Cincinnati Celebrates a Century Of Traffic Jams

It might surprise you to know that “rush hour” and “traffic jam” both precede the popularity of automobiles in Cincinnati.
Traffic on Third Street, east from Elm.

Image Courtesy University of Cincinnati Archives & Rare Books Library | Used by permission

How was your commute today? Judging by the chatter on social media these days, Cincinnatians hate everything about their trips to and from work each day. Whether you drive, carpool, ride the bus, or bicycle something about your daily journey grinds your soul to dust.

It will do little to brighten your mood to know that Cincinnatians have endured rush-hour traffic jams for approximately 100 years. The arrival of mass-produced automobiles, affordable to most wage-earners, certainly precipitated over-crowded roads.

It might surprise you to know that “rush hour” and “traffic jam” both precede the popularity of automobiles in Cincinnati.

Cincinnatians used the term “rush hour” as early as the 1880s to refer to commuters arriving at and departing from work, but they were mostly talking about street car traffic. The Cincinnati Enquirer [September 1, 1894] recorded a street car driver complaining about pedestrians during rush hour:

We don’t run 60 miles an hour, but you can kill a man just as quick at 12 miles an hour, and it shakes you up just as much. There isn’t a gripman but dreads to make the downtown loop during rush hours.

In 1902, when Cincinnati boasted very few automobiles, W. Kesley Schoepf, president of the Cincinnati Traction Company was called in front of City Council to explain why street cars were so overloaded and behind schedule during rush hour.

Image Courtesy the Cincinnati Post, January 15, 1920 | Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand.

Interestingly, the term “traffic jam” also originated in rail transportation—specifically the freight railroads. During World War I, “traffic jam” almost exclusively referred to freight deliveries delayed because of overcrowded lines near shipping depots. Among other factors, weather contributed to a railroad traffic jam, according to the Enquirer [January 14, 1918]:

Little hope of relief from the traffic jam is held out. When the below-zero weather lightens, heavy snowstorms are predicted that will impede the progress of the trains that can be started tomorrow or Tuesday.

By 1920, however, the traffic that jammed was mostly automotive. In fact, manufacturers advertised cars on their ability to shove through congested roads. Here is a Pierce Arrow advertisement [April 11, 1920]:

Their nicely balanced weight holds them to the road at any speed. The greater power of Dual Valves and twin-spark ignition permits acceleration that takes them through traffic jams unscathed.

That sentiment was seconded by the Cincinnati Winton Motor Car Company, which boasted in a 1919 advertisement:

Power—that’s what makes an automobile step out and discount the miles and hills, taking you there and back on your scheduled time—or ahead of it. It is power that gets you quickly out of traffic jams, and makes impassable roads passable.

At times, police admitted, traffic jams came in handy. In 1926, Leo Schroeder raced down McMicken Street, heading for Vine, pursued by three detectives. A traffic jam brought his automobile up short and Leo surrendered to the detectives, who found him in possession of 50 gallons of moonshine.

But what caused traffic jams? Rush-hour traffic surely contributed, but it appears that major events precipitated the earliest traffic jams in the city. Around 1920, there are several reports of traffic jams around the Latonia race track. Some people believed that downtown retailers encouraged traffic jams to drum up business. So prevalent was this belief that, under a Cincinnati Post headline stating “Traffic Jam Costs” [December 9, 1922], the retailers issued a denial:

’The attitude of the retail merchants downtown toward solution of the traffic congestion problem has been misunderstood in some quarters,’ Robert W. Pogue, president of the Retail Merchants Association, said Saturday. ‘Apparently some persons believe merchants desire congestion downtown. It has been said we are blocking efforts to clear streets. As a matter of fact, retailers are anxious to clear congestion, because it costs us money.

Of course, human frailty played a role, as always. Just as we witness today, rubberneckers bring traffic to a standstill. This phenomenon was recognized as early as September 7, 1918, when Enquirer humorist Luke McLuke observed:

A man can stop on the street and fix his garter and the world rolls right along as if nothing had happened. But if a girl stopped on the street to fix her garter she would cause a traffic jam in ten seconds.

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