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First started as "My 2 Cents" in 1997, I have written posts numbering into the hundreds. It will take some time to resurrect the older posts, so keep checking back. They will include meet reports, travelogues, and news of interest to Ontario licence plate collectors.

Signals of yesterday, today

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

I’m a plate collector, first and foremost. But like many of you, I’ve diverged over the years into other things.

Before I was interested in license plates, there were traffic lights. This interest dates well back into my pre-school days. I can’t tell you why they interested me, but I constantly drew pictures of them, created paintings of them, and brought home traffic light cut-out art that I taped to my bedroom door.

Dummy light, as seen in July 2014, in downtown Canojaharie, NY.

Nowadays, my artwork is a little less frequent, and the subject matter is more conventional. But when I’m driving around, I tend to notice older or unusual signal installations. This is one of the things that make small towns interesting, in that their traffic patterns are largely unchanged after many years, and so, there hasn’t been a need to upgrade from the signals of old. Taking this to the extreme is the town of Canojaharie, New York, which I visited in the summer of 2014 to check out its dummy light. It’s planted on a concrete platform, directly in the middle of a downtown intersection. It’s a single, four-way light, that somehow controls traffic from five different directions. The light has become a town landmark, so much so that, when it was damaged beyond repair in 2013, the town went to some expense to acquire and refurbish a vintage four-way signal, and it was installed in the same location and style as its predecessor. There are only a handful of these signals remaining in the entire USA, and none that I know of in Ontario, let alone the rest of Canada.

Canojaharie’s dummy light isn’t close to home. But the downtown core of Prescott, Ontario, is. I passed through Prescott in the spring of 2007 on my way to the spring plate swap meet in Acton, and I noticed the strange and outdated signals along its downtown strip. I took a few pictures and wondered how much longer they’d be in service before being retired in the name of progress.

I happened to stop for lunch in Prescott a few days ago, and I was amazed to find that the same traffic lights are still in service. The faded yellow paint has faded even more, almost to a beige. There are still no arrow signals, and only one of the downtown intersections have been updated with newer plastic heads, but even that one is weird. Let’s start there:

Categories of traffic signal heads from the Ontario Traffic Manual.

The intersection of Edward and King has newer plastic signals, although each direction gets a large one and a small one, which was typical in Ontario from the 1960s through the 1980s. The large signals, known as “Highway” signals, are commonly seen, with a 12-inch red light, and 8-inch lights for yellow and green, and a yellow backplate around the whole thing. The small signals are still denoted as “standard” signals in the Ontario Traffic Manual (last updated March 2012, picture at left from OTM section 2.3, Figure 2, page 11). Standard signals have 8-inch lights for all three colours and no backplate. Although these lights are known as “standard” in the manual, they have been phased out in most parts of Ontario. The city of Ottawa still has quite a few of them, but they are gradually being replaced with “Highway” 12-8-8 signals. New Ottawa signal installations never include the standard 8-8-8 lights anymore. Yet, in Ontario, they do remain the literal standard.

Anyway, the intersection of Edward and King is unusual, because a heritage building, presently used as a tavern, is placed directly at the street’s edge at the southwest corner, with the sidewalk being mere inches across. There is no space for streetlamps or traffic light standards. In order to place two signals to control the southbound and westbound traffic, the town has avoided the southwest corner and placed its signals elsewhere. Thus, southbound traffic sees two signals (one highway-type, one standard-type) installed on the left corner, and westbound traffic sees two similar signals installed on the right corner. Nowhere else in Ontario have I seen this setup.

Taken from the northeast corner of Edward and King in Prescott.

Moving further west along King, we head into downtown Prescott, where another unusual set of signals controls the intersection at Centre Street. These signals are old General Electric heads, which were used widely through Ontario in the 1960s and 70s. However, they’re aluminum signals and were last painted decades ago. Each direction features one highway signal and one standard signal. However, although King is the busier of the two streets here, its 12-8-8 highway-type signals do not have backplates in either direction, which is very unusual. Moreoever, these signals feature the now-antiquated Ontario system of a flashing green signal to indicate an advance left turn. The Ontario Traffic Manual acknowledges these signals, but it says specifically:

Signal at Centre and King in Prescott.

"Ontario is one of only a few users of the circular flashing advanced green in North America and its use may cause some confusion for unfamiliar motorists. In the future, the Highway Traffic Act will no longer recognize the flashing green indication as a valid display. Consequently, it was previously recommended that after January 1, 2010, the use of the circular flashing advanced green should no longer be permitted in Ontario. At this time, the flashing green ball display is no longer a recommended practice and any jurisdictions still operating flashing green ball indications should have plans to remove them or replace them with left turn arrow indications." --OTM Section 2.2, Page 9

The flashing green was a common method of advancing left-turners years ago, but arrows have supplanted it. I’m not being critical of Prescott for having these older lights—I think they’re really neat—but one has to wonder how much longer it might be until someone at the MTO presses the issue.

Moving further westward along King, we come to its intersection with George Street, which is my favourite. I thought this intersection was cool when I last saw it; but this time, I noticed something else and did some sleuthing, and came to a surprising conclusion. This intersection has standard 8-8-8 signals throughout, save for one 12-8-8 highway signal facing north. It is very rare nowadays to have only standard signals controlling an entire direction of traffic. Toronto used to have numerous intersections with all-standard signals along Yonge Street between Front and Bloor, all the way into the 1990s. The town of Renfrew used to have all-standard signals where Hall and Raglan meet. But those have all been replaced with Highway-type signal variants. But here, at this one Prescott intersection, standard-type signals reign, just like in times of old.

Taken from the southwest corner of George and King in Prescott.

Aside from the very old mast arms from which the signals hang, the right-side signals that control King Street have very strange backplates unlike any I’ve ever seen, even in archival pictures. They may have been custom-built to increase visibility. The backplate only covers the sides of the signal, leaving the top and bottom bare. But what’s more, it appears these signals may have once been mounted at the top of posts. A disused slip-fitter still juts from the bottom of these signal heads (a slip-fitter is an adaptor that connects the bottom of the signal to the very top of a short post—this is an antiquated mounting mechanism that is also being phased out in Ontario).

Depression-era GE Novalux signal, in service at George and King in Prescott, as photographed in 2017 (still there as of March 2019).

The most interesting thing I noticed about these particular signals is that they are one-piece. Signals are generally segmented, with the red-yellow-green sections bolted together. But a close look at these weird backplated signals shows that the signal body is one long box, into which the three signals are fitted. There are no dividing joint lines on the rear side for separate red / yellow / green sections. The signal body also features an ornate decorative “bulge” along the top and bottom of the signal that faces the rear side.

I contacted a signal expert from the US who runs a very extensive web site on the subject of old signals. He recognized the construction as dating from the 1940s. I did more research on my own, and concluded that these are General Electric Novalux signals, which were manufactured starting in the 1930s. The door hinge design changed a bit, which would place these signals in the latter portion of the Novalux manufacture run, but they still date from the 1930s.

I found a description of the GE Novalux lights here.

I found a pictorial essay of GE lights in use in Detroit here.

It’s incredible to think that these signals, now around 80 years old, are still controlling traffic in present-day Prescott. A brand-new Toyota Highlander, with sensors in every cranny, and equipped with GPS navigation, must come to a stop because of a still-operational, antique-era signal.

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