West of Woolwich: Two longs, one short

Posted Wednesday, August 31, 2011 in Features

West of Woolwich:  Two longs, one short

The faint ringing of a simpler telephonic time

by Fred Kahrl

Many of us who took only a glancing blow from what was once Hurricane Irene are nonetheless measuring the encounter in terms of trees downed and the “wires” that fell with them.

Even though more and more of us have emergency generators and cell phones now to tide us over until the traditional utilities are restored, the loss of Cable TV and High Speed internet are the new annoyances for those of us thus connected.

It could have been far worse. 

I don’t mean the track of the storm could have crossed Maine instead of Vermont. I mean that the aggressive tree-trimming program begun about five years ago to clear local power lines undoubtedly saved us from even greater line losses and repair delays.

It may be small comfort to those still waiting to get their utility service back after Irene that the Maine Public Utilities Commission (PUC) took note not so long ago that “outages” were increasing even with minor weather events. They … like many of us in rural Maine …  were aware that “the power company” and “the phone company” had cut way back on tree trimming budgets and that the consumer was paying the price with more frequent loss of service.

So the PUC provided some sort of inducement, and we began seeing gangs of tree trimming trucks working aggressively along our secondary roads. This summer the trimming has an added intensity as the lower “communications” cables are being cleared at the same time, perhaps as a result of a PUC poke into some part of Fairpoint’s tender (callused?) corporate anatomy.

We should be grateful for this “encouragment” by the PUC. Even if our urban brothers … with their underground utilities and ubiquitous Wi-Fi availability … feel like they are casting off any bondage to wooden poles and overhead wires (even if some of the “wires” are now fiberoptics), Maine will be bound to its traditional utilities for the foreseeable future.

Knowing this, I am also pleased to see that CMP has been steadily replacing many of their old poles. Much of this pole work is done by subcontractors, but as owners of the poles, CMP is paying for the bill. Then, each of owners of the various “wires” have to move their equipment onto the new poles.

Thus … I should not have been surprised to see that a phone pole that was old when I was just a summer boy in Georgetown was being replaced … but I did feel a twinge. On long summer days I would sometimes barefoot my way up the ledge to this craggy old spear of cedar, clonk it with a big stone and then … pressing my ear carefully to its shaggy surface … listen to the alien oscillations zonging back and forth in the wires over my head.

In those days, the little metal letters and numbers naming each pole in this part of town still included a small plate embossed “The Bell System”. This is not surprising when you remember that phone service marched into rural Maine as much as 40 years before electric service. Hence, all the poles originally belonged to the phone company.

In fact, there are a few “taps” or branch lines here and there that still are on the phone company inventory. These old service rights-of-way can sometimes be identified by their arrow-straight path through the woods, up over ledges, and down through swamps. When they were originally installed in the early years of the last century, materials were expensive and labor was cheap. 

In fact, the original phone line to Georgetown crossed the ice pond dam in Parker’s Head village, cdove under the Kennebec River in a submarine cable, and, upon coming ashore between Marrtown and West Georgetown, vaulted over the highest rock outcropping in the entire town. The large “Cable Crossing – Do Not Anchor” sign was still in place at the bottom of the “cliff” when I began my earliest pre-adolescent boating on the river.

Because the phone companies across the country preceded the availability of electric power, most of my generation grew up calling utility poles “Telephone Poles”. The power company came along later and leased space on the phone poles to hang their electricity. 

Service to Marrtown and West Georgetown for years was north and south right along the foot of the “cliff” from the end of the cable. When repairs were necessary, linemen hiked to the problem carrying necessary equipment and climbed the poles with spikes strapped to their insteps and leather safety belts around the poles.

It was everywhere up until CMP consolidated a host of local power companies and began to  transmit their power longer distances. When they upgraded the small poles they were taking over from “Ma Bell”, they moved their new poles over to roadsides where they were accessible, first to ladder trucks and then to bucket truck.

Although linemen still go to “climbing school” when being first trained, you would be hard pressed today to find a lineman who has strapped on spikes in the last ten years.

My old gray pole down on Kennebec Point led a charmed life. It was protected from the easterly gales by a high ledge covered with sturdy spruce. It does not show a single spike mark, though it must have been climbed at least once when the first two phone wires were strung on the clear class insulators.

The wires were single copper-coated steel strands. The copper coating wore off quickly in the salt air, and the higher resistance of the steel made the phones hum when the humidity was up … which was most of the time. You don’t have to be that old to remember how loud the hum became during summer storms if you lived near the end of the line down in the islands … that’s why some of us still holler into the phone when it is stormy.

The glass insulators turned green with age … or sometimes a fine pale blue, depending on what type of soda ash was used when they were manufactured. When New England Telephone came down and strung a new 24-pair cable, all that rusty old wire … and those lovely insulators that twinkled in the sunlight … disappeared. The hum also disappeared, and there were no more party lines where you always listened for the click of the neighbor picking up to eavesdrop on your call. 

I suppose it is silly to be sentimental about an old white cedar phone pole that was probably originally cut in Maine, or about its significance to me from simpler times … times before we began to be dragged headlong into an uncertain techno-future of more communication than many of us actually want or need.

But, silly or not, I dropped by the CMP garage the other day. You can’t go inside any more and talk with the Line Supervisor … there is keypad security on the door and a young man from some other department was sent out to see why I was ringing the doorbell.

I asked him to see if the Line Dept. would let me have that old pole when the last cable was swung over to the new one … that pressure-treated Douglas Fir pole all the way from the Rocky Mountains … with a bar-code on it.


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