West of Woolwich: Relearning our infrastructure (revisited)

Posted Wednesday, September 26, 2012 in Features

West of Woolwich: Relearning our infrastructure (revisited)

by Fred Kahrl

This essay appeared first in April, 2011. The recent public stampede to be among the first purchase a new Apple I-pad brought the message here back to mind.

The stubs of the old poles still stand in mute testimonial outside the Courthouse. The fanciest digital gadget still needs ordinary phone lines to “connect”. The “wires” may be glass now, but they will be around for a long time … probably until the satellites take over.


What is the shortest distance between our children and the natural world?

Increasingly, it is the distance between the ends of their noses and some digital do-dad clutched in their sweaty palms.

Outside the schoolbus window, a vibrant and demanding actual (not virtual) world roles by, ignored and poorly understood. Yet the inextricable bondage between the real and the digital worlds can only be ignored at our (and their) peril.

In other words, in the headlong, breathless rush ahead to develop the next “best” electronic thing, we cannot forget … even for a minute … the mundane, and sometimes antique, infrastructure that makes it all possible.

Case in point:

Last Fall CMP installed two new utility poles in front of the Sagadahoc County Courthouse.


Well, they were very old, and one of them was blocking a badly overdue new sidewalk that was recently constructed on the north side of the Courthouse. The new sidewalk was a happy side-benefit of Centre Street being torn up and rebuilt in order to separate the storm and sewer drains running under the street.

The significance of that project alone is worthy of a separate reflection, but for now let’s get back to those “utility” poles.

CMP’s contractor installed the new poles and transferred the power lines to them. The stubs of the old poles remain to this day, waiting for (bankrupt) Fairpoint to also move its communication cables to the new poles.

Don’t hold your breath.

However, Fairpoint’s financial woes give us time to reflect, if we so choose. Next time you pass the stub on the corner of Centre and High Streets, take a close look. It is a quaint monument to the evolution of  Bath’s community communication.

 First of all, and not obvious to the casual observer, is that this pole was doubtless first installed by the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company … not by CMP or its local predecessor. In fact,  power wires were almost always first installed on pre-existing phone poles. This is because telephones and the telegraph preceded the public distribution of electricity by at least 50 years in most eastern communities.

I delivered telegrams as a child … as my brothers did before me, because we had the only phone in our part of Georgetown, and the other summer people didn’t. One of the first things we did each summer was to stop at the Western Union office in the Bath train station and pick up a fresh batch of official message forms and the little yellow envelopes with “windows” in them.

My mother would transcribe messages from Western Union in her bold hand … using pencil … and I would deliver them down the “Point” … barefoot … rain or shine … for ten cents each.

It was a party line with a distinctive ring for each of up to eight customers, and the bare wires took on a vicious hum when the humidity was high. We had our phone in a booth my father made in the “el”, and neighbors could use it on the honor system, plunking money into a coffee can. On stormy nights you could hear phone users all the way into the kitchen as they bellowed into the phone out there, battling the hum.

Gossips drank in juicy tidbits as they listened in to others’ conversations on the party line. It might have been funny on The Andy Griffiths Show, but it was a real aggravation to the other users, especially since more that a dozen families used our phone.

Home phone service in cities was slow to catch on, especially in the post-depression and post-war periods, because it was considered a luxury … not unlike owning a car when public transportation was still available. Americans were used to “doing without”. And, after all, Western Union still delivered messages to your door.

So, fire departments adapted the telegraph for community use by installing “Call Boxes” on utility poles. They were spaced so that it was only a short run from most houses to “pull” a box alarm, each of which had it’s own mechanical code wheel which printed out a location at the fire station on a paper tape.

Take a close look at the pole stub at the southeast corner of Centre and High Streets (in front of the courthouse) and you will see the ghost of red and white bands that were painted on when a Fire Box was installed there. In later years, a red light was added high on each pole.

Some of these Fire Boxes continued to serve well into the 1970’s, before the last ones were removed and the system retired.

