Electric neglected.

On a serene stretch of Interstate 70 in western Maryland—west of Hagerstown but not yet to the point where the freeway veers sharply northward into Pennsylvania—it’s still possible in mid April to see some antiquated power lines that parallel the road, even as dusk approaches.

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The foliage isn’t yet thick enough, so there they are. The utility poles only continue a few miles before they deviate from the highway and disappear along the protected woodlands that serve as a riparian buffer for the Potomac River.

 

Power lines that parallel roads aren’t strange in themselves; in fact, it’s often the most common and efficient pairing, since a dedicated right-of-way exists through the presence of the road…a right of way that inevitably services buildings that need electricity and transportation access in equal measure. Yet it’s uncommon to see electric lines that directly parallel the major roads in the interstate highway system. The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is relatively young (authorized through the Federal Highway Act of 1956), while most of urbanized America enjoyed electrical service to private residences for nearly a half century prior. A fair amount of the electric grid pre-dates the system. Also, while I-70 and its counterparts provide superlative high-speed coverage across huge stretches of the vast country, their limited-access nature means that few buildings actually sit directly along the freeways. Thus, we’re more likely to see a rural road flanked with electric poles and wires than a six-lane interstate.

So why do we see them here? It’s quite simple: I-70 had a predecessor that used the identical right-of-way. U.S. 40 and I-70 merge at about this same location, as indicated from the Google Map/Street View combination captured by this link.  The old power line is barely visible, but it’s there, nestled among the trees, in the center of the Street View photograph. This specific image is less than a mile from where the two roads diverge. As part of the construction of the interstate highway system, I-70 claimed part of the former right-of-way and necessitated an upgrade the design of the road to make it limited access. Most likely, the upgrade widened and elevated the substrate for the pavement, which explains why these ancient power lines appear so short, or why the roadbed seems so high.IMG_4189And by today’s standards, they don’t pass muster. It’s safe to assume that they’re abandoned. There’s no way they could continue to service electricity with so many branches growing around them; even a strong gust wind would snap one these branches, which in turn could sever the cables. That said, it’s amazing how many cables still seem to be intact, even though they’re tangled among the leaves and twigs.IMG_4191

Considering how often conduit infrastructure falls into disuse and neglect, the scarcity of sites like this in western Maryland is surprising. We really don’t see abandoned power lines that often. But, if you’re going to find old infrastructure anywhere, it is likely on U.S. 40. It is, after all, the highway that formed the basis for the National Road the first effort at a national highway, first constructed in 1811. The National Road, built over the course of a quarter century (with many historic marker signs still in place), ultimately connected Cumberland, Maryland (about 45 miles to the west of this site) to Vandalia, Illinois, over 600 miles away. The easternmost expansion involved a series of turnpikes that connected Cumberland to Baltimore as part of the Old National Pike, which inevitably served at least part of the right-of-way, first for U.S. 40, then eventually I-70. Meanwhile, portions of the Old National Pike have devolved to state control, as Maryland Route 144 (MD 144).

 

IMG_4190Successive eras of development nearly always render older infrastructure obsolete. Such is the life cycle of a human settlement. When we view outdoor photographs from the early 20th century, it’s obvious that the power lines don’t look that way anymore. Maybe the route these old power lines traveled ceased to supply electricity to any houses after the conversion to I-70, since the widening and upgrade engulfed the adjacent buildings through eminent domain. Thus, this utility ROW no longer has a real destination. Maybe the utility poles were simply too short—a poor design to begin with, that never fully accounted for the length of mature trees in the area. It’s also possible that utility providers have extirpated most of the old, abandoned utility lines throughout the country, recognizing them as a potential safety hazard, even if the cables themselves are no longer live. At any rate, a trip down U.S. 40 will inevitably reveal other remnants of utilities from yesteryear, tucked among the tree branches. Meanwhile, a trip down the segment of U.S. 40 that comprises the National Road should reveal telltale indicators of infrastructure that predates electricity. At this point, though, finding those old horse hitching posts will take far more than pruning sheers; it’ll need an archeologist.

8 thoughts on “Electric neglected.

  1. Jeffrey Jakucyk

    These are railroad signal and telecommunication poles, following the right-of-way of the defunct Western Maryland Railway, now a rail trail. A lot of track signaling is done at pretty low voltages, like 12 volts DC, and even phone is only 48 volts DC. Usually these poles have many empty spaces as old telegraph and separate telephone lines were gradually eliminated, leaving maybe one telephone line and whatever was necessary for block signals.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks for the correction, Jeffrey. Though I’m not really attuned to distinguishing these, I have seen the exact same design to poles at another rail-trail conversion, so I should have known. And it just further demonstrates the tendency to reuse corridors once one mode of transportation succeeds another. The Western Maryland Railway largely follows the same path of the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.

      Reply
  2. Chris Barnett

    There is a continuing tendency, as you point out, to re-use older ROW for newer technology. (Sprint, the long-distance phone company turned wireless provider, was originally a venture of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The name is an acronym for Southern Pacific Railroad Internal Networking Telephony.) Today, rail ROW is also used for buried fiber…another revenue source for railroads.

    Former radio antennae and water towers are frequently reused for microwave and cellular transmission purposes today as well. WiFi hotspots are popping up on “telephone poles” also.

    Reply
    1. Rebecca B.

      I’ve noticed this along the Pennsy Trail in Indy by my house. I’ll keep an eye out for it more. And the ROW explanation totally makes sense! (Never gave it much thought before…)

      Reply
      1. AmericanDirt Post author

        Yeah, these sort of things are all over the place, once you find the old rail-trails. Generally the perception seems to be that it isn’t worth the investment to remove them. Maybe someday they’ll get repurposed too…

        Reply
    2. AmericanDirt Post author

      Thanks Chris. I didn’t know that SPRINT was ever an acronym. Though many other companies started with slightly less catchy brand names. (ALCOA, Corel, etc.) If I recall correctly, it’s becoming increasingly common to conceal cell phone towers in whatever large vertical structure is most expeditious–which includes church steeples.

      Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      I’d imagine you see lots of them in the (comparatively) flat river valleys of western PA, where the topography made it ideal to run the the old rail lines…and now, these same corridors are optimal for rail-trail conversions. And the flatness means runners prefer them too!

      Reply

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