Electric Trees: The Constructed Nature of Utility Poles and Street Trees

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This is the second in a series based on presentations that would have taken place at the 2020 Canadian Historical Association Annual Meeting at Western University in London, Ontario (June 1-3). This post, by Michael Feagan, was scheduled as part of a panel called “The Nature of the City.”

They have been with us a long time
They will outlast the elms
Our eyes, like the eyes of a savage sieving the trees
In his search for game,
Run through them. They blend along small-town streets
Like a race of giants that have faded into mere mythology.
—John Updike, Telephone Poles

Updike’s poem “Telephone Poles,” highlights the everyday invisibility of telephone poles, but also the ways they have so seamlessly become a part of our urban environments as to become similar to trees. Updike compares telephone poles to trees because poles host birds, have a kind of bark, but have no leaves and cast no shade. Utility poles are similar to tress, but different. Updike’s poem highlights the ambiguous space between natural and built environments that utility poles have come to occupy. At no other time and place did utility poles and trees occupy a more ambiguous space between the built and natural environment than late nineteenth century Canada and the United States.

“Through reliability and familiarity, the physicality of our communication networks, and the choices we made in building them, have faded from our view,”[1] writes Robert MacDougall in The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age. For MacDougall, the invisibility of telephone poles concealed a forgotten history of struggle between governments, companies, and the people they claimed to serve. This struggle made city streets and sidewalks contested spaces. As illustrated in Figure 1, a drawing of a New York City street, poles and wires had an overpowering presence in late nineteenth century cities. Figures 2 and 3 are cartoons that exaggerated the overcrowding of poles and wires to illustrate people’s opinions of them as unsightly or dangerous.The excessive amount of poles and wires sparked the struggles over who controlled these spaces. But, utility poles also occupied a contested space between the natural and built environment. During the late nineteenth-century, utility poles and city trees occupied overlapping spaces. Competition for the same space was mediated by human management, which altered the appearance and relationship of utility poles and street trees.

Figure 1. AT&T, Bell Telephone Magazine, vol. 26, 1922, 153. “Overhead wires on lower Broadway, New York, in 1890.” This is a drawing of a photo of the same street and not an exaggeration.
Figure 2. F. Tourne, Friedrich Kittler, “Telephone lines, New York, [ca.] 1888”, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, p. 6.
Figure 3. Harper’s Weekly, 14 May 1881, 312-315. This image was claimed to be “not greatly exaggerated.”

Despite how street trees might appear in cities, they are in fact closely managed. As environmental historian Joanna Dean argues, city trees exist in a liminal space between natural and built environments. Horticulturalists planted street trees to serve specific functions that would benefit humans, such as providing shade, cleaning and cooling air, and creating an aesthetically pleasing uniformity among city streets.[2] Despite how natural street trees appear they were artificially maintained and competed with other elements of the built environment. The city engineer of Ottawa reported in 1903 that, “The city streets are greatly disfigured by the multiplicity of poles carrying wires for telephone, telegraph, electric light, electric railway, and fire alarm services. It is not unusual to see three lines of poles in one block, some lines higher than others, and others again with extremely long arms, all presenting a most unsightly appearance.”[3] Utility poles and trees were in competition for the same space. This was not a competition between the built and the natural; it was a competition between human choices in how cities ought to be built and how they should appear.

The response from horticulturalists and city officials was to pass laws to manage the relationship and spaces of utility poles and trees. In Kingston, Ontario, a by-law stated that, “no person shall… in the course of erecting or repairing telegraph or telephone poles… cut down, cut, break, lop or injure any tree, shrub or sapling planted in any public street or place, or any branch or part thereof.”[4] The State of Michigan passed a similar law, though much later in 1920, to manage the space of trees and poles. The Michigan law stated that telephone companies could not, “injure, deface, tear, cut down or destroy any tree or shrub planted along the margin of any highway in the state that has been allowed to grow for shade or ornament.”[5] Municipal laws regulated the relationship between trees and poles through measures limiting pole height and which species of trees were permitted on streets. The American elm tree, once a commonly planted street tree, was replaced by smaller growing trees to avoid competition for space with overhead wires.[6] The decision of what trees to plant on streets was a response to utility poles, and regulations managing utility poles were a response to street trees.

Street trees were meant to serve human needs by providing shade and aesthetic beauty to our environment. Utility poles served various functions such as communications, lighting, and emergency services, but were never considered aesthetically pleasing. In fact, poles were regularly described as unsightly blemishes on cities. Trees were considered more aesthetically pleasing because they appeared more natural than poles and wires.  Would poles and wires be more aesthetically pleasing if they appeared more natural? This argument was made by those who advocated that poles and wires be covered in vines. In 1893, Hamilton, Ontario resident Beverly Jones suggested to the Hamilton mayor that, “the hideous telephone poles on residential streets be clothed with creepers [vines]. He [Jones] is ready to plant vines on poles in front of his house… In some American cities wires are stretched from pole to pole, and vines strained over them.”[7] Letting vines grow on poles, with maintenance, could be a benefit by helping to provide shade in a similar fashion to street trees.[8]

Despite the aesthetic improvements, and the provision of shade, there were numerous risks to letting vines grow on wires and poles. Vines could cause wires to sag and risked pulling down rotted poles.[9] If vines were allowed to grow on poles and wires, then close maintenance was needed to stop it from growing out of control. City officials found such a solution undesirable if they could instead limit the size of poles, manage the space between poles and trees, or put the wires underground. City officials realized that poles, wires, and trees competed for the same space so they created regulations that could accommodate both.

The history of poles and wires in late nineteenth century Canadian and American cities illustrates the ways technological, natural, and social forces influenced one another to create urban environments. Governments managed poles and wires in similar ways to their management of street trees. Poles had to be of certain woods, heights, and diameters. Street trees also had to be well chosen and managed. In this way, the management of street trees was similar to poles and wires. Both street trees and poles occupied the same urban spaces and both occupied an ambiguous space between the natural and the artificial. To return to Updike’s poem, he wrote, “These giants are more constant than evergreens/By being never green.”[10] Poles may be never green, but they are still part of our urban environment.

Feature Image: Bell Telephone Company crew erecting sixty-foot pole near corner of King and Dufferin Streets, Toronto, Ont. 1895. Bell Canada, Library and Archives Canada, PA-095423

[1] Robert MacDougall, The People’s Network The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, 1st ed (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 19.
[2] Joanna Dean, “‘Said Tree Is a Veritable Nuisance’: Ottawa’s Street Trees 1869-1939,” Urban History Review 34, no. 1 (2005): 46-.
[3] Annual Report of the City Engineer, City of Ottawa Departmental Reports for 1903, 96.
[4] The Consolidated By-Laws of the City of Kingston, with Appendix (Kingston Ont.: Daily Mail News Office, 1883), 200.
[5] Indiana Farmer’s Guide, “A Law For Tree Protection,” June 12, 1920, 6.
[6] Dean, 53-55.
[7] The Globe, “Clothes for Telephone Poles,” Apr 13, 1893, 12.
[8] Arizona Republic, “Notes on Kudzu,” Sep 3, 1980, 5.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Updike, 43.
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Michael Feagan

I completed my undergraduate degree in history at Brock University and my Masters in history at Western University. I am continuing my PhD in history at Western under the supervision of Robert MacDougall. My research is focused on telegraph operators in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I am interested in exploring the connections between technology and labour in telecommunications and the connections between past and present communication workers. Although I have primarily focused on the telegraph in Canada I am interested in exploring the history of telephone and telegraph operators in the US. My research areas include: History of technology, nineteenth-century Canadian and American history, labour history, social history, and cultural history.

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