Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mack, the Movie Star Traffic Cop of Pelham Manor, 1916-1928

Nearly one hundred years ago, in 1916, the Pelham Manor Police Department hired a jovial police officer of Irish ancestry named John McCormack. McCormack served as a Traffic Officer for the Department and spent most of his years of service standing in the middle of the intersection of the Boston Turnpike and Pelhamdale Avenue, then known as "Red Church Corners." Today the intersection of Boston Post Road and Pelhamdale Avenue is known as "Four Corners." 

For some period of the time he served in his post, Mack used the police booth that stood -- and still stands -- at the intersection. First he used the booth as shelter when the weather became too brutal. Later, when an electric traffic signal was installed at the intersection, he operated the signal from controls installed inside the booth. 

The Police Booth at Four Corners,
Once Used by Mack, the Smiling Traffic Cop, Who
Directed Traffic from the Center of the Intersection then Known as "Red Church Corner"

McCormack had a broad smile and was quick to flash it. As a Traffic Officer, he wore a blue-coat and uniform and directed traffic at an intersection that grew increasingly busy with each passing year. Thousands of vehicles and their occupants passed Mack as he diligently directed a busy intersection with no traffic lights.

Mack became a fixture in the landscape. Despite the replacement of the "Little Red Church" at the intersection with the substantial stone edifice that now serves as the main sanctuary of Huguenot Memorial Presbyterian Church, the intersection continued to be known as "Red Church Corners" for many years. The intersection and Mack were "landmarks" known far and wide by the thousands of travelers who streamed by the location. 

By the early 1920's, Mack was known as the "Smiling Traffic Cop." In one homage to him and his work, the local newspaper said: 

"'Mack' needs no introduction to Pelham, As firmly stationed in the hearts of Pelham Manor residents as the 'Toonerville Trolley' the genial Hibernian has made many friends in his twelve years service. There is none better known among the blue coated traffic directors than McCormack. From millionaire to delivery clerk he has a cheery greeting and a pleasant word of direction for all, and has established an enviable record as a peace officer in serving the village."

Source: "Mack" To Leave His Post After 12 Years, The Pelham Sun, Apr. 13, 1928, p. 15, col. 1. 

Mack, the Smiling Traffic Cop, became so famous merely from directing traffic at the intersection that he landed a minor "speaking" role in a silent film released in theaters nationwide in October, 1921. The Goldwyn Pictures Corporation film was "The Invisible Power" directed by Frank Lloyd and starring House Peters, Irene Rich and DeWitt Jennings. 

The film was a drama in which an ex-convict named Sid Chambers (played by House Peters) is a lodger living with a couple named the Millers. Chambers meets an impressionable school teacher named Laura Chadwick (played by Irene Rich). Laura convinces herself that Sid has redeemed himself and put his criminal record behind him. The couple falls in love, marries, and moves to New York City. Once there, Sid Chambers is hounded by Mark Shadwell (played by De Witt Jennings), a New York City police detective who previously sent Sid Chambers to prison. Shadwell wants Chambers to divulge information about one of his former friends and gang members named Bob Drake (played by Sydney Ainsworth) who recently has committed a robbery. Sid Chambers refuses to cooperate and is sent to prison again on a trumped up charge despite the fact that he and his wife, Laura, are expecting their first child. The couple's child is born during Chambers' imprisonment. Fearing that the child may develop into a criminal, Laura gives the child up for adoption. Due to his imprisonment and the loss of his child, Sid Chambers vows to kill Detective Shadwell. Laura races to Detective Shadwell's home to warn him, only to find that her own child is inside, adopted by the Detective. Touched by Laura's grief, Detective Shadwell arranges to give Chambers his freedom, thereby allowing the couple to be reunited.

In the midst of the black and white silent film, there is a scene in which bridegroom Sid Chambers is racing in an automobile to get to his wedding with Laura Chadwick.  Soon he is racing along Boston Post Road and, as he tries to pass through Red Church Corner, Mack raises his hand and stops the automobile to the consternation of the bridegroom.  

Immediately below is a newspaper account of the event, in its entirety, followed by a citation to its source.

"'Mack' Makes His Debut As A Movie Star At Proctor's -- Pelham Manor's Famous 'Smiling Traffic Cop' Interrupts Bridegroom's Wild Ride to His Wedding.  'Mack' Turning Down Many Offers to Star with Mary Pickford.

The long list of Pelham notables has an added starter on it since Officer John McCormack, of the Pelham Manor police force, commonly known as 'Mack' became a 'movie' star.  Mack Held sway at Proctor's Theatre in Mount Vernon on Sunday, where he chose as a starring vehcile 'The Invisible Power.'

