Milwaukee’s Fire & Police Call Boxes

I have recently become fascinated with the old police/fire call boxes on street corners around Milwaukee. My fiance’ is from the Milwaukee area, so we run into these old boxes in random areas around the city. I have noticed them before and didn’t really think anything of it. While watching an episode of American Restoration, Rick’s Restoration got an NYPD police call box in that a customer wanted restored. That episode really got me fascinated about these old call boxes that Milwaukee had. There is little information that I could find on the internet about these specific call boxes. There are plenty of pictures, but what I want to know the history of these interesting devices as they relate to Milwaukee.

First off, I should explain what a call box is for someone who may not know. The cast-iron boxes where either mounted on poles or had a cast-iron stand (like Milwaukee’s). The box could be used for police officer on the “beat” to call in to police headquarters, or for headquarters to notify police officers on the streets of information. These call boxes served as the early communication for Milwaukee’s police force. Early boxes contained telegraph units for communication. The boxes were locked and were only accessible by a police officer. Later on they were opened up for public use.Milwaukee’s boxes were called combination alarm boxes. This design housed both police and fire alarm system in one box.

Pictured below is one of many call boxes located around Milwaukee. They are painted blue, although this one is faded and chipping. Others show signs of being repaired or repainted.

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The is some interestin history behind these boxes. The alarm boxes in Milwaukee were invented by Oscar D. Kleinsteuber and patented in 1915. Kleinsteuber was appointed as a police and fire system utility man in Milwaukee on October 2, 1882. He became superintendent of the system in 1913. Oscar worked with his brother Hugo to invent and patent the combination police & fire call box. The patent was approved in December 1915. Hugo went on to patent the automatic traffic light that is common today.

Combination Alarm System Diagram(United States Patent and Trademark Office)

Combination Alarm System Diagram
(United States Patent and Trademark Office)

The Kleinsteuber brothers’ inventions was a huge milestone in public safety. Cities around the country used the Kleinsteuber designed call box. Call boxes were not new to big cities. Milwaukee had its first call boxes at early as 1908. It was Oscar’s invention of the combination box for both police and fire alarms that revolutionized them, and Milwaukee set the example for the rest of the country with the Kleinsteuber type of call boxes.

I have been trying to examine where the call boxes were made. On one of the cast-iron doors of these call boxes it says Fire and Police Alarm Post Co. It has been difficult to find a significant amount of background information on the firm, but there is some information about it.  It was a Milwaukee based company that built Kleinsteuber’s call boxes and eventually Hugo’s traffic lights. The company was started around 1915 under the name Kleinsteuber Combination Post Company , and change names around 1920. In a 1921 issue of Electrical World an article said that a factory to build the cast-iron equipment was located on the corner of Mitchell Street and 39th Street in Milwaukee. It also stated that while 250 posts were already being made for Milwaukee, and agents would sent out to various cities to market them.

In 1923, however, a red flag went up, and city officials stopped doing business with that company. The reason being was that Oscar Kleinsteuber, then superintendent of police and fire systems, and his brother Hugo, then assistant superintendent, were involved with the company and city officials. This doesn’t add up with the photographs I have posted. Each call box also has year of manufacture cast on a door. My picture has 1927 cast on the door, and others I have found have other years past 1923 also cast on the door as well as the name Fire and Police Alarm Post Co.  In a Milwaukee Journal article from October 29, 1930, Milwaukee city officials were planning to install newer call boxes around the city. In the article it states that the Federal Electric Company of Chicago was the exclusive manufacturer of Kleinsteuber’s alarm boxes. The Federal Electric Company had to have been manufacturing Kleinsteuber’s call boxes under Alarm Post Co. name after 1923.

Milwaukee officials began looking into updating the alarm boxes. There were issues in manufacturing the combination boxes because Kleinsteuber held patent rights yet. The Milwaukee Malleable & Grey Iron works won a contract to build 50 new alarm boxes for the city. In October 1930, A newer design was going to replace the original Kleinsteuber boxes. The new boxes were being designed to help cut costs of building the posts.

There is still information to be learned on the Alarm Post Company, and why a newer design was being devised to replace the older boxes. Maybe an old Milwaukee police officer remembers using these old call boxes. I think they are really interesting historical pieces. I wouldn’t mind buying one of these old units and restoring it for a conversation piece.

