The goal was to preserve and enhance downtown’s historic vistas.
“Greenwood boasts 64 vintage four-way traffic signals controlling traffic from overhead span wires at some 30 intersections — more than any other city in the U.S. or the world,” Williams said.
The hooded lights that dangle and sway across most of Greenwood’s downtown intersections were all manufactured by U.S. companies and were never used outside of the U.S. Williams and others believe that Greenwood has the largest working collection in the U.S. and thus the world.
“Cities are quick to throw out old stuff and buy new stuff,” Williams said.
But cities such as Greenwood that are attempting to maintain historic buildings at their downtown core need to think twice before throwing out the old, whether it be street lights, traffic signals, benches or trash cans, he said.
“In order to really do justice to the wonderful historic buildings in downtown Greenwood, why not recreate the compatible historical context that surrounded these buildings? That makes the preservation of the buildings all the better.”
For visitors enjoying historic downtown Greenwood, the more period detail preserved, the more authentic the city appears. That makes for good tourist commerce, according to Williams, and it hasn’t hurt in attracting movie production teams, either.
“When Hollywood filmmakers filmed ‘My Dog Skip’ in Canton and ‘The Help’ in Greenwood, they were excited to discover the vintage stoplights in the two cities and included them in the period movies,” Williams said.
Greenwood’s vintage stoplights might go unnoticed by a casual passerby, or even by longtime residents who pass below them every day. But to vintage stoplight collectors and restorers, of which Williams says there are many in the United States, they are treasures, no less than postcards from past decades that ushered in the era of the automobile.
Williams’ vision came to him during a late-night stop in Greenwood, circa 1997.
Traveling home to St. Louis from New Orleans, his Greyhound bus stopped for a brief layover at the old bus depot at Main and Church streets in downtown Greenwood.
The bus paused at about 1 o’clock in the morning for a 10-minute stop, a smoke break for the driver and a chance for passengers to stretch their legs.
“I explored a little bit, and the first thing I saw, right outside the old Greyhound station, was one of these old four-way traffic lights,” Williams said. “I looked around and could see them at other intersections.
“I felt like I had traveled back in time in this old Mississippi Delta town.”
A spark was ignited in Williams, who had worked since the early 1990s as a historic streetscape preservationist and had founded the American Streetscape Society. The society, currently inactive, existed to assist cities with planning and design to help preserve historic elements of the man-made environment surrounding historically significant buildings.
Love for the fixtures that made up historic streetscapes was long planted in Williams, who traveled with his parents when he was a child through Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi en route to Florida by either passenger train or motor car.
“Those four-way traffic lights were everywhere in the South, a signature trademark of Southern cities, and I’d see them every summer on these road trips,” he said.
As he got older, he noticed they were disappearing, an occurrence that concerned him and others who worked in the nation’s capital in the early 1990s.
“I thought what the country needed was an organization to guide cities, to give them advice on how to preserve historic streetscapes, the context around those historic buildings they were working to protect,” Williams said.
“What’s the point of restoring a historic building and defiling them with inappropriate streetscape furnishings?”
Driven by his vision and by his accidental stop in Greenwood, Williams a few weeks later contacted then-Mayor Harry Smith, proposing a historic preservation idea involving those vintage stoplights. Smith dismissed the idea as impractical, according to Williams, but May Whittington, who was then working as the director of Main Street Greenwood, was intrigued by it.
“May was fascinated to hear that someone from outside had noticed and appreciated them and made her aware of their historical significance,” Williams said.
After Whittington became a state lawmaker, she continued urging Williams to keep the idea alive, despite City Hall’s lack of interest. She died in 2006.
Williams’ idea was to restore the four-way stoplights that had guided Greenwood traffic for decades but which had recently been retired in favor of new ones. Through his research, he was aware that some of the old lights were in storage somewhere in the city. He proposed refurbishing the metal casings, then replacing the incandescent bulbs with LED lighting and hanging them double to meet new federal safety guidelines, two on each wire span. Completing the project would require finding more lights retired from other cities, and Williams volunteered to help with that effort.
Finally, in 2009 with the election of Mayor Carolyn McAdams, Williams said, his idea struck a chord with somebody who could do something about it.
“When we heard what he wanted to do, we were all for it,” McAdams said. With her support and assistance from Thomas Gregory, the “Retro Signal Project” was kicked off in 2010.
A local boy with deep roots in Greenwood, Gregory had studied urban design at the University of North Carolina and had an inkling of what a vintage stoplight could do for the historic look of a downtown intersection.
“I contacted Thomas, and he was immediately excited,” Williams said. A similar thing had taken place in Chapel Hill at the intersection of Henderson and Rosemary streets, near where Gregory had attended church while in graduate school. “Thomas said, ‘I remember those lights. They’re very cool. I’d love to do that in Greenwood.'”
The first step was to reclaim the lights that had been taken down in Greenwood and lay languishing in a pile at Greenwood Utilities. Williams said it was a lucky thing that once they were retired from service, those lights were not destroyed. Ten of them had managed to survive.
Guy Richardson at Greenwood Utilities was recruited by the project to refurbish them.
“I remember seeing them all covered with dust just laying there on a pallet,” McAdams said.
The lights were sandblasted and gutted, and Richardson replaced their incandescent bulbs with LED lamps and new wiring, a process that Gregory said made them a bit lighter and easier to hang in pairs.
The first lights were sent to Grenada for a powder-coating job — McAdams chose a dark green, almost black color — and were hung.
Then the search for more lights began.
Williams reached out to restorers and others in the historic preservation community and located discarded vintage stoplights in a number of locations. Most were donated to Greenwood free of charge, and Dale Persons, then with Viking Range, helped arrange for many of them to be shipped to Greenwood at no cost.
A Mississippi signal collector, Jim McCullough, also hauled some for free, Williams said. A longtime city traffic supervisor in McComb, McCullough passed away this year, but he lived long enough to see the Greenwood project nearly completed.
Traffic signals were donated and brought to Greenwood from Laurel; from Lima, Granville and Nelsonville, Ohio; from Cleburne, Texas; Green Cove Springs, Florida; Sunbury, Pennsylvania; El Dorado, Arkansas; and Elkins, West Virginia.
Greenwood’s collection now includes lights manufactured in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s by Eagle Signal Co. of Moline, Illinois; the Crouse-Hinds Co. of Syracuse, New York; and the William S. Darley Co. of Chicago.
Refurbished by Richardson, they were hung at downtown intersections, two at a time, until downtown was nearly filled with the vintage stoplights.
Only a few remain to be hung this year, and the project will be complete. Williams said the project was one of the most satisfying of his career and he can’t wait to return to Greenwood to see all the lights in place.
“No other city in the United States has undertaken a project like this one.”
Williams hopes to see the last two lights placed on Carrollton Avenue, so they can be viewed out the windows of the Amtrak passenger train as it arrives and departs from Greenwood to Memphis and New Orleans.
A light will glow green, then yellow, then red, swaying next to its twin from a ropy wire cable, stopping traffic near The Crystal Grill in a place few passengers will know is the Historic Stoplight Capital of the World — Greenwood, Mississippi.
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