Loved your website. I grew up in Southern California, and shared your fascination with utility pole markings and configurations. We had them in our yards when I was young and I was always curious about them.
My question is this..... on wooden utility poles around California I often noticed plain silver square metal plates about 6 inches by 4 inches nailed to the pole. There might be only two, or as many as six plates, usually mounted one above the other on the same side of the pole. I noticed these plates on one pole in front of our house in Tustin, California, (in the 1960s) and they were also visible on poles along the highways and roads around the area. They were especially noticeable at night, although not as true reflectors like the ones you see along the edge of the highway. I don't recall seeing them anywhere around here any more, but I did spot them in a scene on an old episode of Highway Patrol on TV the other night.
Were these intended as inexpensive reflectors? Or did they have some other purpose?
Over the years, I had assumed they might be for rodent control (like the aluminum bands we see on palm trees out here), but since they were only on one side of the pole, and did not wrap around, I could not see how they would discourage a determined rat or squirrel. I didn't find any reference to these plates on your site, but I did find a site in your links that advertised nail-on delineators that resemble the plates that I am asking about. From the pictures you posted, it looks like these plates may not have been used in your region, perhaps because of the weather. Or maybe the newer poles just never had them.
Your site was very educational, and I enjoyed it. At work I supply specialized high voltage devices to electric utility companies and contractors. As a result of my involvement in the industry, I often check out the local utility lines when I am out on walks around our neighborhood. Most people rarely even look up, let alone try to figure out what all the wires are hanging above their heads; but, since it's work related, I have an interest in them. I've seen quite a few of the various configurations you displayed.
Great site! Thank you for taking the time to research and set up such a wealth of knowledge.
If you watch old episodes of the TV program Highway Patrol, you can catch some glimpses of the old metal plates that I described. Other than that, I don't see many pictures of them, but I do occasionally run across one here and there in older regions. It seems that lately, most of the "ancient" poles have been replaced, and those metal plates have become vary very scarce.
I have found out that those shiny but somewhat dull metal plates served as aluminum reflectors that were used to make the poles stand out at night to passing drivers. So far as I have heard, they were suggested and encouraged by the California Highway Patrol. Back in those days, California was about 98% rural, and in those dark areas, anything that shone out in your headlights would help you avoid hitting obstacles on lonely narrow twisty two lane roads. They were especially prominent in fog prone areas, as our coastal fog is infamous for blinding drivers at night. Aluminum was chosen as the most cost effective material, as it would resist corrosion, and continue to serve its purpose for as long as possible. My guess is that they remained relatively shiny for a long time, and served as a very cost effective way to serve just that purpose back in the days before highly reflective substances, coatings, and manufactured reflectors became commonly available. Plus, you cannot argue with the simple elegance of the technology.
As a side note, I also remember people nailing those prism type reflectors to trees along the roads, and even painting the tree trunks with bright white reflective paint to make them more visible. After reading your articles, I noticed that nowadays, they use mostly narrow yellow reflective strips to achieve the same effect. (You can find those modern equivalents online).
In the 1940s and 1950s, they would nail several of the aluminum plates (I remember seeing as many as seven) one above the other on the utility poles next to the road. One older guy I spoke with said he even remembered, back when he was in the Air Force, driving home after a night of carousing in the bars with his buddies, and using the reflected poles to navigate as he drove home through the canyons. He also joked about the squiggly lines they used to paint over the center line on California highways to warn drivers on fogbound roads that there was an intersection with a stop sign just ahead. (He quipped that they were for drunk drivers).
In any case, I really did love your website. It answered many questions that I have had over the years, and even generated a few more. I have been walking up to utility poles and checking the installation dates, and having a great time. I have gotten a few stares as I scrutinized the metal tags nailed to the poles, and even saw some guys walk over to see what I had been looking at after I walked away. I have seen the plugs where the insect infestation checks were made, and noticed that they now use a more modern plastic plug to stop up the inspection holes. I have also seen the little inspection tags.
