The Cleveland Police Tow Unit

How It Started: A History Of Towing And Tow Trucks

Desperate times call for desperate measures. The year was 1916. Ernest Holmes, a mechanic from Chattanooga, Tennessee, had to face an unusual task: he needed to recover a Ford Model T belonging to his former professor who had lost control of his car and drove off the road, ending up in a creek. The process of retrieving the vehicle required six men, eight hours, countless blocks, and a lot of rope to serve as tools and props. The car was eventually saved.

Holmes started to work on developing a simpler method to recover vehicles and came up with a crane and pulley system that he attached to his 1913 Cadillac. This looked good in theory, but it turned out that his new towing system just wasn’t stable enough to recover vehicles. Determined, he continued to work on his towing designs and eventually added outriggers to support and stabilize his new invention. Holmes earned a patent for his machine in 1919, and thus a new business was born – tow trucking service! 

Reprinted from In Towing Company by Phoenix Towing Service, December 28, 2017

It didn’t take long for police departments to utilize Holmes’ new invention. In 1929 the city of Dallas, Texas reimagined an old law that governed the impounding of livestock found wandering on public highways to start impound illegally parked automobiles.  This was the first reference to the lawful towing of cars in the newspapers.

In November, 1929, Cleveland Traffic Commissioner Edward J. Donahue ordered police officers to “…re-open war against motorists parking on congested downtown streets during rush hour in disregard of traffic laws,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  The first night of this new initiative, fifteen cars were towed and the owners had to pay a $2 fine and the $2 cost of the towing service.  In 1937, the City established new citation provisions and created a list of parking violators who received 3 or more parking tickets. Officers were instructed to order a police tow truck if they came in contact with a delinquent person’s vehicle.

The first known photograph of a Cleveland Police Tow Truck is a 1931 Ford Model “A” Division of Traffic Tow Car number 105.  Under the hood was a 40-horsepower L-head four-cylinder engine.  The towing mechanism was hand crank operated and consisted of a two-step Springfield Weaver Auto Crane and Crank with an adjustable 3 position boom, a hook, pulleys, and chain axel straps.  Standing with the vehicle is Tow Unit member Ralph Bonacci, Badge Number 6.  This photo was taken at Edgewater Park during afternoon Rush Hour, 4 to 6:30 P.M.  The truck was eventually replaced with a new Ford V/8.

Tow Car 105 with Driver Ralph Bonacci #6

Cleveland Police Tow Truck parked in the rear of Central Station, 2001 Payne Avenue. In background is the County Court and Jail, 10/10/1942
Cleveland Police Tow Unit Tow Truck posed on the Mall.

During the Great Lakes Exposition Cleveland Centennial Parade in 1936, a Police Tow Truck was summoned to the rescue, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  “The crowd in Public Square was highly amused by the only untowed incident of the parade.  A relic of America’s earlier days from the Parade of the Years – the Mad River Valley Stage- finally broke down after negotiating untold hundreds of miles, including the stretch of pavement from E. 21st Street to the Square.  The four passengers, all in costume, scrambled out when the right front wheel buckled and were transported to another conveyance.  A very modern police tow truck hauled the stage coach away.”

It wasn’t until 1954 when the Tow Truck Operators were issued uniforms. Because they would encounter problems when trying to tow a car or while directing traffic at an accident in civilian clothes, they were provided with a blue Eisenhower Jacket, blue shirt and blue trousers.

The Cleveland Police Tow Unit was located at 1875 East 19th Street with Impound Lot #1in the rear of the Office.  The front housed the Cleveland Police Supply Unit.  A City of Cleveland gas station and service garage was located to the south at 1875 Payne Avenue.

Front line from left: Lieutenant Robert Manning, Supervisor Tow Truck Operator Ralph Bonacci, Badge #6 is the 4th in line.
1600 East 19th Street

  • Cleveland’s tow truck drivers frequently went above and beyond the call of duty. One such example was Nicholas Voss who was driving past a fire at the Wilcox Transfer Company at 1725 Fall Street in the Flats. He parked his tow truck and was able to drive seven delivery trucks and their contents from the warehouse to safety. The fire caused over $500,000 in damage to the building and contents.

  • Drivers Isaiah Cheney and Frank Keating spotted several houses ablaze near Winslow and Washington Avenues. They notified the Fire Department and hurried to the scene. They rushed through the houses finding three of them abandoned. At 1283 Winslow they found Edward Finnerty asleep. They were able to rouse him and escort him to safety.
  • On November 13, 1953, the Plain Dealer reported “Gasoline overflowed from an underground storage tank being filled last night at 2339 Superior Avenue N.E. and caught fire, threatening for a time to explode a Sohio delivery truck.” While the Fire Department used hoses to prevent the heat from setting off the gasoline remaining in the tanker, Tow Truck Drivers Robert Thomas, Edward Jakubowski and James McMillan were able to pull the truck around the back of the service station, out of danger.

