Baltimore traffic once depended on a system of homemade signals

A police officer operates a traffic signal on the roof of his kiosk at St. Paul and Saratoga in 1934.
A police officer operates a traffic signal on the roof of his kiosk at St. Paul and Saratoga in 1934. (Baltimore Sun files)

When drivers and transit passengers get frustrated with Baltimore traffic lights, it’s worth recalling that for 30 years Baltimore endured a do-it-yourself system of homemade traffic control devices.

Although electric traffic signals had been around since the 1920s, Baltimore only surrendered its last hand-operated system in 1951. It was not at an obscure suburban location. It was on Lombard Street in today’s Inner Harbor, one of the busiest intersections in the city. The other hand operated signal was at Pratt and Charles, then a wholesale produce area where live chicken wagons mixed it up with tomato and string bean trucks.


Baltimore was a reluctant convert to automated traffic control. We preferred police officers at busy corners using their own powers of traffic observation to guide traffic along. They stood in the middle of traffic, often in open air cans and occasionally shaded by oversized umbrellas. They hand turned signs, called semaphores, that said “Stop” and “Go.”

As more and more automobiles arrived to link downtown Baltimore to the suburbs, electricity began to replace a police officer, a whistle and a good set of lungs.

Electric traffic signals debuted in Baltimore on the night of March 9, 1922, at the corner of Charles and North avenues. Patrolman George Hayward hand operated the red, green and amber lights, called “electric jewels” by one Baltimore Sun letter writer. He also controlled a siren if he spotted an approaching emergency vehicle.

Traffic engineering was then an infant science and a police employee, George E. Lurz, built a traffic tower (it resembled an elevated box) in a police metal shop on Ostend Street in South Baltimore. The operator climbed a ladder and entered the box in the middle of the street. This elevation allowed him to see traffic along broad North Avenue and north and south along Charles Street, then a two-way street.

People walked more in this period and pedestrian control and safety was a big part of a traffic officer’s job description. So was directing the efficient passage of the four separate streetcar lines that converged at North and Charles. The No. 13 North Avenue service was a trunk line used by transferring passengers. Travelers to Waverly, Westport, Roland Park, Charles Village, Pennsylvania Avenue-Fremont Avenue and Federal Hill passed this well traveled corner.

By November 1923 the police department tried out a new, hand-operated electric signal on a pylon in the middle of the street to deal with the traffic headache at the intersection of Mount Royal and North avenues, a traffic headache because they do not intersect at right angles.

By 1928, the elevated traffic box at North and Charles succumbed to automation. By 1930, Baltimore had 413 electric traffic lights and 404 stop signs. We also used 29 signs embedded with reflective glass beads.

Streetcars and buses remained the dominant people movers. Concrete platforms in the bed of the wide thoroughfares of Belair and Harford roads and Park Heights Avenue became marked “safety zones,” the bane of auto traffic engineers. These mid-street platforms slowed down auto traffic but gave transit passengers a convenient spot to await an arriving streetcar. Baltimore had 116 electric, amber flashing electric beacons on these waiting stops.

Where electricity was not available, the city used gas acetylene tanks to illuminate warning traffic safety signs. These gas-fired devices burned day and night.

Baltimore was not a complete traffic neanderthal. As early as 1924, the police department was using the term “synchronization” to link traffic devices and speed traffic flow. Cathedral Street was outfitted because it had no streetcars. And, curiously, when the route of a dedicated bike line was being selected several years ago, Mount Vernon’s Cathedral Street again became the traffic experiment.