Patrons of Proctor's Sunday were enjoying the antics of a bridegroom hurryng to his wedding, when the scene took a familiar aspect.  The Boston Road came in view.  The racing automobile flew down the Boston Road and the Red Church Corner loomed up ahead.  There was the old trusty 'Mack' guarding the crossing.  

The bridegroom's car dashed up to the corner and 'Mack' disappointed the excited movie fans by holding up his hand.  Suspense!  The bridegroom leaned out of the car in an effort to persuade 'Mack' to let him pass and entreated him with 'Man I am in a hurry to get married,' but 'Mack' came back with the broad grin and 'you'll have to wait till I blow me whistle.'

The last reports from 'Mack's manager,' Chief of Police Gargan state that the smiling traffic cop has decided to stick to his post on the Red Church Corner as Hollywood has lost it's reputation.  However, any moving picture company that needs a good traffic cop star, on a good location, will be received with the cordiality if they apply for 'Mack's' services through his manager and press agent,' Chief Gargan."

Source:  "Mack" Makes His Debut As A Movie Star At Proctor's, The Pelham Sun, Mar. 17, 1922, p. 5, col. 1.  

Mack never let his fame dissuade him from his duty.  He remained dutifully at his post for many years after his cameo appearance in "The Invisible Power."  Eventually, though, new technologies affected him.  For a period of time, Mack operated a mechanical signal from the center of the intersection.  Indeed, one article published in 1925 described what happened when a motorist intentionally sped through the intersection ignoring that signal (see below).

On December 8, 1926, after a vote by the Village of Pelham Manor Trustees, a new-fangled traffic light was installed at the intersection of Boston Post Road and Pelhamdale Avenue.  It seemed that all was lost and Mack, the smiling traffic cop, might be relegated to less conspicuous duties.  He was not!

Mack could be found for some time after installation of the traffic light, standing on the side of the intersection controlling the "new traffic semaphore" from a box on the adjacent sidewalk.  A hilarious article appeared only two days after installation of the traffic light in The Pelham Sun describing Mack's new job.

That job must have been enough for Mack.  Within a little more than a year, he left the Pelham Manor Police Department to become a private detective.

Below is a series of articles about Mack, the Smiling Traffic Cop, that I have been able to assemble (in addition to the one quoted above in full).

"Rushed Traffic Signal; Captured By Motor Cop
On Tuesday afternoon while watching Officer McCormick [sic] of the Pelham Manor police force operating the traffic signal on the Red Church corner, a young man came speeding along the Post Road, and passed the signal set against him.  He had previously noted however, that there was no vehicle nearby into which 'Mac' could charter, and follow him.  He had failed however, to figure on the excellent cooperation which works in the Manor Force.  No sooner had the young man passed the signal than Mac's whistle sounded, and motorcycle officer Skiff appeared on the scene and soon caught up with the escaping traffic violator.  When brought to the corner the man explained that he was in a hurry and could not wait for the signal to change.  This same gentleman will, do doubt, take his time when he appears before Judge L'Esperance on a charge of passing a traffic signal."

Source:  Rushed Traffic Signal; Captured By Motor Cop, The Pelham Sun, Dec. 11, 1925, p. 4, col. 2.

"'Mack' To Be Moved But Not Far Away
He of the Sunny Smile Will Operate Control for New Traffic Semaphores on Boston Road

After seven years on fixed post in the center of the intersection of the Boston Road and Pelhamdale Avenue, Traffic Officer John McCormack, better known as 'Mack.' is to be removed, by order of the Pelham Manor village trustees.  'Mack,' whose smiling countenance has become a Pelham institution, has his days numbered on his accustomed spot.

During the last seven years no matter how severe the weather, the cheerful Hibernian has directed the traffic across the intersection and disbursed information to thousands of motorists. Vacant from his place for only scant vacation periods, he has come to be regarded as a permanent fixture.  But 'Mack' must give way to progress.  

A smileless electric cop will flash directions to the motorists by means of red and green lights.  The many friends of 'Mack' will miss him.

But Village President Henry H. Fox has assured the Pelham Sun that 'Mack' will not be removed from his old post.  Although the silent cop will direct traffic at 'Mack's' old post, the officer will be found at the control handle at the police booth situated at the intersection.  

'We can't let 'Mack' go from the Red Church corner,' said President Fox.  'Mack is a permanent fixture and will remain at his old post, or as close as possible to it.' 

