Serene With Their Secrets
Still Standing On Sehome Hill, Three Forgotten Utility Poles Leave Only Guesses
Piercing the forested scalp of Sehome Hill Arboretum, in Bellingham, WA, are several old utility poles. While it is evident that many public local agencies have used the hill as their telecommunications and utility pole pin cushion as far back as 1950, and perhaps even earlier, just how old these particular sentinels are is a mystery.
Along the Tunnel Ridge Trail, at the crest of Sehome Hill, was the first pole to grab my attention. I have hiked past it for decades and hardly paid it any mind, assuming it was active, modern, and unworthy of note. At that time, it may have been all of those things. But when I actually looked up its shaft in the late spring of 2020, that all changed— it was as peaceful and deserted as a ghost town baking in the desert.
I am unsure of its age, but it looks like it has been there for quite a span of decades. Typical of poles at the end of their life, the first few feet of its base show the last black residue of a creosote-like substance and the tell-tale puncture-pattern of pressure treatment. Simultaneously, the upper half leading up to a metal crossarm is cracked and heavily weathered by countless seasons. Just how it was embedded deep in the earth so far from vehicle access atop this rocky hilltop too awkward, it would seem, for heavy machinery is hard to imagine. Snug in the earth despite having all its former support cables cut long ago, it lives on in its retirement like driftwood in beach grass, wonderfully bleached silver by the sun. With wires slack at its sides, long severed from both their source and destination, the pole boldly whispers a tale of former importance.
To garner an idea of treated utility poles’ lifespan, researching such information was easy to find. According to hansenpolebuildings.com, a survey of 150 utility companies revealed a treated utility pole’s average service life was somewhere between 25 to 37 years. Woodpoles.org, an informational site broadcasting the benefits of using treating poles, pointed out that using any one of a handful of the most common utility pole chemical preservatives, a pole could last even seventy years or more. Having witnessed a 68-year old pole being removed from service, I believe them. The EPA states on their Overview of Wood Preservative Chemicals page that heavy-duty use of creosote for treating railroad ties and utility poles began in 1948 and is still used today. Weighing this information and the pole’s condition, it’s actual age could be anywhere in the span of 25 to 70-plus years old — it’s hard to say. With the protracted war that trees and the elements wage against above-ground wires with reliable regularity, it would not surprise me if this hill gave utility companies expensive hell. As a result, all the electric and communication wires once above ground may have been finally buried from harm. If such a change occurred, it would certainly explain at least one possibility that may have rendered this thick stick irrelevant.
I looked up vintage aerial images on the City of Bellingham’s site to gain a better understanding of this pole’s timeline. Closely studying the aerial photo from 1950, there is a pole or an antenna at this general location casting a needle-like shadow over a then much shorter forest. Still, I am not sure if the pole we see today is what I see in the image or a later replacement.
What is even more interesting is that there appears to have been a small, one-storied, gabled structure right next to it on its northeastern side. This was surprising to find. The space adjacent to the pole is very narrow and steep on both sides of that trail for such a structure, yet there it was. About the size of a drive-thru espresso stand, its former purpose is murky, but it stood for quite a few decades, appearing in later aerial photos dated 1963 and 1975. Sometime after the mid-1970s, the little building breaks camp, goes for a hike, and never returns. Walking that trail often in the late 1980s, there was nothing to suggest anything ever stood at that spot along the trail—only the pole remained among the advancing bushes and trees, its eyes closed in deep meditation.
To see if there was any evidence of a former structure near the pole today, I journeyed out with fresh eyes on a foggy September morning before the brightly-colored leaves of fall had obscured the forest floor. Next to the pole, the ground showed the mossy signs of past soil disturbance and the hint of two subtle, 90-degree excavated corners. But I wanted something more conclusive than only these hazy hints. Right off the trail, down the north-eastern slope, I hit the jackpot. Like the scattered bones of a small animal littering the ground, a few chunks of cinder blocks and blobs of mortar greeted my eyes. I can’t say for certain, but if these are indeed leftover pieces of rubble swept over the edge after a demolition — and I can entertain no other reason for the debris at this spot — they suggest that perhaps there was a cinder-block utility building once built next to the pole, an inexpensive, fireproof structure likely housing hot, sensitive equipment.
Near these fragments, a slack guy-wire cable popped up here and there like a sea serpent slithering down through the forest detritus to unknown lands beyond. Another cable with a glossy-brown insulator still attached struck off in a different direction, just begging me to follow as it disappeared into the brush. It is possible these once belonged to the old pole looming over the trail, directly above. Someday, I would enjoy following these cables to add pieces to this incomplete puzzle.
