A Dummy Forever!
By Carl Oechsner
Edited by Gretchen Bock
Visitors to our village often drive or walk by one of our local landmarks located at the intersection of Old Post Road South and Grand Street. Reactions are quite mixed. Some find it charming; others see it as ugly and out-of-date; a few think of it as a community heirloom. Technically, it’s a “dummy light,” a traffic light that stands on a pedestal in the middle of an intersection.
In an era when intersections were often controlled by a single traffic signal, many were installed on pedestals in the centers of intersections and often replaced beacons or “mushrooms” that denoted the centers of intersections and separated opposing traffic. The same infrastructure used for the beacons and mushrooms served the new “stop and go” dummy light signals.
There are still at least three dummy lights surviving in New York State. Besides Croton-on-Hudson there are operating dummy lights in Beacon and upstate in Canajoharie. There have been numerous requests in recent years for their removal due to safety concerns, but their historic value has kept these treasures at their original locations.
Over the years many communities in Westchester County – like Chappaqua, White Plains and Yonkers – had them operating in the center of their downtowns, but all are gone today. New York City operated them on major avenues with a traffic officer positioned in an enclosure at the top.
The world’s first traffic lights were installed near London’s House of Commons in 1868 and resembled railway signals of the time, with semaphore arms and red and green gas lamps for night use. The gas lantern was turned with a lever at its base so that the appropriate light faced traffic. Unfortunately, one exploded a year later, injuring the policeman operating it.
The earliest traffic signals in the U.S. were patented in Chicago in 1910. The system used the non-illuminated words “stop” and “proceed.” In 1912 Salt Lake City invented an electric traffic light that used red and green lights. A year later manually controlled traffic lights were installed in Cleveland by the American Traffic Signal Company. Their electric powered lights used the illuminated words “stop” and “move”, allowing police and fire stations to control the signals in case of emergency.
The first automatic traffic signal using color lights, red and green, was built in San Francisco in 1917. At the same time the first interconnected traffic signal system was installed in Salt Lake City, with six connected intersections controlled simultaneously from a manual switch. Automatic control of interconnected traffic lights was introduced in 1922 in Houston.
In 1920 a police officer in Detroit invented several automatic electric traffic light systems, including an overhanging four-way red, green and yellow system, the first to use a yellow light. In 1952 the first “Don’t Walk” automatic signs were installed in New York City. Ashville, Ohio, claimed to be the location of the oldest working traffic light in the nation, used at an intersection until 1982 when it was moved to a local museum.
New York City began installing color traffic lights throughout Manhattan in 1920. Unique traffic towers showed only one color at a time: red for north-south movement (main avenues), yellow for all traffic to stop, and green for east-west movement (side streets). Stationed at each tower was a traffic officer to enforce the signals. This helped a great deal with the growing popularity of the automobile, which began causing major traffic jams.
To give traffic officers a wider view, many American cities had started using traffic towers in the late 1910s and continuing into the 1920s. These towers were small booths several feet above street level, placed either on street corners or on concrete islands in the middle of an intersection. The officer inside operated color lights or semaphores, or he waved his arms.
Former longtime Croton resident Edward Rondthaler said that when he was a young man growing up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he and his parents would drive up through southern Pennsylvania on their way to Bethlehem. As they entered a community there would be creative signs on the side of the road which explained to the driver which colors were being used for traffic lights in that particular village. Colors were different from place to place, something that confused Ed and his parents.
In 1926 a Village of Croton ordinance stated, “No vehicle approaching a street intersection where a traffic light is in operation shall enter such street intersection while such traffic light shows red or yellow, and such vehicle shall enter such intersection only when such intersection shows green.” Before 1926 motorists coming to a busy intersection had no traffic light to help them.
The color of traffic lights representing stop and go are likely derived from those used to identify port (red) and starboard (green) in maritime rules governing right of way, where the vessel on the left must stop for the one crossing on the right.
Modern traffic signals still use the red, yellow and green colors, which were standardized nationally in 1935 in an early edition of the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices. Making traffic signals look basically the same all across the country meant that drivers didn’t have to figure out an unfamiliar signal, which made driving safer for everyone.
Fred Sorenson, now retired, worked for Croton’s Department of Public Works. One of his responsibilities was to service the dummy light.
Printed on the inside of the control box is “Marbelite Company, Inc. Brooklyn, N.Y.” Fred said the box had been installed around 1970, the light itself having been put into operation about 1926.
Part of the brick base of the light covers a village cistern that supplied water to upper Grand Street and connected to another cistern at the bottom of Mt. Airy Road until 1929.
The portion of the brick base that is triangular in shape and points toward Old Post Road South was added later to protect the cistern from being hit by motor vehicles. Some Crotonites say that the traffic light is called the “dummy light” because it’s not very intelligent to stand out in the middle of the road with traffic going by!
