Riding to work on the bus this morning, I happened to glance out the window while we were stopped at a light and I noticed something curious about the utility pole on the corner. About eight feet above the ground, the old creosoted pole was randomly studded with a variety of small steel tags, embossed aluminum numbers and broad-headed nails, many of them etched with alpha-numeric codes. Of course, lower on the pole, I could also see the usual encrustation of old staples and rusty nails from decades of people posting signs for their garage sales and baby luau; but there was something more formal about this smattering of medallions and runic labeling. And it got me thinking: What is all the stuff on a utility pole?
When the bus started moving again, I began studying each pole as we passed: All of them were numbered and lettered and tagged in the same haphazard way. Some of it began to make sense. The embossed aluminum numbers, for example, were in sequence and clearly identified the individual poles along the highway. But what about the rest of the poles’ regalia? And, come to think of it, what about all the other accoutrements supported by the poles? Watching hundreds of poles whiz past my window on the bus, I began to get a sense of the vast, secret world of what most of us blithely call the telephone pole, but aficionados know as the utility pole.
Once I got to work, like any modern researcher, I went directly to Google. It turns out, all the medallions and labels on a utility pole tell a story. For instance, each pole is labeled by the lumber company that sold it with number codes corresponding to its length and girth. In some jurisdictions, the pole is also tagged with a number indicating how deep the foot is buried in the ground. One of the tags on the pole also displays the date it was treated, and on older poles the tag may also indicate how it was treated – i.e., creosote, pentachlorophenol or copper naphthenate. The issue, of course, is rot. Utility poles are a valuable asset, and the utilities need to keep track of their age and condition like any other asset. For example, utility poles only have a lifespan of 40 to 50 years, so they need periodic inspection and service. Most of them have date nails hammered into them to show when the poles were installed. Some of the medallions nailed on the poles designate ownership; others indicate when the poles were last inspected. In some places, the poles are even emblazoned with a shorthand version of their latitude and longitude. For those who know how to read the labels, utility poles can serve as a “poor man’s GPS.”
Inevitably, all this paraphernalia has bred collectors. On the Internet, you can find websites cataloging their acquisitions. It’s possible to trace the history of the country’s utilities and lumber companies in their understated descriptions of the engravings on nail heads. But this isn’t just a history exercise. The Internet is also the gateway to dozens of companies that still sell date nails, pole tags and other utility pole accoutrements. And I haven’t even mentioned the countless sites that meticulously explain all the more obvious appurtenances of utility poles: power transmission and distribution lines, static lines, MGN lines and step-down transformers; telephone lines, CATV lines, steel strands, expansion loops, junction boxes and signal lines. All of it in a simple vertical geometry that belies the role it all plays in the modern world.
So, the next time you pass one of those old ‘telephone poles’, make sure to read the labels.
For more information on utility poles, check out: www.annsgarden.com/poles/poles.htm