Where Was Beacon 52?

Richmond—Washington Beacon 52

by Stephen Bennett

The problem

The lat/lon position given by the NGS data sheet[1] for Richmond—Washington Airway Beacon 52 does not match the description given. Why? I did some research and these are my findings. So where was it actually located?

First possible answer

A portion of a 1948 USGS topgraphic map of Nanjemoy, MD quad
A portion of a 1948 USGS topgraphic map of Nanjemoy, MD quad

The NGS data sheet[1] says Richmond—Washington Beacon 52 was located at POSITION - 38 19 33.47086(N) 077 10 38.12877(W). This is the present day location of Caledon State Park in King George County, Virginia.

A 1948 USGS topo map titled “Nanjemoy”[2] seems to agree with the coordinates given by the NGS data sheet, but it only shows “Airway Beacon”. It does not specify Beacon 52.

But wait. Something isn’t right! The description given in the NGS data sheet describes the location as follows:

"IT IS ON THE TIP OF A POINT OF LAND, ON THE W BANK OF THE POTOMAC RIVER, ABOUT 3.5 MILES E OF THE SMALL VILLAGE OF BROOKE."

The description given of the location by NGS does not match the coordinates given. The coordinates given by the NGS data sheet are not on the tip of a point of land, and they are not 3.5 miles east of Brooke. The given coordinates are nearly 12 miles southeast of Brooke.

Second possible answer

Air Navigation Map No. 59, Washington, D.C. to Savannah, Ga., 1936
Air Navigation Map No. 59, Washington, D.C. to Savannah, Ga., 1936

An aeronautical strip map[3] of the Richmond to Washington route shows beacon 52 (as described by the NGS) on a point of land 3.5 miles east of Brooke. This point of land is called Brent Point and is mostly owned by Widewater State Park. Dominion Power had planned to put a power plant there but instead sold it to the state to become Widewater park.

This location for beacon 52 is also corroborated by an air navigation map of the route from Washington to Savannah[4].

Interesting 1952 imagery

I attempted to use aerial imagery to prove or disprove one location vs. the other. The only imagery-related evidence I found that may cause me to lean one way or the other was this 1952 aerial photo of Brent Point. It’s not a smoking gun by any means—more like a grainy Bigfoot photo. What do you think? Could this be it? The area appears to have been fenced off. Could a tax map of Stafford County shed some light on past ownership of the small parcel?

The red lines in the second image are Google Earth’s measuring tool which indicated 50 feet. (Each red line is 50 feet long.) Could one of these two long narrow objects be a concrete arrow? They both appear to have points but in opposite directions.

USGS EarthExplorer, aerial single frame, 1952
USGS EarthExplorer, aerial single frame, 1952
Closeup showing unidentified objects
Closeup showing unidentified objects


Summary

Beacons along airway
Beacons along airway

Which was correct? The NGS coordinates or the NGS description? In this writer’s opinion there is strong evidence (though not conclusive) to suggest that beacon 52 was located at Brent Point (the location shown in the air charts[3,4] and as described in the NGS data sheet[1]) and not at the coordinates given in the NGS data sheet. I come to this conclusion for the following reasons:

  • Brent Point is a much better match of the NGS description of the location being 3.5 miles E of Brooke and on a point of land.
  • Taking into consideration the path along the beacons, beacon 52 is a better fit at Brent Point than at the NGS coordinates.

References

  1. NGS data sheet, PID HV5394: http://www.ngs.noaa.gov/cgi-bin/ds_mark.prl?PidBox=HV5394
  2. USGS topo map of Nanjemoy, MD quad, 1942: http://ims.er.usgs.gov/gda_services/download?item_id=5368344
  3. Airway Map No. 130,Richmond Va. to Washington D.C., 1935: http://www.loc.gov/resource/g3701pm.gct00064/?sp=160
  4. Air Navigation Map No. 59, Washington, D.C. to Savannah, Ga., 1936: http://www.loc.gov/resource/g3701pm.gct00064/?sp=131
  5. Aerial single frame photo, 1OQ0000020101.tif: http://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/

3 thoughts on “Where Was Beacon 52?”

  1. Zhanna,

    Yes this is near enough that I can search on foot.
    I wanted to do a search before the leaves and briers came out but with the short days in winter/spring it was dark by the time I got off work.
    Now the days are longer I need to make a trip up there after work one day.
    I’ll report back when I do.
    -Steve

    Reply
  2. Steve, thank you for your contribution! This is a really interesting investigation. It sure sounds to me like you’re correct that the NGS description points to Beacon 52 having been at Brent Point and not where the NGS coordinates specify.

    I don’t know what to suggest about the coordinates that are, or appear to be, incorrect. I don’t see any indication of a simple transposition of numbers, which was my first hypothesis. Perhaps it was simply an error made on site or a data entry error (I’ve seen some benchmarks listed in the wrong county or quad before), or a mixup with another beacon that was at the listed coordinates (that we have yet to identify)? I don’t know why the topo map would show a beacon in that location if nothing else does, unless perhaps the mapmakers were using the NGS data.

    I also considered that the beacon might in fact be part of a different airway, but with the limited NGS and airway map data available, I haven’t been able to find an airway that would fit. I searched the area for a “Beacon Light Road” or similar-named road nearby, which I see surprisingly often and can be a clue to former beacon locations—but no luck this time. It might also be worth reading the descriptions of nearby survey marks to see if any of them mention a beacon.

    Is this near enough to you that you would be able to do a field search at some point?

    Reply
    • Zhanna,

      Thanks for posting my findings.
      I will report back when I get a chance to search the location on foot.
      -Steve

      Reply

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