09/10/1953 Sewer Gas Explosions on West 117
(Lake to Berea) Cleveland Memory Photo
06/03/1977 Police investigate vehicle near
body found in Glenview Park.

Recovering a vehicle from Lake Erie at Gordon Park, 09/13/1976.
Recovering a vehicle from Lake Erie at Gordon Park, 09/13/1976.

  • In 1961 the television comedy Car 54, Where Are You debuted. Tow Truck Driver Ralph Bonacci, who was also the President of the Fraternal Order of Police Associates, Lodge #23, wrote letters complaining how the show was demeaning to police officers. On October 11, 1962, Joe E. Ross, the “Gunther” of Car 54 was in Cleveland for a promotional visit. One priority stop he made was to the Tow Unit Office to meet Ralph. He had his photo taken sitting in Tow Truck #54.

Actors Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwyne,
stars of Car 54, Where Are You?
Driver Ralph Bonacci with actor Joe E. Ross

  • Tow Truck Operator John Deprano planted a vegetable garden next to the Tow Unit Office.  It was tended by him and other Tow Unit members in their spare time and during lunch breaks.  According to the Plain Dealer “Beside the sunflower, the garden contains corn, tomato, squash, cucumber, and black eye pea plants.  Deprano said the garden will provide fresh foods for the tow unit crew.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer July 7, 1962

  • Driver Ralph Bonacci aroused several neighborhoods as he towed an illegally parked car from East 3rd and Prospect to the Impound Lot.  Seemed he activated the alarm on the car as he was hoisting it onto the back of his ruck and had no tools available to disarm the alarm until he got to the lot.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 22, 1965

  • Tow Truck Operators William H. McMillan and Roy Bensley were the first victims of the 1968 Glenville riot where three Cleveland Police Officers were shot and killed along with one civilian good Samaritan and thirteen Officers were wounded. Driver McMillan was shot several times as he ran to safety.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer, July 29, 1968
Cleveland Police Photo of McMillan’s truck
Tow Truck Operators William H. McMillan
  • During the blizzard of 1971, over a thousand cars were abandoned on the city streets according to Traffic Commissioner Chester Kluzik. The Tow Unit was seriously handicaped in their efforts to clean up the streets. Sergeant Donald Wills told the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the city had 11 tow trucks but only 6 were available the night of the storm, and they were on the streets that night. The other 5 were in the city garage for repairs. Of those, 3 had been out of operation more than 3 months waiting for new engines. He also advised that the city was waiting for an order of 11 new trucks.

  • During the snowstorms of December 1977 and January 1978 all “days off” were cancelled for the Police Tow Operators. They worked with many private tow companies to remove hundreds of stranded cars from city streets. So many vehicles went unclaimed that Sergeant William McComb was tasked with the responsibility of contacting the Bureau of Motor Vehicles to identify the owners, send letters notifying them that their cars were in the Impound Lot, and eventually take ownership.

I was responsible for inventorying, obtaining ownership information from the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, and conducting auctions of the several hundred impounded and unclaimed vehicles towed during the blizzard of 1977. I reached an agreement with the BMV to have them research the “vin” numbers of the impounded cars so that the Vehicle Impound Unit could send letters to the listed owners. For several weeks I hand carried boxes of the required BMV paperwork to Columbus and returned with the completed documents from the BMV. I arranged the impounds in groups of ten vehicles and I believe we held an auction every Friday for several more weeks. It was more or less for junk dealers only since there were no titles to the cars and the bidder had to buy ten at a time.

– Sergeant William McComb

Private tow companies were becoming more and more involved with towing for the city. The Police Tow Trucks were relegated to towing police vehicles and changing flat tires. The trucks were not replaced and were becoming unusable. Lieutenant Robert Legg worked with the Safety Department to draw up new tow truck regulations, city ordinances and contracts for towers.

Around 1980-1981, I was in charge of the Tow Unit when it changed to contract towers. Had to write proposed changes in General Police Orders, city ordinances, and investigation and licensing procedures for civilian companies. Also made the proposal for the Impound fee which has been a cash cow for the city. The police trucks were becoming unusable. We asked for new ones but were turned down and the only way we could provide proper service to the city was to make the change.

– Lieutenant Robert Legg

By 1982 the Cleveland Police Tow Unit was gone. Today all towing is done by private contractors.

Bomb Squad Truck being towed by Aj Szweda of Kufner Towing on July 27, 2019.

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

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