First traffic signals (1924)

A portion of a Springfield Automobile Club full-page advertisement, May 10, 1925 (Courtesy State Journal-Register)

Struggling with out-of-control auto traffic downtown, Springfield decided in 1924 to experiment with traffic signals. Officials chose the intersection of Sixth and Monroe streets for the city’s first set of stop-and-go lights. They started working Nov. 5, 1924.

One set of lights faced each direction (the streets were all two-way at the time), with a control box on the southeast corner, right in front of the U.S. Post Office. That was the problem.

The Illinois State Journal explained the issue on Nov. 13, 1924.

Is Springfield moving along too swiftly for some of its absent minded residents?

The city traffic department fears so, and as a result has issued an oral order, couched in the most supplicating terms, to the following effect:

“Please do not mail letters in the traffic signal control box on the southeast corner of Sixth and Monroe streets.”

The signals had suddenly stopped working only a couple days after the experiment began. Traffic officials were puzzled until they opened the control box, the Journal reported.

Inside was found a dozen or more letter deposited by persons who had mistaken the control box for a mail receptacle. The letters had slid into the electrical apparatus within the control box and had “shorted” the entire system.

The investigators removed the letters and put the lights back into operation, the story said, but the problem still wasn’t cured.

Hardly had the system been placed in operation again, when the traffic officer on the corner saw a man slip another letter into the box and then tug frantically at a large lever underneath the box, a part of the control system. The man apparently was under the impression that the purpose of the lever was to dispatch the missive on its way. This letter, too, was rescued before any damage was done.

Temporarily, at least, police said, they planned to give mail carriers a key to the control box so they could routinely collect misdirected letters before problems developed.

The Sixth and Monroe lights, which flashed the words “Stop” and “Go” in addition to what became the standard red-yellow-green color scheme, were designed to be only a six-month test anyway. According to the Journal:

The signal system consists of tower boxes placed upon each of the four corners of the street intersection, with a control box on the post office  corner. …

The signs on opposite sides of the street are simultaneous, the lights on the east and west sides of the street registering one sign at one time while those on the north and south sides register the same sign simultaneously.

“Springfield is now a big city and should have an up to date traffic system,” Police Chief John George (1872-1927) said when the lights went into action.

Police officers, such as Porter Williams, shown here in 1916, controlled downtown traffic before automatic signals were installed. (Sangamon Valley Collection)

As it turned out, while the colored-light system was fine, the Sixth and Monroe signals  didn’t work out in other ways. Signals changed from “stop” to “go” too quickly. The light towers were positioned awkwardly. And pedestrians didn’t think the lights applied to them even when they crossed streets at the intersection – which many did not.

City officials, working with the Springfield Automobile Club, eventually adopted a hybrid solution to downtown traffic problems: traffic signals throughout downtown, plus a big emphasis on public education.

The full signal system went live in the spring of 1927 at 19 intersections between Second and Sixth streets and Jefferson Street and Capitol Avenue, a total of 83 individual signals. As an extra safety measure, the two downtown firehouses had control boxes that allowed firefighters to override the traffic signals so fire trucks could rush to fires unimpeded.

The Journal published a news release from R. Dron of Dron Electric Co. of Madison, Ill., which installed the lights.

With your newly completed system of self-controlling traffic signals, Springfield today points the way toward perfect traffic control, for all other cities in central Illinois. Control of traffic in downtown Springfield is now complete, automatic, regular and economical.

The auto club added its own editorial comment.

The driver will have full power to move ahead with the light in his favor, and he has a right to expect the pedestrian will not challenge that right by jaywalking in the middle of the block or by forcing his way across the street in defiance to the signal light. By the same right, the pedestrian expects the driver to stay out of his way when the light gives him the right of way to move across the street.

The issue is squarely before the driver and pedestrian to play the game fairly.

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4 Responses to First traffic signals (1924)

  1. PHIL SHADID says:

    Great story about the first traffic signals. The post office part of the story reminded me of when I worked at the 6th & Monroe post office, in 1961. Worked the late night shift (11:30 pm to 8 am), and since I was last man in seniority, one of my jobs was to take a cart and walk the sidewalks along Monroe, 6th and 7th, and pick up mail from the drop boxes along those streets. Found some interesting items on occasion: empty whiskey bottles, beer and soda cans, and one time a cat! He was happy to see me, but I must have jumped back three feet when it came bounding out of the mailbox.

  2. Bob says:

    I am wondering here if the chilli parlor in the alley was still going when you were at the post office.

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