Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Consider the humble utility pole

Sandra Parshall

The utility poles in our neighborhood are being replaced, and this has made me consider how vital these ubiquitous columns are to our lives, and how little we appreciate them.

They bring us electricity, of course, and even with wireless options available, most of still get our telephone service, cable TV, and internet access through wires strung along utility poles. They provide power to street lights and traffic signals, and sometimes they play host to cell phone antennae.

But do we love them? Only on the rare occasion when a storm knocks one down and we realize how much of modern life collapsed with it.

We call them ugly. We wish they could all be eliminated in favor of underground wiring, but we don’t want to foot the gigantic bill for the conversion. We  envy people who live in new developments where the only towering poles are those that support street lights and traffic signals. But be honest: don’t those suburban communities with underground wiring look a little... naked? As if nobody really lives there?

Samuel Morse, who built the first utility line in 1844 to carry telegraph signals between Baltimore and Washington, tried laying cable underground but ran into so many problems that he dug it up again and strung it on poles. Utility poles have been with us ever since, going wherever people have chosen to live. When the Transcontinental Railroad was built in the 1860s, telegraph lines supported by utility poles kept pace with construction, running alongside the rails. In some parts of the U.S., we still have stretches of open road where we can drive for miles without seeing towns or houses, but in most cases the utility poles are there, beside the pavement, carrying electricity and telephone service to remote areas.

Promontory, Utah, 1869
Some poles, depending on their location, carry only electricity, or only telephone lines, or only television cables. The tall poles in residential areas carry a grounding wire along the top to protect everything below it from lightning strikes. Then come the power lines. A safety space is kept open below the power lines so that workers attaching or repairing the telephone and cable TV lines at the bottom won’t accidentally touch the electrical wiring.

You might think that by this late date we would have switched to poles made of some indestructible space-age material, but the majority of this country’s millions of utility poles are still nothing more than tall, slender tree trunks stripped of bark and treated with preservative. Some of the companies supplying them have been in business for a century or more. A lot of workers are dependent on this industry for jobs, beginning with those who harvest the trees. Iron and metal poles and T structures are also made, and you’ll most often see them carrying the heaviest electrical transmission lines. Slender iron poles can be used anywhere, though, and some are colored to look like wood. (Those pictured at left are manufactured by McWane.)

Treated to prevent rot and insect damage, a wooden pole may last half a century or more. Our subdivision was built in 1960, and I don’t believe the poles have ever been replaced before. They have many cracks, and they’re riddled with holes drilled by hopeful (but always disappointed) woodpeckers. Replacing a pole involves digging a hole next to it, anchoring the new pole several feet deep in the ground, and transferring all the wiring. We haven’t seen an old pole taken down yet, but I assume they’ll all be cut at ground level and hauled away. 

Every pole bears markings, either carved or burned into the wood or printed on metal plates about six feet from the ground, that supply all sorts of identifying information – the date it was installed, which company manufactured it, the type of wood it’s made of, the preservative used, the route it serves. 

Beyond the “C” for creosote, I haven’t been able to decipher the letters and numbers on the pole at one corner of our yard. The only thing that makes sense to me is the little metal plate with “C&P VA” engraved on it – a relic of the era when the Chesapeake and Potomac Telephone Company provided our service and Verizon didn’t yet exist. Maybe when the old pole comes down, I’ll ask if I can keep that tag to remember it by.


Sheila Connolly said...

When I lived in Swarthmore, a local boy ran into a nearby utility pole in his car. His parents sued the utility company because they claimed the pole was "too close to the road." No one mentioned that the boy was "too close to the sidewalk." (I think they lost.)

Anonymous said...

Talk about creativity, Sandy. Wonderfully unexpected topic! Thelma Straw

Julia Buckley said...

Great point, and a great title.

It's funny that we are in fact so dependent upon them, because it seems that in this advanced age we should do everything with lasers or something, but the pole has stood the test of time. :)