Automobiles became more and more common in North Carolina as the 1920s progressed. The combination of the new technology (half a million were registered as of 1929) and the often-inadequate roads of the era added up to a significant safety hazard: 690 North Carolinians died on state roads in 1929.
The public took notice, and the public called for action. In response, in 1929 the North Carolina General Assembly established the Highway Patrol.
The first patrol training school started in March of that year at Camp Glenn, located near Morehead City. On July 1 the first patrolmen officially took to the state’s roads.
On July 11, 90 years ago today, the Highway Patrol made its first appearance in Jackson County, and left a positive impression. The Jackson County Journal carried a brief front-page story on the event and an editorial lauding the troopers and calling for more of them as a way of ending the carnage on the roads:
HIGHWAY PATROL VISITS US
North Carolina’s new, highway patrol, or part of it, paid Sylva and Jackson County its first visit last Sunday, coming from the east. Four members of the force were on duty in Sylva and along the highways of the county last Sunday. The appearance of the men and their uniforms and equipment are most creditable to the State. Three members of the force were again on duty on the highways of the county, yesterday and last night.
THE STATE POLICE
The State Highway Patrol, created by the last General Assembly, has now gone to work. There are not enough of these officers to properly patrol the highways of the state; and the force, therefore, is more or less in the nature of an experiment. The appearance of the men, their uniforms and equipment, is a credit to the state. Their record of 1,500 arrests during the first week of service sounds all right. But, what the people of the state want to see is results in an entirely different way. They want to witness a steady decline in the fearful loss of human life and property in traffic accidents. It can be done. It should be done, and it will be done if our new police force does its duty. If this healthy condition on the highways is brought about, the next legislature will probably increase the number of men employed in this capacity, and we may expect, within the next few years to see our traffic police evolve into an effective system of rural police, to enforce the laws throughout North Carolina. Law abiding citizens have nothing to fear from the state’s officers. It is against the lawless, the careless, and those who have little or no regard for the rights of other people that their efforts are directed. The officials should adopt a system of rotation for the police, similar to the rotation of judges, and for the same reason that the framers of our constitution adopted that wise policy.
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In many respects the dawn of the NCHP reflects the professional organization that exists today; troopers took pride in their appearance and were known for their sharp uniforms and professional bearing.
But the force was different in many ways. For one it was far smaller, with Captain C. D. Farmer and nine lieutenants representing the entirety of the patrol force. Another difference was that in its early years the patrol relied on motorcycles.
While motorcycles were great pursuit vehicles, they complicated arrests. Generally, patrolmen would have minor offenders follow them to the justice of the peace. The arrest of serious offenders sometimes would involve the officer hiding the motorcycle in the brush and using his personal car to deliver the offender to the proper authorities.
And it’s safe to say the motorcycle patrols didn’t get off to a good start; on just the second day of NCHP service, July 2, 1929, Patrolman G.I. Thompson was killed in a collision with a truck near Marion. The use of the patrol’s Harley-Davidsons was phased out in 1939.
Another hurdle was the lack of radios and the sporadic reach of radios into places like the mountains of Western North Carolina. It’s said patrolmen were issued rolls of dimes on a regular basis so they could call in on pay phones. Reaching a patrolman with a call could involve calling gas stations or stores and getting a worker to flag down an officer.
At its outset the NCHP paid patrolmen $150 a month, but as the Great Depression rolled on salaries were slashed on three different occasions and by 1935 pay was down to $87.50 a month.
With the end of the Depression pay leveled out, and as more motorists took to the highways the NCHP expanded to today’s force of around 2,400 employees.
Scott Smith, First Sergeant with the State Highway Patrol Troop G, District 5, looked back across the long history of the NCHP and offered his thoughts.
“Since the genesis of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol in 1929, State Troopers have evolved into a multifaceted tool for the State of North Carolina,” Smith said. “Mostly, the public thinks Troopers just patrol, write tickets, and work vehicle crashes, but they are used during natural disasters and man-made incidents. Troopers are the first to respond into areas before hurricanes arrive and must work through the storms evacuating people and securing areas. Troopers are used across the State for special events such as: sporting events, fairs, and civil unrest and protest that arise frequently. Troopers are tasked with many great responsibilities for the State of North Carolina, and we are proud to be a part of a great organization.”