Thank you very much for giving me something to study that has long kept questions in my mind. I hope that your website lasts a very long time, and that more and more people enjoy it. Of course, since my area has become mostly suburban and urban, we don't see to much of what it looked like in the old days any more. But that just makes your website all the more enjoyable.
I searched high and low, but I cant find any poles with the old style aluminum big reflector plates. The poles all have the modern yellow reflective stripes around here. I did manage to snap a couple shots from the TV screen to give you an idea what I was talking about. The pics are a little blurry, but should give you an idea of what they used to look like. At first, they appear to be bills posted on the pole, but if you look closely you can see the nail heads around the edges. I also included one picture of the modern thinner version.
Here are sites that shows the modern versions that are available. They are called "delineators", a term that covers just about all reflective signs that warn traffic of a hazard.
Delineator Modern Day Versions:
Here are some old medallions I found locally. My favorite finds are the 1951's. That particular line has been along that road since it was a two lane blacktop running through Orange Groves. I also spotted the numbered nails on poles along that line. I wasn't sure what to make of the "Nevada Wood" tag.
Here's a few pictures of some local utility poles out here in Orange County, California. You can see they really load them up out here. It appears that Edison owns the poles, and leases space for phone lines, cable TV, and city street lighting.
One of the pics shows one of those old style square plain aluminum plates being used to stick on the ID numbers. The "cleats" pic shows the cleats where they used to attach the removable rungs at the lower part of the pole to keep the kids from climbing the poles. You can see the permanent rungs that are screwed into the pole in the other picture.
The "old pole" pics show what I believe to be one of the original poles on the line. It differs in appearance from the rest and has a squared off, flattened shape.
There are several interesting configurations, and one pole that was evidently sawed off at some time in the past.
The round head date nails were used here by Southern California Edison until the 1960s. I found several sites that described them and their uses. One guy in a blog said that SCE would put one in for the year the pole was installed, and additional nails in years the pole was modified. That sounds like a solid explanation for the poles I saw with "50" and "63" nails. It doesn't explain the "S" though. I even found one pole with "47" and "63" nails, and it also had branding. Unfortunately the branding was mostly hidden behind some plastic covers that had been installed over grounding wires.
The railroads also used date nails on their track ties, and they were even used on pier pilings, fence posts, and on some barns. Apparently the nails are collectable; although, the plain ones like those I have seen are very common, and not as popular. They are very popular around San Francisco, where PG&E used them. It's also a felony to remove anything from a pole without specific permission. I watched an interesting video on how to take the nails out once you have permission, and they noted that poles with the nails in them have a pointed top.
I found out that "squared off" pole I saw was probably a replacement made by a different supplier than its neighbors. The "squared off" part is there to accommodate mounting crossbars and other attachments. Many new poles are ordered factory machined to have the notches for the crossbar mounting, and the ones with square shaped tops are like a universal fit.
It turns out the poles on the route I took pictures of are part of the original lines in our area. There are a couple of other main routes like it south of here, and I might go down there to see what they have.
Here are some links that I found:
ps: Cascade is indeed McFarland Cascade,
and Nevada Wood Treating is another
major utility pole supplier. Most wood utility poles are made outside California
now, because of our environmental regulations.
[Note from author of OldGreyPole.com: From doing a bit of searching on the Internet, it appears that "Nevada Wood Treating" is actually called "Nevada Wood Preserving." Attempts were also made to find a link to this company, but none seem to be found at this point.]
Those vertical numbers are pole ID numbers used by Edison, and they seem to run in sequence. Some poles I saw had embossed aluminum horizontal plates that appear to be coordinates. SCE is using computers to keep track of poles now, and the newer ones are supposed to have barcode tags, although I haven't seen one yet.
