North Country at Work: from horseback to high-tech, a century of Troop B

The State Police turned 100 this year. They’ve been celebrating their Centennial through galas, ceremonies, and open houses throughout the whole state. Here in the North Country we’re served by Troop D (in the counties of Jefferson, Lewis, and Herkimer), Troop G (in Hamilton and Warren), and Troop B (in St. Lawrence, Franklin, Clinton, Hamilton, and Essex counties).

Troop B serves the largest chunk of our area, and Troop B’s Commander, Major John Tibbitts, stopped by the station to talk about the history of the State Police and the changes he’s experienced during his career.

Seargent McCann and Trooper Gaffney out on snowshoe patrol. January 1938. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

The State Police was formed by an act of the New York legislature on April 11 of 2017, following a two-year, grassroots social movement to establish a rural policing force. Tibbitts explained that the charge was led by two women and inspired by a murder in Westchester county:

“A foreman was carrying the payroll out to the worksite and he was set upon by “highwaymen” who stole the payroll. He survived long enough to identify the people who had robbed him, but the sheriff refused to go out into the wilderness and seek them out.”

Two local women, Monica Newell and Katherine Mayo, were outraged by the crime and the non-action that followed. They began campaigning for a rural police force; the cause garnered public support and less than two years later the New York State Police was established by the New York legislature.

NYS troopers after the Wells-Mills Bill establishing the force was signed on April 11, 1917. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

NYS troopers after the Wells-Mills Bill establishing the force was signed on April 11, 1917. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

A photographic history of Troop B

The first training camp was named Newayo in honor of Newell and Mayo, and the New York State Police’s first assignment was patrolling the New York State Fair. There were initially 232 troopers split into four troops; today there are over 4,000 troopers split into ten troops and a myriad of special task forces.

Camp Newayo in 1917. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

Camp Newayo in 1917. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

Troop B was not one of the initial four troops. It was formed in 1921, largely because of Prohibition. 

“Apparently we had a bit of a smuggling problem here on the Canadian border,” Major Tibbitts said, laughing. “Every newspaper article had Charles Broadfield [Troop B’s first commander] leading his troopers to chase down smugglers and rumrunners and bootleggers…. now in 2017 it seems almost comical but back then it was a huge problem.”

The St. Lawrence River has posed a unique challenge to Troop B for as long as they’ve been policing it – from prohbition to drug smuggling to boating accidents. In 1930 Troop B purchased its first patrol boat and assigned two troopers to enforce motor boat regulations. 

A NYS Trooper mans a patrol boat. Circa 1930s. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

A NYS Trooper mans a patrol boat. Circa 1930s. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

Troop B was patrolling dairy country in St. Lawrence County, and were called on during the milk strike of 1933, when conflict and violence broke out state-wide over the low price of milk. Troopers escorted milk truck convoys to get the product to market and proccessing plants, and faced farmers who wanted to dump the milk instead. 

NYS Troopers guarding a milk tanker during the milk strikes of 1933. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

NYS Troopers guarding a milk tanker during the milk strikes of 1933. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

Troopers across the state rode out on horseback and would continue to do so until 1948. Horses were especially useful in more rural areas like the North Country; when roads were impassable by automobile, troopers could still get through to aid those in need, as in January of 1945, when a particularly hard winter with lots of snow and a shortage of fuel had already made life difficult for many.

A blizzard hit at the tail end of January, prompting then Governor Dewey to declare a statewide emergency. He called in the State Police to help, and troopers packed provisions and other goods on horses, sleds, and toboggans to bring to snowed in families. They also brought the sick to hospitals when no other transportation could reach the most isolated rural areas. 

Two troopers ride horseback through the snow, laden with provisions. Circa winter of 1945. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

Two troopers ride horseback through the snow, laden with provisions. Circa winter of 1945. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

In the midst of the Cold War era, New York State Troopers played escort to a deactivated U.S. missile as it was moved between Vermont and New York in 1964.

Photo: courtesy New York State Police

Providing security to Pres. Nixon and Gov. Rockefeller at the Seaway’s 10th anniversary, June 27, 1969. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

At the end of the 1960s, they also provided security to President Richard Nixon and Governor Rockefeller when the pair traveled to the St. Lawrence Seaway in Massena; they were there for a commemoration of the 10th Anniversary of the completion of the Seaway.

Major John Tibbitts remembers that when he entered the force in the 1980s, there were very few women on the force: “When I first came on it was exclusively male and it was exclusively Caucasian.” 

That was partially because it wasn’t until 1974 that women were allowed. On January 14, 1974, four women made history as being the first to complete the State Police Basic School. 

Over the course of Tibbitts’ career, he says he’s seen huge gains in diversity. He says this is important as he believes the state police force should refelct the community it is serving. 

The first women to graduate from the State Police Academy, from left to right: Carol J. Johnston, Carol A. Desell, Maureen P. Gordinier, and Regina M. Robbins. January 14, 1974. Photo: courtesy New York State Police

When the Winter Olympics came to Lake Placid in 1980, State Police were front and center, working as security and managing traffic. They prepared and trained extensively to work on such a large scale. 

Left: Captain Al Smith, Major Robert Schneeman, Captain Jack Lawliss, Superintendent of VTSP, and Lieutenant Alfred Crary, at Troop Headquarters in Ray Brook, 1982 Right: Troopers pictured providing security during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Photos: courtesy New York State Police

The State Police saw major changes in their use of technology from the 1990s forward, ranging from the switch from paper to digital records to the opening of a New York State Police Forensic Investigation Center (FIC), which started operations in November of 1996. 

And gear, of course. Major Tibbitts says he’s boggled by the amount of technology in troop cars today: 

“When I came on the job, my first car was a 1982 Dodge Diplomat. We had one radio control head with a big microphone and we had a siren box, and we had five buttons that we would push to talk on various towers. I looked inside a troop car – there’s a computer, an automated vechicle locator, a computer printer, a computer screen, more radios than I’ve ever seen on an vehicle on the road…”

Left: Trooper J.S. Kelley and Trooper Jack Lawliss in front of their patrol car in 1955. Taken in Tupper Lake by Retired Troop B Major John Jack Lawliss. Right: New technology – in 2009 the State Police began using an Automated Vehicle Location ( AVL) system, which allows members to see exactly where other patrols are, increasing safety and efficiency when dispatching officers. Photos: courtesy New York State Police

In the 1980s the State Police’s narcotics units doubled in size. Tibbitts says drugs have occupied more and more of his troop’s time over the last two decades. He remembers hearing about “crack” for the first time in Albany, and says heroin and opiod use is one of the largest challenges lying ahead for his officers and for inhabitants of the region. 

Other recent “headline” events Troop B has been involved in were the Ice storm of 1998, during which 10 inches of freezing rain were dumped on the North Country, leaving 130,000 people without power and without a way to travel. Hundreds of troopers helped evacuate and shelter citizens. The State Police were also the lead agency in the manhunt for Richard Matt and David Sweat when they escaped the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora in June of 2015. 

For more about the State Police’s history and centennial celebration, you can check out their centennial website. Troop B’s open house will be hosted on Saturday, September 23 at their headquarters at Ray Brook in Essex County, and you can learn more about it here. 


This story comes to you from NCPR’s North Country at Work project which explores the working lives and history of our region. To see all the stories, check out ncpr.org/work.

 

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