OXFORD — Oxford leaders took down several vintage traffic lights last year as part of the city’s downtown renovation project. Crews replaced them with stop signs, and so far, the City Council has yet to decide whether they will put the antique signals back up.
Barrett Williams, a Missouri resident and streetscape consultant, prays that the city will re-install them. That’s because he spent nearly two decades lobbying to get them put up in the first place.
You see, Barrett Williams really loves traffic lights — particularly the four-direction, aluminum-cast signals once found in downtown Oxford and in cities all across the South. According to Williams, Oxford’s traffic lights were made in the 50s and 60s by companies like Eagle Signal Co. of Moline, Ill. or the Crouse-Hinds Co. of Syracuse, N.Y.
Asked what prompted his passion for traffic signals, Williams first joked that perhaps he’d been dropped on his head as a child. In seriousness, though, he said it was the car trips of his childhood, traveling with his family from Missouri to Florida, where he would admire the architecture of southern cities as they drove by.
“You guys are lucky in Alabama because Alabama, for whatever reason, still has a lot of these period stop lights,” he said. “Outside of Alabama there are very few states that have those signals.”
According to Williams, there are about seven other cities in Alabama still using the same style of signals.
There was a time when all those signals were at risk, and one of their saviors came from Anniston.
In the mid-90s, the federal government started requiring intersections with traffic signals to have two separate lights. The reasoning being that the redundancy would lead to fewer lights going completely dark and prevent car wrecks.
Because of the change many cities started moving toward newer, single-direction traffic signals. But Lamar Dill, the chief electrician for the city of Anniston, found a way to rig two of the lights diagonally at an intersection. That way, the city met the federal rule and kept its vintage stop lights.
A 1995 Star article told of Dill’s efforts and that many cities across the country had copied the idea. Dill saved about 20 such lights in Anniston, according to the article.
Around that time, Williams was working as a lobbyist for rail passengers. He got off the Amtrak Crescent Line in Anniston and noticed the traffic lights. He called the city asking about them and struck up a friendship with Dill.
Around the late 90s and early 2000s, Williams learned that Oxford was looking for new lights, he encouraged then-mayor Leon Smith to use Dill’s method and install the vintage signals.
Williams said Smith seemed as if he had more important matters to worry about. But Williams stayed focusedon the project for years. He worked with Dill, who convinced Anniston leaders to donate about six of their antique traffic lights to Oxford.
According to Williams, Oxford installed the vintage signals around 2011.
In November of 2017, Oxford officials broke ground on the city’s $2.2 million downtown renovation project. Williams said he was heartbroken to learn that city leaders were considering keeping the stop signs.
“And what’s so ironic is that the city would remove these lights in an effort to preserve and enhance Main Street’s special historic character and charm,” Williams wrote in an email. “The historic stoplights are key contributing elements to the very character and charm that the city is trying to preserve and promote.”
Reached by phone Friday, Oxford council member Charlotte Hubbard said the council doesn’t seem committed to one decision. She said the members plan to speak with the police chief to discuss the safety and traffic flow issues with both options.
Hubbard, who owns a restaurant downtown, said she’s leaning toward keeping the stop signs. According to her, the slowed traffic has led to more shoppers at businesses in the district.
But, Hubbard said, crews have installed electrical conduits in that area as part of the renovation project. So even if the council decided to keep the stop signs, they could choose to re-install the traffic lights later on.
Dill, Anniston’s former chief electrician, is now 93 and long retired. He said he would like to see the traffic lights brought back, too.
“If they’re going to try and preserve part of Oxford, they need to keep them,” he said.