrete pad where the Summit Resort may have stood.

But then — excitement. In the trees, a few hundred feet to the southeast, we found a fragmented wall. Its condition, location and appearance suggest that this was where the Richfield tower once stood.

"Looks like you found it," Sherwood said, as he looked at the photographs. "I sure wish I could have been with you."

Writer Bill Miller lives in Shady Cove. Reach him at