Whether it was telegraph, telephone, or a fire call system, they all had something in common … they all needed a “switch” … a place where the individual signals went to be interpreted and, when necessary, routed to other destinations. The most iconic representation of this was the Telephone Switchboard Operator, instantly identifiable by her headset and long plug-wires that she efficiently shifted over the large panel of lights and phonejacks arrayed in front of her.

She may be gone today, but the switch is still necessary, even if it is now digital and solid state.  And our children (and some of us) drive by it almost every day, unknowing and … sadly … uncaring. Yet none of the hand toys that connect us to the “outside world” would work without it.

In Bath, it is the tall, faceless brick building on High St., one pole north of the truncated courthouse poles, with Fairpoint’s sign of the times at eye level to passers-by. Here not so long ago the beloved New England Telephone & Telegraph operators filed in and out, three shifts a day every day. Next there were mechanical “dialers” … one for every phone in the service area … and each dialer was directly connected to each phone by a separate pair of thin copper wires, no matter how far away.

Then came solid state switches, arrayed row upon row on seemingly endless racks in the same building.

More recently, every area town received one or more “local routers”, first in pairs of semi-trailers pre-wired in Japan. These “trapped” calls circulating within the town so they didn’t have to travel all the way to Bath to be switched … one pair up, another pair back.

Now electronic miniaturization has shrunk these sub-stations to innocuous light tan cabinets not much bigger than a double fridge. Keep your eyes peeled, and you will see them everywhere.

Just in time, because next came the cell phone towers, which had to be able to talk to each other wherever the two calling parties may be. And to do this, they also jump onto the local phone system. It may be a fiber-optic cable now that leads back to the main switch, but it is still a “wire”, and the contents is still re-routed inside that brick building at the top of the Centre Street hill.

Moreover, many of the original Bell System poles in the greater Bath service area wear the first copper-wire cables that replaced bare single wires of the past. It will be years before glass cables get close enough to some of the remote phone customers to provide the bandwidth necessary for the fancy gizmos that Best Buy is dying to sell you. Meanwhile, copper has limitations.

Most of the cables entering the Bath “switch” arrive underground, further disguising its true purpose. This includes the two cables from Woolwich … one very large copper cable and one slim new fiber (“glass”) cable … which cross under the Kennebec River and then come ashore next to the former BFC Marine building on Commercial Street.

You can trace the path of these cables by following the “Bell System” manhole covers up to High Street.

Comcast also jumps onto the local phone systems to connect some of their services coming in and going out. Check the size of the cable bundles attaching their local “switch” (office) on the Old Bath Road to phone company cabling. Not all of those black “snakes” are their delivery cables for local service.

Even the new technologies like Vonage® that are supposed to detach you from the traditional phone company will at some point use phone company cables and switches to move their phone traffic.

The clues to understanding our dependence upon traditional infra-structure are all around us. We should pay more attention to this mundane hardware every day rather than wait to whine when the next ice storm or hurricane blows through.

New England Telephone failed to re-attach miles of phone cable that was torn from its steel support cables following the 1998 Ice Storm, leaving a sorry mess for Fairpoint. Much still waits for attention.

NET&T also almost entirely stopped trimming limbs away from its pole cables to save money, putting service at ever-greater risk as limbs grow and storms pass through. Even CMP was admonished by the Maine Public Utilities Commission recently about falling behind on trimming … especially along the coast … and refused to review a rate increase until CMP improved this maintenance.

Comcast’s local cables rely on CMP to provide power to over 100 amplifiers spaced throughout the system. If CMP goes down, so does your cable … unless Comcast can supply each amplifier with a portable generator.

The high-tech phone company “substations” also rely on CMP, and each has a bank of batteries that last about 24 hours. If CMP isn’t back up by then, Fairpoint also has to start distributing portable generators.

Most cell towers have single automatic back-up generators, but remember … that  is just something else that can fail. Most cell service in lower Manhattan was lost on 9/11 because power to the cell “towers” was lost.

The new technology in our hands and in our homes is only as good as the infrastructure that supports it. We owe it to ourselves to understand the basics of these systems that all around us and be as concerned about how they are installed, maintained, and improved so they will provide the service we expect.

blog comments powered by Disqus