Traffic woes in the 1920s

This busy street scene looking south from the corner of Fourth and Hampshire shows a car, buggy, bicycle, pedestrians and a street car with no traffic signs anywhere. 

Private automobile ownership exploded in the 1920s. In 1919, there were about 6.5 million passenger cars in America. By 1929 that number had increased to over 23 million and American society was forever changed. The resulting traffic created problems as automobile drivers shared roadways with horse-drawn vehicles and traffic laws were minimal. The roads themselves were often barely passable, and enforcement of the few laws was difficult in the murky legal landscape. Illinois would not begin issuing state drivers licenses until 1939 and not require a written examination until 1953.

Quincy did not escape the troubles. In May 1921, three new policemen were appointed and new “traffic stations” were established. The intersection of Fourth and Broadway was to be regulated. This was urgent as Broadway was not leveled to grade, and traffic approaching from the south or the east could not see approaching vehicles as the steep hill cut off the view. Other intersections getting first time traffic management were 12th and Maine, Eighth and Maine, and Eighth and Hampshire. The corners at Fifth and Sixth streets on Maine and Hampshire had already been given policemen. The newspaper thoughtfully printed the names of the patrolman on duty at each corner.

Problems were also brewing between the street cars and autos due to collisions. In 1920, the Quincy Street Railway company vowed to prosecute drivers damaging their cars after a collision at 10th and State when a driver cut the corner and turned his automobile into the side of a streetcar.

In one week in August 1921, three patrolmen were injured chasing speeding automobiles. One was in pursuit by motorcycle and was thrown when a car suddenly turned in front of him as he was chasing a “speedomaniac.” Another skidded his motorcycle and suffered injuries. A third patrolman was with his partner chasing a “speed demon.” When they caught up to the driver, the patrolman leaped from the police car before it came to a halt and was “thrown heavily to the pavement.” He was off duty for two weeks.

The city began arguing about traffic laws and regulations, including parking. On Hampshire Street, which had streetcar tracks down the center and cars parked head-in at angles to the curb, all it took was one delivery truck to create an impassable situation. The only traffic rules existing were those set up by the police department, as there had been nothing official passed by Quincy city government. In 1921, the lone parking ordinance required that “wheels of cars next to the curbing to be not more than six inches from the curbing.” It did not specify parallel or angle parking. A parking regulation had been drafted in 1919, but never reached the status of law and only applied to a small area of downtown.

In August 1921, city Aldermen called a meeting and asked for input from “autoists.” This meeting was mostly pleasant, with two and a half hours-worth of ideas and proposals discussed. It was then turned over to the ordinance committee by the mayor with assurances that further discussion would ensue. Further input was solicitated from other cities. The Illinois Secretary of State’s office reported that ten lives were lost in the state every day due to auto accidents.

By January 1923 arguments continued and parking plans included ideas that for certain blocks parking could be at 45-degree angle to the curb, while in others a 60-degree angle was permissible on one side while parallel parking must happen on the other. Around Washington square a 75-degree angle was okayed and at the courthouse a 90-degree angle was mandated.

In addition, all left-hand turns were banned (except between 3 and 9 a.m., when this rule was waived for ice and dairy deliveries). It was suggested that people be fined for not moving out of the way of fire trucks, as equipment was often impeded in reaching a fire by motorists flocking to the scene. It also decided that “complete turns” or what we now term “U-turns” would be banned downtown.

Passage was blocked for months by political fighting, and it was June 1923 before the regulations were passed. The various parking angles were included, and lines were to be painted in the different areas outlining the spaces.

Regulations were to be strictly enforced and included staying 400 feet away from the scene of a fire; keeping the lamps lit on the back of vehicles and dimming headlights at a range of 250 feet. Police Chief Kenneth Elmore ordered all officers to arrest anyone, and everyone caught breaking the rules.

In the summer of 1923, the patrolmen at intersections were issued whistles to enhance their arm signals. Whistle codes were created – a short blast meant stop; a long blast meant go for east-west traffic; two long blasts meant go for north-south traffic. It was an improvement over hand signals, but still left room for error.

And it was May 1924 before simple sign poles were placed at intersections where the words “Stop” and “Go” were written and could be turned by the traffic officer on duty. This innovation came after a successful trial in the intersection at Fifth and Maine streets during “Safety Week.” It would be much longer before electronic stop signs were installed.

Sources

“Auto Drivers Must Observe Traffic Laws.” Quincy Daily Herald, 15 June, 1923.

“Birney Derailed Traffic Stopped.” Quincy Daily Herald, 16 November,1922.

“Car Company Alleges Traffic Violations.” Quincy Daily Herald, 10 August,1920.

“City Council Passes New Ordinance Monday to Regulate Traffic.” Quincy Daily Journal, 12 June 1923.

“Complete Turns Are Barred by Traffic Rules.” Quincy Daily Journal, 27 June, 1923.

“Final Action by Council on Traffic and License Laws Blocked at Monday Session.” Quincy Daily Journal, 05 June, 1912.

“New Police Officers Begin Work; Traffic Stations Increased.” Quincy Daily Journal, 18 May, 1921.

“Stop-and-Go Does Work says Traffic Cop.” Quincy Daily Herald, 13 May, 1924.

“Traffic Code Outlaws Left Hand Turning.” Quincy Daily Journal, 18 January, 1923.

“Traffic Officers Now Use Whistles to Handle Traffic.” Quincy Daily Journal, 26 July, 1923.

“Traffic Regulations Recommended by City Welfare Committee.” Quincy Daily Journal, 25 June, 1922.

Beth Lane is the author of "Lies Told Under Oath," the story of the 1912 Pfanschmidt murders near Payson, Illinois and the former Executive Director of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County.

The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County is preserving the Governor John Wood Mansion, the History Museum on the Square, the 1835 Log Cabin, the Livery, the Lincoln Gallery displays, and a collection of artifacts and documents that tell the story of who we are. This award-winning column is written by members of the Society. For more information visit hsqac.org or email info@hsqac.org.

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