Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Utility Poles ("Telephone Poles")

Street 59 (Maple), pole #1
For people of a certain age, those wooden things with wires were called “telephone poles,” even though the essential function was to deliver electric power. Equally dated, we say we are going to ‘dial’ a telephone number even though rotary dial, landline phones are also history. Pushing history further back, these were “telegraph poles.” A scant few years after Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, he had a proof-of-concept grant from the federal government to build a wires-on-poles connection between Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. This and early versions of “Morse Code” were operative in 1844. By 1850, some 12,000 miles of telegraph wires crisscrossed the United States. Thoreau’s journal has a note that the telegraph reached Concord in August, 1851. An entry from the diary of Harlan Maynard – Amory’s youngest son – confirms Assabet Village had telegraph service by 1857 (perhaps earlier). Creosote was already being used to preserve railroad ties, so the same means was carried over to telegraph poles.

The website woodpole.org is a trove of more information than one could possibly want, unless actually employed it the utilities business. There are an estimated 150 million poles in place in the North America. Lifespan depends on climate – short for the hot and humid deep South, moderate for Massachusetts. Three tree species make up the great majority of what is used in the U.S.: Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Southern Pine. Trees that meet the standards are debarked, shaped to be round and straight, then loaded into a container that will be filled with one of the several approved preservatives. Pressure and heat are applied to sterilize the wood (killing all insects, bacteria and fungi), and permeate the wood with preservative chemicals. The chemicals are approved and regulated by the EPA. Creosote, long-time used to preserve utility poles and railroad ties, is no longer used, and pentachlorophenol (“penta”) is on the verge of being phased out. It should go without saying that old utility poles and railroad ties should not be burned for firewood, nor for outdoor bonfires.

Safe lifespan calls for poles to retain 2/3 of their original required design strength. This is determined by periodic inspection and treatment. Most utilities inspect on a ten-year cycle. Poles in Maynard appear to be on a seven-year cycle, as indicated by oval aluminum tags that read “OSMOSE INSP.,” with a year, and also “MITC-FUME.” The latter indicates that the poles have been treated with an anti-fungal compound via angled holes drilled near ground, a slow-release cylinder inserted, and then capped with a plastic plug. With this preventive treatment, utility poles can last more than 50 years.

Utility pole inspection tags: 2007, 2014
Other tags will indicate a number for a street, a number indicating each pole on the street, and often the name of the company responsible for maintaining the pole. On older poles these tags can be tin, and you might see “BOSTON EDISON” or “NET&TCo.,” for New England Telephone and Telegraph. On newer poles, badges can be plastic, or even coded markings burned into the wood.

A few odds and ends: If your vehicle breaks a pole your insurance will be charged for a replacement. Poles at corners provide support for yard sale and lost pet signs, evidenced by the hundreds of staples and nails. One too-common sight in Maynard are double poles, meaning old poles next to the replacements, because some of the wires have not yet been transferred. In theory, double-pole situations are supposed to be resolved by the utility companies within 90 days, but there is currently no state law imposing fines.

As to finding the oldest utility pole in Maynard, limit your search to the narrower diameter, creosote-treated poles that still have climbing spikes, then look for date nails, hammered in facing the street, about six feet off the ground. These have two-digit numbers signifying the twentieth century year the poles were installed. Many are missing – taken for souvenirs.  Oldest I’ve found is a ’38, meaning the pole was installed 83 years ago. If you find older, write a letter to the newspaper.  

South of the Cumberland Farms gas station, on Route 27, there is a tall wooden pole with climbing spikes but no wires. The land around it belonged to Boston Edison – once the provider of electric power to Maynard. Climbing to the top of the pole was part of the job application process. Several mergers later, BE is Eversource.

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