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Stop-and-go ... and whistle

Great Depression or not, Medford streets were filling up with a flood of cars and accidents.

Not long after a weekend in 1937 when police responded to 15 automobile accidents, City Building and Light Inspector Frank Rogers announced the city was about to install on the West Coast what he believed was the first sets of electrically controlled “stop-and-go” traffic lights that included a police whistle.

Motorists were familiar with police officers controlling traffic with whistles, but if the lights would be controlling the traffic, why the whistle?

Rogers explained that whenever the red and green lights changed color, to call attention to the change, the whistle would blow out a long tweet.

“Traffic light whistles,” he said, “are an innovation, and have been found more effective than bells.”

The lights would hang over the two intersections that were causing the most trouble for motorists and city personnel — Main Street and Riverside Avenue, and Main Street and Central Avenue.

In 1937, Riverside Avenue was the Pacific Coast Highway, sometimes known as Highway 99, an Oregon road that wouldn’t become a United States highway for years.

Main Street, at the time, was a two-way street. Trying to enter or cross the busy Riverside highway was not only difficult, but often resulted in traffic jams and left pedestrians on the corner, waiting to weave their way through traffic.

“Cars on Main Street,” Roberts said, “are frequently being held up in long straight strings.”

Central had its own problems. “It’s a battle of everyone for themselves,” Rogers said, “and this results in traffic jams and pedestrian hazards. On busy days and nights, we have to station a policeman there to direct traffic. The lights with their whistles will be automatic in operation.”

On Dec. 30, after a middle of the night installation, Medford’s traffic lights went to work. Authorities were confident that, “Motorists and pedestrians will soon become used to them and watch for the signals.”

Leave it to the Mail Tribune’s humorous columnist Arthur Perry to begin a series of brief commentaries on the situation.

“The city started the New Year with electrical traffic signals,” he wrote, “and some autoists were chagrined to learn they were expected to pay attention to them.”

Three days later, Perry took a subtle poke at lights and whistles. “The new lights with the automatic whistles are meeting with the approval of autoists, except they are too high to be seen — or to hit squarely.”

Weeks later, drivers, especially from outside the city, were still unsure what to do.

“The traffic light whistle,” said Perry, “still confuses many, but country visitors no longer whistle back.”

Visitors driving through town were even more confused. Jerry Owen of Salem, editor of the Oregon Legionnaire newspaper, called the whistle, “the worst of all cockeyed devices installed for the harassment of motorists.”

While driving through the intersection at Main and Central, he slammed on his brakes when he heard a police whistle near his ear. He thought a policeman was whistling for him to stop. He claimed that for a time traffic was snarled for blocks in all directions.

Six months later, the city began installing a new $2,000 stop-and-go traffic control system on Central, as required by the State Highway Commission’s newly adopted standard for Oregon. The state paid for the system and its installation on Riverside and Main.

Each intersection had four steel, green-painted standards, 19 feet high, with a six-foot arm extended over the street. The three-light traffic lights now included a yellow caution and began service June 10, 1938.

A week later, the Tribune published a long column explaining what motorists need to know and what to do when coming upon the lights.

Whistles weren’t included, but Frank Rogers said he could install the old ones “if the public wanted.” Apparently most didn’t. But Rogers did it anyway.

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “To Live and Die a WASP, 38 Women Pilots Who Died in WWII.” Reach him at newsmiller@live.com