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11 comments on “Milwaukee’s Fire & Police Call Boxes

  1. Dan Guendert says:

    Let me know when you get one so I can call you!

  2. John L. Carroll, Largo , Fl. Police Chief says:

    I have one of these boxes (just like the photos) and I wondered about getting the “guts” for the inside. Any suggestions?

  3. Paul says:

    One side of call box was for fire. You raised the white small box and pulled the fire alarm. Fire trucks showed up.When the fire alarm came into the dispatcher each box had a number which is usually somewhere on the call box, normally below the white box. It was a four digit number. When the alarm was pulled it also sent a signal to the fire station and the alarm box number was printed out in a series of punches on a roll of paper. If the box number was 5432 is would punch out five holes, then fours holes, then three holes etc. Each fire station had a a card for each fire box. That card would list was companies would respond on the first, second, third fourth and fifth alarms. The fire dispatchers were in the milwaukee city hall. When the alarm came in the dispactcher was announce the alarm on the radio. They would say Car 300 A box alarm of fire at 3rd and State and say what engines were responding. Like Engines 2-20-1 Ladder 2 rescue squad 1 and Batallion 1. There was a suprising amount of fires that came in from the boxes

    On another side of the box that was for the police. All cops were given a key. It had a phone that when you picked it up to spoke to someone at police HQ. There was also a device that was spring wound. There was a “hook” on it. If you pulled it once you got a paddy wagon. If you pulled it wice you were calling for assistance. The dispatcher who got the signal the same way the fire dept got it. The dispatcher Would put out a call on the police radio that the”hook” was pulled at whatever location. These police box devices where spring would and periodically had to be “rewound”. I think it let the HQ know when it needed to be wound up. Sometimes the dispatcher would tell the beat cop or a squad to “rewind” the box at a certain location.

    On the top of the box was a blue light that was on all the time. At night the beat cops could easily see where the call boxes were. HQ could make that blue light flash. That was a signal to the beat cop to call in at the call box. If the supervisors didnt like you they could have you running all night chasing the flashing blue light. Beat cops had to call in to HQ for what was called and ” hourly mark”. It was a way to see that the coppers were safe. If you missed a “mark” they could turn turn on a bunch of lights on in a certain area and send cars looking for you.

    Its was a pretty cool system that worked before the advent of portable police radios.

  4. Gus says:

    I have one. Fully restored in my basement. Pull the fire alarm, and it punches out the number on my paper reel. Look it up on the box alrm card and see what rigs are going to respond. Use the police key and open the call box to reveal the phone. Pull the hook for what you need. It’s originally from N.3rd st & W. Ring. Milwaukee

  5. Warren says:

    Hello,
    I have an old police call box that is marked on the outside,
    POLICE
    SIGNAL SERVICE
    PAT JULY 31, 1900
    NOV 18, 1902
    SIGNALPHONE
    MILWAUKEE
    It has a brass plate with the number 42 on the outside and takes a key to open it. Inside its marked SIGNALPHONE and has a lever with an arrow pointing down. When the lever is pulled down it taps out the number 42. It also has a place on the outside of the box, right side that a key can be inserted without opening the box to tap out the number 42. Was this a police call box used in Milwaukee or make in Milwaukee for other cities (gamewell is marked New York but used across the country).
    Thanks
    Warren

  6. Emily says:

    Just stumbled upon your blog looking for information for Oscar and trying to possibly add to his legacy. I have a few photos of him when he was a young man from one of his grandsons, I believe. If you’d like to add the photos to your blog, please let me know. I also have a photo of the Kleinsteuber Machine Shop that was State Street, between 3rd & 4th Streets. Oscar and his brother Hugo are in the photo, along with their father. Pretty obvious these boys started their inventing and machining early!

    • I would love to see a picture of them!

      • Emily Hlavinka-Anderson says:

        Austin,

        Can I use this email to share them with you? I contacted the Milwaukee Historical Society later this afternoon, because they’re just too special not to be kept a part of history. They belonged to our friend, who was a great-grandson of Oscar. He recently passed away after keeping these pics in a box for years.

        Kleinsteuber’s Machine Shop has quite a history once I started digging! Let me know if this contact for you works.

        Thanks,

        Emily Anderson Hartland, WI

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