Creating the Electric Tree: Conflict and Compromise
By Michael Feagan
Historians of the telephone have often pointed out the social significance of public reactions to the overcrowding of poles and wires in late nineteenth-century cities. One of the first Canadian historians to recognize social conflict over poles and wires was Robert Collins, who called them “the air pollution of the eighties.” It might be hard for people in the twenty-first century to imagine, but in the late nineteenth century, poles and wires in cities were often seen as an assault on the senses. One example, published in The Globe in 1888, detailed a response to telegraph poles in Hamilton, Ontario. The article described poles as obstructions that were “becoming a positive nuisance.” One man writing to The Victoria Home Journal described poles as an “eyesore.” In another example, James Carrel wrote numerous editorials for the Quebec Daily Telegraph railing against the “unsightly and dangerous obstructions… in the form of masts or poles.” Carrel went on to describe poles as “towering” objects that carried “vast networks of unsightly wires that are a disgrace.” Though some irritation to poles and wires was undoubtedly attributable to their erection on private property, example after example illustrates a pervasive revulsion to aesthetics, rather than physical placement or location.
Figure 1: Archives de Montréal, La rue Sainte-Catherine est dans Hochelaga près de la rue Préfontaine, 1930, VM98-Y_2P034, http://archivesdemontreal.com/2015/05/25/chronique-montrealite-no-39-la-rue-sainte-catherine-depuis-1758/002_vm98-y_2p034/
Figure 2: William James Topley, Looking East on Sparks St. from Bank Street, Ottawa, 1901, Library and Archives Canada / PA-028198, https://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=fonandcol&IdNumber=3424323&new=-8585754123684050497
Besides the complaints from city residents, there were also complaints from city officials over the relationship of poles to streets and trees. 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.” This description is similar to the photographs of Montreal and Ottawa, which show multiple rows of tall poles and a lack of uniformity. Utility poles and trees were in competition for the same space. This was not a competition between the human made and the natural, but rather 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.” Telephone poles were made acceptable to city residents and officials through close management and regulation of their placement and appearance.
The history of poles and wires in late nineteenth century Canadian cities illustrates the ways technological, natural, and social forces influenced one another in the creation of urban environments. Governments managed poles and wires in ways similar to the management of street trees. Poles had to be of certain woods, heights, and diameters. Street trees were also selected from certain species only, and they were closely maintained. In this way, the management of urban nature and urban infrastructure went hand-in-hand. The history of how telephone poles got put into our streets may have faded from view but their presence still has an impact on the ways we design and build urban spaces.
 Robert J. Collins, A Voice from Afar: The History of Telecommunications in Canada (Toronto ; New York: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977), 120.
 The Globe, “The Telegraph Pole Nuisance,” Mar 22 1888, 2.
 The Victoria Home Journal, 1893, 6.
 Quebec Daily Telegraph, April 26, 1881, 2.
 Quebec Daily Telegraph, May 7, 1881, 1.
 Annual Report of the City Engineer, City of Ottawa Departmental Reports for 1903, 96.
 The Consolidated By-Laws of the City of Kingston, with Appendix (Kingston Ont.: Daily Mail News Office, 1883), 200.