For Labor Day weekend 1954, Gov. Walter Kohler called out the National Guard — not because of a disturbance or a natural disaster, but because of holiday traffic.
By the 1950s, Wisconsin’s love affair with roads was in fifth gear. Highway construction was booming, with construction of the Interstate Highway System already in motion.
However, with the boom in roads and road travel came a rise in traffic accidents; in 1953, 881 people were killed on Wisconsin highways.
After the number of traffic fatalities continued to rise in the first half of 1954, the State Patrol stepped up enforcement efforts in July and August, and the highway death toll declined.
With that evidence of success, Kohler announced on Sept. 2, 1954, that for the busy Labor Day weekend, he was calling out the troops — specifically, the military police company of the 32nd Division of the Wisconsin Army National Guard based in Milwaukee.
The Guardsmen, The Milwaukee Journal reported in a front-page story on Sept. 2, 1954, were to work with the state traffic patrol, effectively adding 30 more patrol teams on the state’s highways during the holiday weekend, Sept. 3-6.
Kohler’s action was unprecedented in Wisconsin, but, the Milwaukee Sentinel noted in its story on Sept. 3, 1954, it followed a similar “drastic” move by Michigan Gov. G. Mennen Williams, who declared a state of emergency in Michigan and called up 668 guardsmen to help state and local police over Labor Day.
By comparison, the Wisconsin National Guard company had 94 members.
“The current safety campaign has clearly demonstrated that vigorous enforcement will make our highways safer,” Kohler said in a story in the Sept. 2, 1954, Milwaukee Journal. “I am exercising my authority to order National Guardsmen to active duty over the Labor Day weekend in an effort to save more lives during the month of September. If the action results in the saving of even one life over the long holiday, I will consider it worthwhile.”
Pairing National Guardsmen with highway patrol officers, Kohler said, would allow all of the state’s patrol vehicles to be on the road.
State Patrol officers also were expected to work 12-hour shifts over the weekend, the governor added.
“Our investment in increased enforcement activities in July and August paid the finest kind of dividends,” The Journal quoted Kohler as saying. “The net savings in lives during the two months was 40 below the total in the same months last year (1953). This reversed the trend of the first six months and actually brought the total for eight months below the first eight months of 1953.
“Every citizen who drives or rides in an automobile should consider well the fact that he may be one of those whose life was saved.”
Not everyone was impressed. In its “On, Wisconsin” editorial on Sept. 5, 1954, The Milwaukee Journal lauded Kohler for wanting to bolster the State Patrol, but complained that doing so with National Guard troops — whose pay came from the federal government, not the state — “seems to us to constitute an irregular use of the Guard.” (The Journal also noted that Kohler had been lobbying for some time for more State Patrol officers as well.)
By the end of the weekend, the numbers were in: The Journal reported on Sept. 7 that Wisconsin had 14 traffic deaths over the 1954 Labor Day weekend, down from 18 the year before and 28 in 1952. By comparison, an Associated Press story in that same edition of the Journal reported that nationwide there were 365 traffic deaths over the holiday weekend — the lowest total since 1948 — with Wisconsin ranking behind California, Texas, Illinois, Michigan and New York, tying with Indiana, Kentucky and Missouri for the sixth-highest road-fatality tally over Labor Day.
“Use of the military police enabled us to help state and county traffic officers patrol the highways over the holidays,” The Journal reported Kohler said. “The use of National Guardsmen over a single weekend is no permanent solution to the problem. If we are serious in our desire for highway safety, it is vital that the state provide an adequate number of trained traffic officers to patrol the highways.”
For the year, Associated Press reports show that Wisconsin traffic fatalities did drop, slightly, in 1954, to 835. But after the death toll jumped to 932 in 1955, Kohler and the rest of state government made some changes. As cataloged in a 1989 state Department of Transportation history of the State Patrol, Wisconsin in 1955 set up its driver-licensing point system and authorized state driver examiners to test all applicants for driver’s licenses; created a State Patrol Academy to train highway officers; and added 70 more officers to the State Patrol, increasing the total to 250.
Reducing the state’s highway death toll, however, would take a few decades.
ABOUT THIS FEATURE
Each Wednesday, Our Back Pages dips into the Journal Sentinel archives, sharing photos and stories from the past that connect, reflect and sometimes contradict the Milwaukee we know today.
Special thanks and kudos go to senior multimedia designer Bill Schulz for finding many of the gems in the Journal Sentinel photo archives.