Upon recommendation of Trustee Elliott House the board ordered four traffic semaphores to be installed at the following Boston Road intersections:  Fowler Avenue, Pelhamdale Avenue, the Esplanade, and Split Rock Road.  They Will be installed within the next month."

Source:  "Mack" To Be Moved But Not Far Away, The Pelham Sun, Sep. 24, 1926, p. 3, col. 4.

"Blinking Lights To Replace Mack's Smile
Pelham Manor Trustees Order Semaphore For Installation at Red Church Corner

'Mack' is going.  His successor has been ordered.  In place of the smile of the Hibernian who has held down his post at the Red Church Corner for the last seven years, motorists will be greeted with the blinking of red and green lights of a traffic semaphore.  The Pelham Manor village trustees, Monday night placed the order for the semaphore.

Although removed from his fixed post at the center of the street intersection, 'Mack' will still reign supreme, for he will occupy the post at the controller of the semaphore, a few yards distant from his accustomed post.  

But one semaphore will be purchased at this time.  After a sixty day trial at the Red Church Corner, the trustees will decide on locations for additional signal lights on the Boston Road.  The new light will cost $424.  No charge will be made for the installation.  

Village Engineer Edward F. Campbell recommended that a white line be painted on the center of the roadway on the Boston Road from Pelhamdale avenue to the New York City line.  The board favored the suggestion."

Source:  Blinking Lights To Replace Mack's Smile, The Pelham Sun, Oct. 15, 1926, p. 16, col. 4.

"'Mack' Removed From Post Still Governs
Installation of Traffic Semaphore Fails to Relieve Famous Cop of Right
'Mack' has been moved.  

The office sleuth hopped into the Iron Horse and rattled his way over to Pelham Manor to investigate the report that the smiling Hibernian, Traffic Officer John McCormack, who has guarded the historic Red Church corner for so many years, had been relegated to some other less conspicuous post.  Here was a story.

Speeding through Pelhamdale avenue at a rate just below that prescribed as proper by the Pelham Manor Association, trailing behind the 'Toonerville Trolley' whose flat wheels beat tattoo in time with the rattle of the 'wings' of the Iron Horse, the site of the mystery came within sight.  

'It won't be long now.'  The story was close at hand, when the Toonerville stopped.  On went the brakes and the Iron Horse squeaked to a stop.

Impatiently the sleuth waited, fretting over the delay when there was big business at hand.  

The doors of the Toonerville were shut.  If the sleuth could get past the car he would be at the corner and the mystery would be explained.  So he gave the Iron Horse some gas when -- 

'Say, can't you see the light is set against you?'

It was 'Mack,' removed from the center of the corner but still doing business only at the sidewalk controller of the new traffic semaphore.

The office sleuth lost two things, a story, yes, but that was not so easy to lose as the 'Ticket' which Mack was prepared to write out for him.  It took long arguments and a promise of better behavior in the future.  

The new traffic light was installed Wednesday."

Source:  "Mack" Removed From Post Still Governs, The Pelham Sun, Dec. 10, 1926, p. 3, col. 4.

"'Mack' To Leave His Post After 12 Years
Motorists who frequent the Boston Road, school children who pass the intersection of Pelhamdale avenue and the Boston Road, and residents of Pelham Manor who have regarded 'Mack' as a permanent fixture at the Red Church Corner will miss the cheery smile of the policeman who directs traffic after Wednesday, when Traffic Officer John McCormack and Motorcycle Officer Edward G. Skiff leave the police department to engage in private detective work.  Monday night the Village Board granted the pair leave of absence of one year, and also two weeks' vacation.

'Mack' needs no introduction to Pelham,  As firmly stationed in the hearts of Pelham Manor residents as the 'Toonerville Trolley' the genial Hibernian has made many friends in his twelve years service.  There is none better known among the blue coated traffic directors than McCormack.  From millionaire to delivery clerk he has a cheery greeting and a pleasant word of direction for all, and has established an enviable record as a peace officer in serving the village.  His new work will not be strange to McCormack as he has had several years' experience in that line before joining the Pelham Manor force, and during his service with the village has been material in the detecting of several criminal ventures.  He is a keen observer, and has made many important captures while stationed at the Red Church Corner.

Officer Skiff has been in the village service for seven years.  He has been on motorcycle duty most of that time.  He is well liked and has proven a capable officer.

Monday night Mayor House expressed regret at losing the officers, but wished them success in their new venture."

Source:  "Mack" To Leave His Post After 12 Years, The Pelham Sun, Apr. 13, 1928, p. 15, col. 1.

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