Remembering When

by Jerry Person
Huntington Beach City Historian


Dedicated to the people of Huntington Beach about its rich past


Huntington Beach's First Traffic Signal

 

Have you ever been in a hurry on a hot summer day in Surf City USA in a panic to be at a meeting or real low on gasoline and find yourself having to stop at every red light, one right after the other. Wishing you could get out of the car go over and strangle that poor defenseless signal.

I doubt there is driver who hasn't had some evil thoughts towards that little red light as you wait, and wait, and wait in what seems like a millennium of time as the sweat starts dripping down your brow.

But that wasn't always the case in Huntington Beach as the city wanted a mechanical speed cop (traffic signal) at its entrance to our city at Main Street and Ocean Avenue. The newly opened Pacific Coast Highway had just a few years before connected Surf City USA to Long Beach and beach cities to the north.

The year was 1929 and those speeding Model Ts and As were zipping past out city at a clipping 25 miles per hour and not even notating what our beautiful town had to offer.

The late Gordie Higgins told me the story of how we got that first traffic light.

It wasn't for the city to just go out and buy one and have it installed at our busiest commercial intersection of Main and Ocean (PCH).

But even then bureaucracy had to come into play for to install one on a State Highway you needed the permission of the State Highway Commission and also to show that a traffic signal was warranted.

Higgins told me that the commission turned down the city's request because there just wasn't enough traffic coming through that intersection.

Remember in 1929 was the days of one car, one family, and that Huntington Beach had a population of under 7,000 people, so that means there really wasn't very many cars on the road. Ah if we could only go back to the days of one car per family we might solve the traffic congestion on surface streets and freeways.

But the city was able to convince the State to send someone down here and count the number of cars and trucks passing our pier in one day.

Higgins told me he remembered Motorcycle Patrolman Howard Robidoux, (he later became police chief) and how he recruited about 20 of us residents to drive our cars passed this State guy all day long, around and around we went.

Higgins said he drove his car around for four to five hours himself and other residents even drove around longer passed that State guy as he marked it down on a sheet of paper.

" I don't think those dumb bean counters ever figured out, we knew they were there," Higgins told me.
           
 You guessed it, the city got their traffic light.

It was one of those wig-wag signal some of you old enough to remember. This type of signal had only two lights each way, a red and a green light, bit it also had two arms that came out, one that said Stop and the other said Go. This type of signal also had a bell to let people know the light was changing.

Later the city hung one four-way signal under the arches that crossed PCH, but it was hard for drivers to see and when the arches were demolished, a more modern traffic signal was installed by the Econolite Corporation on June 21, 1941.

A period of time between the removal of the arches and the installation of the signal that our traffic cops would stand in the center of the intersection and direct traffic.

It even had a push button at each corner of the intersection to change the light similar to what we have today, except that one didn't talk to you.

 As a kid I can remember those kind of traffic signals and on Sundays all over Los Angeles and on that day the lights on major street would flash green and what we called side streets, it flashed red on and off so traffic didn't have to stop at streets where the majority of factories were closed and wasn't needed.