Published Sunday, February 9, 2014 12:05 am
It was 7:30 a.m. on May 9, 1980, when a blinding thunderstorm caused the MV Summit Venture freighter to strike one of the Sunshine Skyway’s concrete pilings.
The accident collapsed 1,250 feet of the southbound lanes of the bridge and caused the deaths of 35 people after seven cars and a bus plummeted to the water before traffic could be stopped.
Florida Highway Patrol traffic investigators were tasked with sorting out the details of those 35 deaths, and a final report tallied 570 pages. It was one of the many times the agency has played a part in Florida’s history. Over the years, their contributions to the state and its residents have been invaluable.
Even in 1980, as investigators pieced together the tragic end to those 35 lives, the agency was a long way from its roots. Like much of Florida, they were born out of a modern frontier-like landscape that owed more to agriculture than beaches, Mickey Mouse and vacation resorts.
In the Beginning
It was the early 1930s and the American automobile was on the rise.
People were more mobile than ever, as families started to steer away from train travel to the empowering feeling of driving their own cars. The growth of automobile travel of course coincided with the expansion of the nation’s roadways and the start of a migrating population, one that was captured by John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”
With this newfound mobile freedom, people were more attracted to Florida than ever, but this rise of an automobile culture also came with the increased need to patrol the roads.
Florida was overwhelmed by the sudden need to enforce the laws on roadways, especially after former Governor Doyle Carlton deemed it the responsibility of the state’s newly formed road department in 1931.
It wasn’t until 1934 that the Florida Highway Patrol first took shape, when Governor Dave Sholtz decided that a division dealing strictly with traffic enforcement was needed after the state’s road department was overwhelmed with keeping up with infrastructure needs while dually enforcing traffic laws.
By 1936 there were 25 traffic inspectors in the new traffic enforcement divison. Outfitted with a green military color style uniform, the unit was led by a man named H. Neil Kirkman, a former Army Major who had an expertise in engineering. The state’s roads were now being policed and overseen by an agency that had the leadership they needed.
But it would all come crashing down in 1937, when Governor Fred Cone dismantled the department in what he said was a cost saving move, forcing the state legislature to create the State Department of Public Safety and its two divisions; the Florida Highway Patrol and the Division of State Motor Vehicle Drivers Licenses in 1939.
The state legislature authorized the hiring of 60 officers, and 5,000 men applied. Eventually, the first troop, consisting of 31 officers, was assembled and the first academy was taught at the Bradenton Municipal Pier, which in the present day is Pier 22. Troopers were housed at the Manavista Hotel and trained at the site of present day Bradenton City Hall. They were paid $1,500 per year; thereafter, the salary would increase $120 a year until a maximum of $2,000 a year was reached.
Now entering its 75th year, the Florida Highway Patrol has grown into one of the busiest agencies in the state, a longstanding tradition that began during its first year of operation when those scant 31 troopers clocked 154,829 hours of patrol time, investigated 1,000 accidents, examined 127 motorists killed, patrolled 1,938,564 miles, aided 1,132 persons injured and arrested 4,836 motorists.
The 1940s saw the number of Troopers increased by 190, along with an added $150 a year for those eager to sign up for the busy and increasingly important line of work.
In 1952, the state was divided into sectors or different troops, designated by an alphabetic system that still exists today. The first speed sign in Florida was erected in 1953.
Many of the organization’s signatures, including the tan uniforms and their insignia that featured the state’s largest cash crop at the time, the orange, were introduced in the 1950s and remain largely unchanged.
But as the 1950s rolled on, the FHP would face one of their greatest challenges – a nationwide interstate system, which would be contracted by the federal government.
Interstates Change the Game
President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted the Federal Highway Act on June 29, 1956, pledging $25 billion to build 41,000 miles of the newly designed interstate highway system.
Florida was almost immediately thrust into the action, as construction of Interstate 95 started in 1957, and work on Interstate 10 began in 1958.
Work on Interstate 75 wouldn’t begin in Florida until the mid 1960s, but by then the agency was already in the swing of patrolling the new roadways, which now connected the entire nation in a way that it had never been before.
By the end of the 1950s, the agency had already instituted new tactics and technologies to make their jobs easier. This included a new teletype system which allowed the different troops to communicate effectively, according to Lt. Greg Bueno, the current public affairs officer for Fort Myers-based Troop F, which serves 10 counties including Sarasota and Manatee,
The agency celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 1959, having grown from 31 men to 461 “well trained and well equipped officers,” Bueno said. It expanded to 11 troops, which still exist to this day and patrol all corners of the state.
Other highlights include:
- The 1960s saw the agency take to the skies, as they started using two Piper aircraft to enforce traffic laws. By the 1980s the fleet would grow to 11 planes and eventually include the use of helicopters in the 1990s. Three pilots have been killed in the line of duty.
- 1971 saw a trooper named Joe Willie DeCoursey join the ranks, beginning a 25-year career with the agency. DeCoursey, who served as a traffic homicide investigator, would retire in 1996, making him the first African-American trooper to reach 25 years of service.
- The 1980s saw the agency having a hand in some of the more prominent Florida events of the decade, including assisting with the processing of 125,000 Cuban refugees following the Mariel Boatlift; FHP homicide troopers investigating the 35 deaths that resulted from the collapse of the Sunshine Skyway in 1980, after a cargo ship struck the bridge’s concrete pilings; 100 troopers from across the state being sent to Liberty City, to help bring order to a community that had a crime rate spiraling out of control. During that time troopers made 58,000 arrests.
By the late 90s Florida had the fourth largest population in America, with 14.7 million residents. Four hundred and fifty people a day were moving to Florida by 1998, according to stats, and the FHP had to develop new ways to ensure law and order on the state’s roadways.
According to Bueno, by the year 2000, the agency was dedicated with using the latest technologies in their vehicles, including mobile data computers, mapping software, finger print scanners and two camera systems.
The agency’s mission has stayed the same, even through the tools have changed, Bueno said, to protect both the safety of the public and the troopers, many of whom have fallen in the line of duty.
Forty-eight troopers have died while on the job since 1936; Trooper Royston E. Walker was the first to fall, when he was shot and killed on Aug. 31, 1936 by a motorist he was trying to stop for having faulty headlights. Walker had been a trooper for seven months. The most recent trooper to fall was William H. Dyer III, who died in a single vehicle crash in Leon County, after serving as a trooper for 16 years.
As the agency celebrates its 75th Anniversary, the FHP is undoubtedly looking ahead while honoring its past. For three quarters of a century, the agency has grown as the state has, answering the call while often paying for it with the ultimate sacrifice.
As more and more people will continue to be drawn to the state, the role of the FHP will continue to grow, in order to meet the demands of public safety and to meet all of the challenges ahead.