I found a whole row of newer transmission poles with the "medallion" type date nails (apparently they are still called date nails) with dates as recently as last year. At first I wondered why the dates varied from 2011 to 2014, as they were all put in the same week when the road was widened. But then I realized the dates were for when the pole was treated, not when it was installed. I guess the older plain round date nails SCE used would represent the date the pole was installed or modified. It's interesting to think about some young guy in the 1950s being assigned to go down the line of new poles in the orange groves, hammering in shiny new date nails after the crew was finished with the installation. Perhaps today he's a retired SCE executive.
Quite a bit of our main route electric transmission service has been moved underground in the last 20 years out here, due to urbanization and road widening. In some places, cable and telephone went underground too, but in other places they just buried the electric, and sawed off the crossbar tops of the old poles, leaving only a short pole for the local phone cables.
As for the climbing rungs, they are not allowed on new poles since the government declared them a public nuisance and banned them a couple decades ago. The ones that are still there can remain, but the lowest rungs had to be removed. Local utilities use bucket trucks almost exclusively. I figured out that all those gouges around the poles are made by the climbing spikes the workers have on their boots. I always wondered why there were so many holes punched in the poles (aside from all the nails and staples from illegal posters and garage sale signs) and I think those spikes must be the cause. Workers only use them in rare situations now that the bucket trucks are in use.
SCE has some new maintenance trucks that look like something they got from NASA. They have long booms with cameras, lights, and even robot hands. At night, they look like a UFO landed and the aliens are checking out our power lines. The operator doesn't even have to get out of the cabin. Just like on the Space Shuttle.
One more thing about those old aluminum reflector plates. In the 1970s, they were replaced by the color reflectors that you see today. I figure they reached the end of their service life, and probably new regulations called for the more reflective coated stripes. That one pic I sent showed how they must have either recycled some of them or used up old stock for mounting the stick-on ID number tags. I found one site that showed an older version of the plate, probably pre-WWII, which apparently was galvanized steel and had an antique patina. They must have switched to aluminum after WWII, and replaced all the older steel plates.
One pole had curious "A" shaped attachments and an upright spike on the top crossbar. Those are apparently to prevent larger birds from landing on a pole where the high voltage wires are close enough to allow his wings to touch both wires. I don't see them on all poles, but that one pole is a newer one that I recall was modified when they installed new transformers. We don't have many of the big white barn owls around here any more, but we are close to a reservoir that many migrating birds use on their journey, so maybe they will be installing them on more poles as time goes by.
It turns out I was close, but not exactly right. On my walk this morning I happened to run into an SCE contractor who knew all about the date nails and tags.
He told me that the first nail, say "45" is the height of the pole. The second nail, say "59" is the year it was installed. The height nail always ends in a 0 or a 5. All SCE poles must have a brand, telling the information about the pole, which includes the total length of the pole. In the old days, the brand was either burned or cut into the wood, but in the 1950s they began using the medallions. He called the medallions brands, and pointed out how they carry the same information as the burned in brands.
PGE (Pacific Gas & Electric) did use the other system that I described, where a new numbered nail was added when the pole was modified, but SCE never did.
I did walk into an older section of town and found a couple branded poles. I also found a pole with 5 reflectors of different types on it. It was located on a corner, and I remember that it had been hit several times over the years. They probably want to make sure drivers see it.
The SCE guy also explained about the difference between transmission and distribution poles. He said the Transmission lines carry larger diameter cables that weigh much more, so they mount each cable on its own cross arm. They are mounted one above the other, and on very tall poles, usually 75 or 80 footers. Bird protectors aren't used on the transmission lines because this configuration prevents the bird from touching both wings to the wires. The protectors are only seen on distribution lines, which mount all 3 or 4 wires across the top cross arm.
You [the author of OldGreyPole.com] mentioned new tags that are round shaped with quarter pie slice shaped ones that are often together with them that say "WOODFUME" or "Osmoplastic" or "Osmose" or "Asplundh." I see those same tags on poles out here.
Those tags are related to those yellow plastic plugs I mentioned, and indicate the dates the pole was inspected for insect damage and treated. I have seen trucks with a long boom with a sprayer nozzle spraying the poles, and I believe those may be periodic treatments to boost the insect repellants.