The Cleveland Police “Sign Shop”

Edward J. Donahue, long time Sign Shop employee

As automobile traffic increased in the United States, auto clubs sprang up across the country.  In the early 1900s, these clubs began discussing the need for uniform traffic regulations.  Individual communities created their own traffic control signals and signs.  In Lebanon, Ohio the local Woman’s Club created the city’s traffic signs while the cities of New York and Detroit led the way in establishing traffic codes and signage.  According the Cleveland Plain Dealer in 1915, “Detroit has a system of traffic signs and signals surpassed by no other city in the country, says the Illustrated World Magazine.  The Detroit ordinance is a broad one, based on common sense.”

The creation of traffic signs and maintenance of traffic signals fell to the Cleveland Police.  The original “Sign Shop” was established in the basement of Central Police Station in 1919.  Patrolman Charles Wenger #370 was assigned to make the metal signs.  He was recommended for the position because he was “handy with tools.”   Painting the signs was Patrolman George Edwards #111.  Edwards was injured in a motorcycle accident on the Detroit-Superior Bridge.  While recuperating, he was asked to paint some signs for Central Station offices.  He did such a good job he was offered the position in the Sign Shop.  Sergeant Herbert G. Reidel was appointed as the Officer In Charge.

Patrolman Charles Wenger # 370
Patrolman George R. Edwards # 111

Sergeant Herbert G. Riedel,
Officer In Charge of the Cleveland Police Sign Shop
Merle E. Dodd, Civilian Employee

As Cleveland struggled with traffic flow and control, the Cleveland Automobile Club displayed a small model village in 1922 at a local motor exhibition showing proper sign posting with reproductions of the organization’s road and traffic signs.  Also in 1922, Akron became the first city in Ohio to adopt the new “black and white” coloring of signs and street traffic signals as used in New York.  The Cleveland club issued their revised book on Traffic Code that year.

Mayor Frederick Kohler became known for causing traffic signs and semaphores to be painted yellow and black.  Soon those colors appeared on park benches, lagoon boats, public comfort stations and even the French cannon in Wade Park.  His color choices were severely criticized in the local papers.  Beginning in 1924 signage began to transition to the colors of red, white and blue. 

Light bulb in a Harrington-Seaberg Corporation traffic light (the type on display in the Museum) being changed by Jimmy Studeney and Bill McDivitt as East 30th and Chester. circa 1937

In addition to the traffic signs, the employees of the Sign Shop were responsible for marking parking zones, painting the lines on the streets (including the green center line for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade) and maintaining the Traffic Lights. The Sign Shop eventually moved to the Police Garage located at 4994 Hamilton, then to 1515 Rockwell. Another move to 3914 Croton and then ended up at the Harvard Yards, 4600 Harvard Avenue.

Painting traffic lane stripes on the Detroit Superior Bridge. Note the brick pavement. – circa 1930

Vurnen L. Johnson of Minneapolis was the first Traffic Engineer in the City of Cleveland. He was appointed by Safety Director Eliot Ness on May12, 1937 and his primary charge was to reduce traffic fatalities and solve traffic congestion. Ness also appointed Earl J. Reeder, the Chief Traffic Engineer for the National Safety Council, as consulting Traffic Engineer who was to supervise Johnson in the creation of a comprehensive traffic survey. Today the Division of Traffic Engineering is charged with designing streets for safe and efficient traffic operation. The Division erects and maintains traffic control devices; prepares drawings, standards and specifications; and determines parking and the design/placement of pavement markings, traffic signs and traffic control devices.

Traffic Safety Sign: “Speed is No. 1 Killer. Please Drive Carefully” sponsored by the Thomas J. Unik Insurance Co. circa 1930s

Sign Shop Civilian Employees Alex Tapaszi, Unknown, Edward Donahue, Unknown
Harry Frisch, Norwood Bartunek, Edward J. Donahue

Cleveland Police Traffic Signal Division Truck posed on the Mall for the photograph. The driver of the truck is unidentified. circa 1940s

Some photographs are from The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Written by Cleveland Police Historical Society and Museum volunteer Commander Robert Cermak, Ret.

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