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Began With Bicycle: Traffic Long a Problem

We’ll be frequently highlighting old “Looking Back” articles which were a long-standing column in the paper reflecting on earlier life in Monroe County .

By Rose H. McIlveen Sept 10, 1983

Ever since Monroe Countians figured out that using some kind of vehicle was preferable to walking, traffic has been a problem here.

Photo circa 1910 from the MCHC photo collection: 1986.087.0243

Consider, for example an 1896 city ordinance which required that each bicycle have a bell, and that, “Be it unlawful…unless he sound his bell not more than 40 feet or less than 20 feet from the corner.” The fine for failing to sound one’s bell was $10.

By 1923, The Weekly Star reported that there were real traffic problems, because of the 4000 cars registered in the county. Bloomington had, declared State Police Officer Bradley, “the worst traffic conditions in Indiana.”

Alarmed because there had been three traffic deaths in the previous year (1922), Mayor John Harris called a meeting with Bloomington Police Chief Fred Campbell on April 12. On the following day the Star reported that the mayor had said “The period of education in traffic performance is now at an end, and from now on officers will be instructed to bring in all violators with sufficient evidence against them, and fines will be promptly imposed.”

The mayor also stated that new traffic regulations – particularly for the downtown area – would shortly be forthcoming.

As evidence of the rash of traffic problems, the Star reported that “Wednesday night two Fords crashed at the corner of Kirkwood and Washington streets. One of the cars was pushed to the side of the road with a smashed wheel.” Furthermore, seven speeders were arrested by police on the night of the junior prom on the “east end of the city.”

The ink was barely dry on copies of the new Bloomington traffic ordinance of 1923 when Monroe County farmers met at the courthouse to protest arrests. Through the new law was intended for everyone, the farmers took it personally and coted to hire an attorney to “combat several arrests made last Saturday for violations of city traffic rules.”

A 1970 newspaper article showing a 1923 photo of the Courthouse Square. From the MCHC Collection: 1988.014.0006b

What were the rules that upset the farmers so much? On the front page of the Star, they were conveniently spelled out in a box over the police chief’s name:

“1. Keep to the Right.

2. Park to the Curb.

3. Speed Limit, 15 miles.

4. Lights, Front and Rear.

5. License Tags and Certificate.”

Responding with enthusiasm to the new laws, Bloomington police had arrested 75 offenders on a Saturday evening. (One wonders how much enthusiasm the turnkey at the county jail had for so many unexpected charges in one evening.)

Mayor Harris told Star reporter, “Enforcing the traffic ordinance is not a pleasant job, as it becomes necessary at times to impose a fine on one’s friends, for all are treated alike.”

Apparently speeders were not the only offenders caught in the Saturday night “dragnet.” Parking in alleys and curbside repairs – previously ignored by officers – earned the offenders a ticket and a conversation with the Bloomington Traffic Court.