The light has twelve 15-watt LED lights inside. Each LED light is expensive but lasts a long time. The side facing west does not have working lights since they are not needed for traffic control. When the dummy light was first installed, there was a light underneath facing down towards the street, allowing the bottom of the structure to be illuminated and making it easier for drivers to see the entire fixture. The actual metal structure holding the light is about seven feet tall.
Over the years Croton village officials have talked about replacing the historic dummy light with a modern hanging light, but public feedback has been strongly against the idea. Should it go forward there would be a major stir in the community. The principal argument centers around the fact that such lights are extremely rare and historic.
The Marbelite Company, first located at 27 Warren Street and Broadway in New York City, began making traffic control equipment in 1923. One of their earliest magazine advertisements read, “We guarantee quality and service.” The company supplied most of the traffic control equipment for the expanding metropolitan area, including Westchester County and New Jersey. While city signals had traditional “tunnel” visors, Marbelite created distinctive “tunnaway” visors, cutaway shields that have a thick collar near the lens that makes it look like a combination of a tunnel and a cutaway visor. Lenses and visors were made of glass and the design was quite popular.
The present Croton dummy light’s visors may be an early vintage Marbelite design but the lenses must have been replaced because the first Marbelite traffic lights had the letter “M” on the lens with a lightning bolt in the middle, which Croton’s does not have.
In the main structure the name “Crouse-Hinds” is inscribed below each of the 12 lights. Crouse-Hinds was one of the most popular brands of traffic signals made. They were quite attractive at the time, well built and priced so most municipalities could afford them. Crouse-Hinds started making traffic signals in Syracuse, New York, in 1922, stopping production in 1982. In sixty years there were six models produced. They are very popular with collectors today, with the early lights fitting into what are known as “art deco” signals.
There is no official census of dummy lights but aficionados believe there are only a handful remaining in the United States and one of them is just up the Hudson in Beacon, New York.
Beacon’s first dummy traffic light was bought from the Essco Manufacturing Company of Peoria, Illinois, in 1926. A yellow light meant ready to go, green was go and red was stop. The lights changed every forty seconds. Power for the signal was turned on manually by the police at 8 a.m. and off at 10 p.m., thereby saving electricity.
In 2007 Beacon government officials held a workshop to discuss downtown urban renewal, which included the possibility of moving the city’s dummy light to another location. The workshop was called “Dummy Light Traffic Light – To Move or Not to Move?” Most of the citizens in attendance strongly urged officials to keep the light where it had been for some 80 years. Many felt it was a historic treasure. They loved driving around it, they were used to it and it made them feel at home.
One plan was to move the light from the middle of the intersection to a nearby sidewalk. Reactions by the public included, “The function of our dummy light will change if it is moved, so leave it where it is,” and “Oddities such as the dummy light add to a city’s character and uniqueness and need to be preserved for future generations.” The City Council voted to keep the light in the middle of Main Street, looking somewhat akin to a cement scarecrow.
New York’s third dummy light is located in Canajoharie, in Montgomery County. The Erie Canal passes the north side of the community; it is the headquarters of the Beech Nut Baby Food Company and stone for the Brooklyn Bridge was quarried there. Their dummy traffic light was installed in 1926. Traffic instructions were published in the local newspaper. It told motorists to blow their horns when making a left turn or a right on red and suggested that residents cut out the instructions and paste them in their hats. A few years ago New York State wanted to remove the light, but citizens put up such a fuss that the state backed down.
In Coleman, Texas, after a dummy light was knocked down by a truck in 2010, the city decided to preserve and refurbish its last pedestal-mounted dummy light as part of its historic district preservation efforts. In 2011 the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program nominated the last remaining pedestal mounted signal in Arkansas, located in Smackover, to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Increases in traffic flow have prompted calls for these types of traffic lights to be removed due to safety concerns, but their historic value has often, but not always, kept these landmarks at their original locations. Many communities are in the process of redeveloping their downtown business areas, so deciding what to do with their remaining dummy lights has become an issue for residents.
Two such locations are Reading and Dedham, Massachusetts. In Dedham a downtown makeover of streets and sidewalks connected to commercial development is taking place. In order to reduce traffic delay and vehicle conflicts, their “dummy signal” is being replaced by overhead lights.
Reading began redevelopment of their downtown in 2008 with plans that called for the removal of their 1937 “Old Yellow” dummy light. Residents organized a protest movement pointing out that other dummies are present in countries like England, Russia and Spain, that the loss of Reading’s dummy would illustrate a loss of American values and the disappearance from memory of the many motor vehicle accidents the dummy had caused.
In June 2008, a “Dummy Bash Demolition Day” was held. For a $25 contribution, residents could whack the dummy with sledge hammers and the money raised went to the downtown reconstruction project.
These dummy lights are among the handful remaining throughout the country in villages and towns like Croton-on-Hudson. Should you know of, or stumble upon, any others please feel free to contact us and add your discovery to our list. Thank you!