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A sketch depicting a Jacksonville traffic tower of the 1920s.
Jacksonville's traffic tower stood watch at the congested intersection of Forsyth and Laura streets, three blocks north of the present-day Jacksonville Landing. This photo comes from about 1925. On the right-hand side of the picture is the marble Florida National Bank Building, which still survives.
This photo depicts the 1927 traffic scene at Jacksonville Terminal, a railroad station that's been converted into today's Prime Osborn Convention Center. A trolley car rolls by an automobile in the foreground

Traffic Towers

FOREBEAR OF A FAMILIAR DEVICE — Why did a “tool shed” once sit on a “telephone post” in the middle of two downtown streets? This long-gone contrivance was an ancestor of the now common traffic light.

In 1910, city officials installed the first traffic signal in Jacksonville. It regulated vehicles and pedestrians at the downtown intersection of Forsyth & Laura streets. (This is adjacent to the present-day Bank of America skyscraper, several blocks north of The Landing.) In 1913, the signal was enclosed in a little house, similar to a tool shed with windows around its sides. A single post held the structure about fifteen feet above the pavement.

Originally, a patrolman manually operated a device that swung out a red or green paddle-like board as a stop & go signal. Simultaneously, the officer rang a mechanical bell, whose clanging could be heard up & down Forsyth Street. For many years, Ed Lotsey was the patrolman who sat in the little tower. It couldn’t have been very comfortable, with the heat shimmering off surrounding streets & buildings.

RED LIGHT, GREET LIGHT — In its earlier years, the traffic tower didn’t have any lights after dark, since traffic dropped off at night. (Some small towns still turn off their traffic lights after dark.) By 1924, the tower was completely converted to electricity. And also by this time, a handful of traffic lights had been installed at corners throughout Jacksonville. These apparatuses flashed red, green and yellow, like today’s lights. The downtown devices were controlled from the traffic tower, thus synchronizing traffic movement throughout the business center. The tower stood watch downtown until 1928 or 1929.

Traffic towers proved rather common in America’s larger cities during the 1920s. In 1924, New York City featured fifty of them. Going back further in time, the very first traffic “signals” for American motorists were similar to railroad signal devices. Police officers manually operated them, indicating “STOP” or “GO”. The pioneer traffic signal of this type was placed in Cleveland, Ohio, in about 1908. Frequently at night, a lantern lit its red or green display signs. The first 4-sided signal, like the ones we now know, was installed in Detroit in December 1920.

TOO MUCH RACKET — Jacksonville’s early traffic lights rang with bells. In 1930, however, the police chief of Jacksonville, A. J. Roberts, announced plans to reduce noise pollution. According to the Times-Union at the time, it hadn’t been very long before that scientists had made an important discovery: Noise can negatively affect the human mind.

Chief Roberts promised that he would stop the reverberation of traffic light bells. Local police would also arrest people who persisted with honking their car horns for curb service at soda fountains, blowing their car horns when traffic was backed up downtown, or running their autos without mufflers. The chief also warned that his force would not tolerate boat owners who operated their muffler-less vessels on the St. Johns.

~written by Glenn Emery

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