Creating the Electric Tree: The Choice of Tree and Wood for Canadian Telephone Poles
By Michael Feagan
This is the first entry in a three-part series on the history of utility poles in Canada.
Most Canadians would not give a second thought to the rows of utility poles and wires adorning their streets, let alone consider utility history or how the materials were constructed in their current position. As telecommunications historian Robert MacDougall states, “Through reliability and familiarity, the physicality of our communications networks, and the choices we made in building them, have faded from our view.” Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Canadian towns and cities electrified rapidly. This rapid electrification flooded Canadian streets with mast-like poles and canopies of wires providing services for telephones, telegraphs, streetcars, and alarms. This three-part blog series aims to tell the often forgotten history of this everyday infrastructure. The first post in this series will detail the relationship between utility poles and trees, explaining why certain trees were chosen over others. The second post will detail the technical decisions behind utility poles, why they took the forms that they did, and why it mattered. The third and final post will explore the social ramifications of these decisions and how utility poles came into conflict with Canadian citizens, municipalities, and urban nature.
Initially, telephone transmission followed the practices set by the telegraph industry. Open wire lines involved wires strong enough to support their own weight between infrequent supports structures. The first standard specifications for pole lines were issued by Bell Telephone February 25, 1891. Bell Telephone’s specifications called for poles made of cedar or chestnut trees. The poles had to be forty-feet tall, seventeen inches in diameter for cedar, and twelve inches in diameter for chestnut. In 1892 and 1893, authorities with Bell considered cedar wood the most desirable and made it the only option for poles, until late 1893 when they allowed the use of stronger but heavier chestnut poles.
Cedar wood continued to be popular into the 1900s with frequent advertisements for thousands of poles, such as an ad in the journal Canada Lumberman selling poles from Killaloe Station, Ontario. In The Forest Wealth of Canada, James M. McCoun, assistant naturalist to the geological survey of Canada, tried to sell the products of Canada’s forestry industry during the Paris International Exhibition of 1900. McCoun said that white cedar was very abundant in New Brunswick, Quebec, and Ontario, and was chiefly used for fences, railway ties, and poles: “No other wood is used in any quantity for telephone poles in Ontario and Quebec. It is very durable in contact with the soil or when exposed to the weather.” In addition to the white cedar of the eastern provinces, the western red cedar tree of British Columbia (Figure 1) was also commonly used for poles due to its durability in soil and resistance to insects. Red cedar wood was increasingly being shipped to Eastern Canada by the turn of the century. McCoun said that the wood of the American chestnut tree was useful as railway ties and poles but was only available in southwestern Ontario and “[not in] sufficient quantity to be of great importance commercially.” In Canada, cedar trees were favoured due to their abundance and their natural suitability for poles, because their oils made the wood rot and insect resistant. The American chestnut was more commonly used in the United States for telephone poles because of their greater availability, their resistance to decay, and the ease with which the wood could be worked. The proliferation of poles in Canada and the materials they were made of depended on local geographies and the natural properties of the tree’s wood.
Figure 1: Felling Cedars – Logging, 1868-1923, B.C., Canada. Library and Archives Canada, https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=FonAndCol&IdNumber=3371993
 Robert MacDougall, The People’s Network: The Political Economy of the Telephone in the Gilded Age, 1st ed, American Business, Politics, and Society (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014). 19.
 Canada Lumberman, “Telephone Poles,” Vol. 6 May 9, 1900, 1.
 James M. McCoun, The Forest Wealth of Canada, The Canadian Commission for the Exhibition, 1900, 30.
 McCoun, 31.
 McCoun, 28.