Wheaton uncovers old traffic light, learns history

Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Pictured is an old caution and traffic light that was last believed to be used in the city of Wheaton in the early 1960s. A representative from the manufacturer, W.S. Darley and Company based in Chicago, Ill., confirmed it is an AC 146 Flashing Beacon model and may be almost 85 years old. It is unknown by locals why it was taken down and never used again, but the company said the light was retired from its line in the late 1960s because new technology made it obsolete. Further, MoDOT said the light may have been taken down because it was no longer needed. The Wheaton City Council voted to take the light out of storage where it had been for decades, and donate it to the Wheaton Historical Society, which is housed in the Depot Museum on Main Street. The photo was contributed by Jerry McBride, Wheaton city utilities worker.

Locals say light last used in 1960s

An decades-old caution light, which once guided traffic in Wheaton but has been out of commission since what is believed by locals to be the early 1960s, will now shed light in a new place.

Marianne Witt, Wheaton city clerk, said the city of Wheaton recently donated the approximately 1950s-era light to the Wheaton Historical Society, which is housed in the Depot Museum on Main Street.

"It hung in the middle of the street on a wire at the junction of Highway W and Highway 86," said Betty Lamberson, a Barry County native and acquisitions chairwoman for the historical society. "It was a stoplight one direction, and in the north-south direction was a caution light.

"Instead of collecting dust, we thought it should be on display somewhere. The depot thinks it is exciting because it is a part of Wheaton."

No one knows for sure how long the light was in use, or why it was taken down and placed in city storage for decades, but most agree it was last used in the early 1960s.

Sue Wilkins, who volunteers at the depot and grew up in Wheaton, remembers the traffic light as a child.

"It's been gone for a long, long time," she said. "We were away from here for many years and have been back for 10 years. [The light] just told you, Wheaton's coming up, is what it always meant to us when coming out of town and back into town. When you saw that light, you knew you needed to be cautious is what I grew up believing.

"I'm not sure what year it was taken down. I left here in 1964 and I don't remember if it was still up at the time."

Lamberson, who left in the early 1960s for many years then returned, also remembers the light. Once, it even helped get herself, her brother and some friends make it home when the lights went out on the 1951 Ford coupe her brother was driving.

"We were coming home from Monett via Highway 86, driving south toward Wheaton," she said. "We were singing. My brother was driving, and our lights went out, and the only thing we had to guide us was the caution light. We knew the road was straight to get into Wheaton, but we couldn't see. But we could see the caution light, and that is what got us home. That was in the late 1950s."

Naomi Young, who owned the IGA store in Wheaton from 1966-1989, said she thinks the traffic light was there when she and her husband Bob moved there in 1965, but does not remember when it was taken down, either.

David Shockley, Wheaton city mayor, was also stumped on the history of the old light.

"We were trying to figure out that one, too," he said. "I know we want to think it was in the mid-1960s when taken down. Who knows if it quit working or maybe had something to do with the highway department?"

David Taylor, MoDOT senior traffic study engineer, said the light may have been a beacon flasher that was taken down because it was no longer needed.

"A lot of times, we will take those down because they don't need them anymore," he said. "Unless there's a high accident probability, we'll take it down and not put it back up. That would be my first guess."

"We have no traffic lights in Wheaton now, just stop signs," Lamberson said. "Both 86 and W Highways are state-maintained roads, so maybe the light being taken down had something to do with them."

Taylor looked in MoDOT's archives for the city, but did not find any information referencing the light.

"A lot of times, our files will go back to the 1940s and 1950s, but there was nothing about a signal," he said.

However, new light was shed on the traffic signal's mysterious history when R.C. Darley, vice president of equipment sales at W.S. Darley and Company based in Chicago, Ill., the manufacturer that made the light, confirmed, after seeing a picture, its model, name and approximate age. As it turns out, the light may be much older than what locals originally believed, making it that much more valuable to the city.

"You can read all about your old traffic light -- the AC 146," Darley said. "We called it the Flashing Beacon. You said it was probably taken down in the early 1960s. Because the design had few changes from the 1930s on, it might be interesting to your historical society to know your traffic light could be almost 85 years old.

That light was retired from our line in the late 1960s. New technology made it obsolete."

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