Early Electric Traffic Signals in Cleveland

Cleveland in the early 1900s was an exciting, thriving, growing and potentially dangerous place. The streets were full of pedestrians, horses, wagons, streetcars and automobiles, which caused traffic jams and many accidents. Police officers regularly helped control the flow of traffic from their posts near the corners, but often during periods of high congestion, an additional officer was stationed in the middle of the intersection. Either way, managing the flow of traffic was a dangerous job for Cleveland’s police officers.

The American City, September 1915, page 182

Electric Traffic Signals first appeared on Cleveland’s streets in 1914, when the American Traffic Signal Company installed one of their “interlocking high reflector signals” at the intersection of E. 105th Street and Euclid Avenue. Designed by James Hoge, it had just two colors, red and green, with the words “stop” and “move.” Safety Director Alfred Benesch tested the new signals in August 5, 1914.

The Cleveland Automobile Club touted the installation in their magazine the Motorist, stating that it “promises to be a revolutionary method in handling traffic” and the first use was “witnessed by other city officials, members of the “Safety First” committee, officers of the Chamber of Commerce, Automobile Club, insurance men, newspaper representatives, railway officials, and other invited guests.”

Drawing from Hoge’s patent for a traffic control system, dated 1918

The American City, September 1915, page 183

According an article in The American City, Benesch choose that particular intersection because it was “in the heart of the East End shopping district, where many of our most substantial business firms have branch houses” and that “more pedestrians pass this particular corner than any other corner in Cleveland.” The intersection included vehicle traffic, pedestrians and street railways.

According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the signals were “placed fifteen feet from the ground on the end of cross arms on poles at the four corners of the intersection of these streets are lights which flash red or green. As the pedestrian or vehicle approaches the crossing, the flashing of the red light is the signal to stop, the green signal is to proceed. Bells on each pole ring when the traffic is to proceed: two long rings for Euclid Ave traffic and one long ring for E. 105th St traffic. A traffic policeman is stationed in a booth at the northwest corner who directs the traffic. In the booth is a telephone and fire alarm apparatus.”

Plain Dealer, 8/6/1914

The American City, September 1915, page 183

Benesch explained, “This modern signaling system takes the traffic officer out of the center of the street and places him at a corner of the sidewalk and at an elevation from which he can see over the heads of the crowd – and see in all three directions at the same time…These signaling lights are controlled by the use of electric switches conveniently mounted and so arranged that the traffic officer can operate them by hand from his booth or switch box.”

The booth provided electric heat during the winter, shelter from rain and sun, and also included direct communication with police headquarters as well as the fire department, so that the officer was “in instant communication with the Fire Department headquarters. Thus, the location of all fires and the routes to be taken by fire apparatus being known in advance to the operator, traffic is cleared almost instantly.”

One year later, Benesch stated “the public is pleased with its operation, as it makes for greater safety, speeds up traffic, and largely controls pedestrians in their movements across the street” and he hoped the City would invest in more traffic signals for use throughout Cleveland.

Many more attempts at designing a functional traffic signal followed. In 1916, Clevelanders John Tomko, CW Oppenlander and SW Oppenlander invented an “electric semaphore” for “minimizing traffic hazards.” The device could be electronically controlled, and had four arms for daytime use, twelve lights for nighttime use and a bell ringing system. Another early version had the traffic signal mounted on a tower and installed in the center of the intersection. A patrolman sat inside the tower, controlling the switches.  Unfortunately, the towers were frequently struck by vehicles.

Traffic tower in Cleveland (@ClevelandMemory)
E. 9th and Euclid with traffic tower
Traffic tower in Cleveland (@ClevelandMemory)

Plain Dealer, 11/26/1916
Traffic signal tower
Traffic signal tower

Cleveland Plain Dealer, 1/20/1924

Garrett Morgan was a very successful entrepreneur and inventor and happened to witness a very bad automobile accident at an intersection. The traffic light had already been invented but they were two-way signals. Stop and Go. He recognized that drivers had no advance warning when the Stop signal would be activated. Morgan devised a T-shaped traffic signal that had a third, “caution” signal. When this signal was on, traffic in all directions stopped and intersections would clear. It would also allow pedestrians to cross before traffic started moving again. This third position halted all traffic and was an early version of today’s yellow light.

Garrett Morgan’s patent for his traffic light

Innovations and suggestions for change continued throughout the decades, as did appreciations for more old fashioned traffic signals. But soon, Cleveland used automatic, 4-way, 3-light traffic signals at most intersections.

1/22/1928 Plain Dealer
1/7/1929 Plain Dealer
4/8/1926 Plain Dealer

The signal on display in the Museum was modified in the 1930s for use as a training aide by the Cleveland Police Department Accident Prevention Bureau and later by the Public Relations Unit. They used the signal to demonstrate the operation of the light to community groups, school children and public service organizations.

Changing a light bulb at Chester and E. 30th

Learn more: https://clevelandmagazine.com/in-the-cle/terminal/articles/1939-east-9th-euclid-avenue-traffic-tower-retires

Article written by Cleveland Police Museum Executive Director Mazie Adams

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