There Was A Time When Experts Could Not Prevent Termite Damage To Telegraph Poles

There Was A Time When Experts Could Not Prevent Termite Damage To Telegraph Poles

Termite colonies are so widespread that it is surprising to find that utility poles are still made with wood. One would think that utility poles made from wood would be primary targets for wood-devouring termites. Well, they used to be, but at some point along the way, utility poles underwent chemical treatments that made them resistant to termite infestations. Early telegraph poles across the United States, and the rest of the world, were under heavy attack from termites. In fact, the termite infestations that devastated early telegraph poles were so widespread that the poles needed to be replaced regularly. Not only that, but entomologists and other experts were at a loss as how to prevent termite damage to the telegraph poles that were necessary for long-range communication.

A New York Times article written in September of 1927 describes the problems concerning termite damage to early utility poles. During the 1920s termite damage to telegraph poles was so widespread that professionals, known as “pole doctors,” were tasked with minimizing termite-related damage to telegraph poles. It is clear that during these early decades of the twentieth century, termite resistant wood treatments were still a matter of experimentation.

Early utility poles were propped up without any treatment to the wood. It was the job of pole doctors to experiment with various chemical treatments that could have prevented termite infestations to telegraph poles. It was acknowledged at the time that telegraph poles already afflicted with termite damage could not be salvaged. Early pole doctors found success with a substance known as “creosote.”

Creosote was used as a base in early anti-termite chemical treatments for wood. This substance both preserved wood and prevented termite infestations. Southern yellow pine trees were often used for constructing telegraph poles. According to the Times article, these trees have a tendency to “bleed,” which pole doctors used to their advantage. The creosote substance would be mixed with the tree’s sap in order to create an impenetrable coat around the wood. This helped keep termites off of utility poles until more effective treatments were developed.

Do you think that it would be more cost-effective to use steel utility poles as opposed to wood? Do you think termites are still a problem on modern utility poles?

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