Considering the pole, it is certainly a strong one, but surprisingly short considering its base's girth. It is not clear if the pole was originally its current size or if it was much taller, having been later “topped” at some later point to reduce its height. Measuring a hefty two-foot diameter at its base, I am left to wonder what purpose a utility pole of such thickness was needed at the peak of this hill. Maybe it was to bring power to street lamps in the old parking areas of the hill’s recreational-motoring era — if there were indeed any streetlamps back then. Or it could have been one among a parade of poles that, in older times, may have once transferred electricity or telephone wires right over the hill and beyond. Most likely, though, is that electricity was needed for some earlier communications towers that have, for many decades, been a part of the landscape of Sehome Hill’s crest. According to the City of Bellingham’s site, public entities such as Public Works, Port of Bellingham, Western Washington University, and local emergency services, among others, use the current towers that are there today, so such a tower — or towers — could have served these same agencies in an earlier era. Whatever the purpose this pole had, I wondered if there were more old poles deep in the arboretum’s forests pretending to be dead trees.
Sure enough, there are. Exploring further in the vicinity, I noticed a second one on a nearby knoll. However, this one lies on its side, looking elderly in its bed of wild vegetation. Names are carved into its woody flesh at one end. Like an old pole, it refuses to rot, and it has no bark or limbs. On the other hand, it lacks all the utility-pole accouterments like brackets, wires, or ceramic insulators. Poking around in the bushes near it, I could not stir up any items that may have fallen off. The pole appears to have been felled long ago; its base is skillfully cut off like a logger cuts down a tree with a chainsaw, not jagged after snapping off from its stump. Even more interesting is that a suspicious circle of the same shape and circumference remains firmly embedded in the earth, only a foot away, and it does not look like the swelling butt of a tree stump. Completely level with the worn ground, what may be the old base of the pole appears to have been charred by fire at some point after the pole was downed.
Continuing my search, I located a third pole one-hundred feet away from the prone pole, where the tallest of the three is sneakily-hidden in the middle of it all. It stands like a lofty capital T, with wooden crossarms for wires both midway up and near the top, and crowning its terminus is a thin, horizontal T-shaped antenna. Long-defunct, the antenna still basks in the sun. Unlike the others, this pole stands like a wooden giraffe in a creepy, abandoned zoo, surrounded by an inhumanely cramped, seven-foot-tall chain link fence at its gloomy base. Medium-sized dead trees lean against the old fence, perturbing no one. At the top of two sides of the fence run the remains of outwardly-canted barbed-wire, pinched tight like guitar strings under the weight of fallen branches. Only one guy wire remains connected to the pole, shooting tautly overhead to its anchor in the earth, somewhere in the wild bushes not far away.
Scattered around the pole’s cage, a couple of brown ceramic insulators glint in the sun, still trapped by the leash of their discarded, undulating wires partially buried by the forest floor, and the rest of the guy wires that once supported the pole snake uselessly through the vegetation, nearby. Running up one side of the pole is a tremendous strip of charcoal indicating a fire from an unknown cause at an unknown time. Whether this was caused by lightning, arson, or an electrical fire — I am unsure. Undaunted by its fire-scar, it firmly stands stretching beyond the canopy. I can imagine what an incredible view this pole must command.
I attempted to locate a fourth pole at the base of Sehome Hill. It once stood along the trail that connects the top of Jersey Street with the WWU campus. I remember lineworkers working on it during one of those difficult, severe snowy winters between 1988 and 1992 when conditions were so cold that the workers had built a small fire near their heavy equipment right on the trail. But that was three decades and many more winter storms ago. Like people we once knew in a different chapter of our lives, it seems to have drifted away without so much as a farewell — just a fading photo in my mind.
So, there they are — three dead poles on the hill.
Though the veil of history did not lift much during my investigation of this subject as ubiquitous and forgettable as utility poles, this comes as no surprise. But I do know one thing for sure. As they slumber numberless in their retirement, each pole possesses a story of a once local and vital role now lost to time. Maybe all three were related to each other, or maybe each has a different tale. Perhaps each pole was simply a different generation serving the same need. Regardless, each pole still possesses quiet but alluring magic.
For anyone who desires this fresh air treasure hunt, take any one of the
arboretum’s trails and head to the top. To reach the first pole — the gentle giant standing stoutly along a trail of questions — hike up Tunnel Ridge Trail to the highest point of Sehome Hill, just above the tunnel and parking lot, where it stands next to the trail among the quaking leaves of maple trees. The fallen, second pole, taunting us all with an unknown backstory, is harder to distinguish as it lies sleeping along a trail on the next knoll to the north, behind the observation tower. Like an “X marks the spot,” look for the charred circle in a bare spot next to the trail. The third pole — the great caged toothpick — shoots to the heavens deep in the woods on this same mound, just off the trail to the southeast of the second fallen pole.
While all three of these benign poles continue to stand or lay in the forest as the years pass by, they may, like so many other unloved relics, someday disappear without notice. Maybe this short glimpse can serve as a limited document of their invisible time among us.