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Washington Goes Wireless: The District’s 20-Year Struggle to Put Utility Wires Underground

By Matthew Gilmore*

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In Washington, DC complaints about overhead wires came almost as soon as there were overhead wires. But the beginning of the fight to remove overhead wires dates to the Territorial period. The Evening Star on December 29, 1873 published a letter from prominent architect Adolph Cluss advocating undergrounding aerial telegraph wires. “From year to year,” he wrote, “these wires will come in greater conflict with our stately rows of shade trees which grace our streets. Shall not this progressive country, in which telegraphy has attained an immeasurable prominence, take a leading part in obtaining an independence of communication from all accidents, and where is there a better opportunity than in postal underground telegraph.”

Cluss’s letter to the Star was the first volley in the battle to “underground” overhead wires — first telegraph and then all types. It would take the energies of successive Territorial Commission governments, along with the enthusiasm and dedication of engineer commissioners in partnership with Congress, to overcome the legal, political, and technological challenges of the task.

Adolf Cluss, 1900. photo--William Shacklette Collection, Smithsonian Institution Castle Collection.

Adolf Cluss, 1900. photo–William Shacklette Collection, Smithsonian Institution Castle Collection.

Cluss was part of the new Territorial government of the District of Columbia; he had replaced architect A.B. Mullet on the Board of Public Works and was the Inspector of Buildings for the District; he had a long career in Washington both before and after his stint on the Board. Cluss’s testimony would be instrumental in the subsequent abolition of the Territorial government in 1874.

 F Street NW looking west from the Patent Office, undated but pre-1891. Library of Congress.

F Street NW looking west from the Patent Office, undated but pre-1891. Library of Congress.

The Evening Star took up the cause of putting wires underground when, on August 21, 1874 it editorialized against more telegraph poles and wires. Then on March 12, 1875 it included an editorial citing progress putting wires underground in New York; similar new stories were published on June 5 and August 11, 1877. Overhead wires were not that oppressive; yet, however, the potential was evident.

Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station at 6th & B Sts NW. photo--DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Div..

Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station at 6th & B Sts NW. photo–DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Div..

The political fallout and engineering mishaps of the Territorial government were cleared away by the new Commission government and the Board of Public Works was replaced by the Army Corps of Engineers, one officer of which was to serve as the engineer commissioner, with additional officers supported that commissioner. For the purposes of this story, the next key point came on October 20, 1880 when one of those officers, F.V. Greene, Assistant Engineer of the District, submitted his annual report to Engineer Commissioner Maj. W.J. Twining.

Carbery House at 17th C Sts, NW, ca. 1903. photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div..

Carbery House at 17th C Sts, NW, ca. 1903. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div..

Greene was in charge of “surface work” (street paving as opposed to sewerage). He included in his report language for legislation sating that . . . “it shall not be lawful . . . to erect, construct, or maintain telegraph poles within the limits of the city of Washington. . . .” He made a thorough case and included cost estimates. Additionally, he included his famous set of statistical maps of the City of Washington, familiar to any historian of the era. Existing telegraph lines were featured on one of those maps.

City of Washington Statistical Map No. 11 showing the location of telegraph lines. document, Library of Congress.

City of Washington Statistical Map No. 11 showing the location of telegraph lines. document, Library of Congress.

Francis Vinton Greene was Chief Assistant to the Engineer Commissioner from May 15, 1879 to June of 1885. Polymath Greene had an extraordinarily varied career before and after his District service. Having graduated from West Point in 1870, his service took him far-afield; serving on the commission surveying the northern United States boundary, military attaché in St. Petersburg, present at various battles in the Russo-Turkish War before reporting to Washington. After leaving Washington in 1885 he spent a short stint at West Point teaching. Upon getting a patent for asphalt paving he resigned West Point and entered asphalt business (announced on the front page of the October 7, 1886 Evening Star, presumably drawing on his management of paving in Washington.

Patent 348493 page 1 F.V. Greene. Device for Manufacturing Asphaltic Concrete for Paving Purposes. image—U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Patent 348493 page 1 F.V. Greene. Device for Manufacturing Asphaltic Concrete for Paving Purposes. image—U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The asphalt paving business, however, got into a sticky spot — branded with charges of being a trust and accused of interfering with the government of Colombia, the primary source of asphalt. Greene extricated himself and went on to serve as New York City’s police commissioner and authored numerous books.

Francis Vinton Greene as New York City Police Commissioner. --photo--courtesy City of New York.

Francis Vinton Greene as New York City Police Commissioner. –photo–courtesy City of New York.

Greene in Washington had bent his considerable energies toward infrastructure improvements (evidenced by his map set). On October 17, 1879 the Evening Star had published his first report as assistant engineer commissioner — a detailed study of the paving of the District’s thoroughfares, which he completed after only approximately four months on the job.

The next year his proposed undergrounding of wires was incorporated into the annual report of the Commissioners, reported in the November 27th Evening Star. Dismissing arguments that undergrounding was still experimental, the commissioners endorsed the report. Noting that “the only question remaining is as to the cost”.

The drumbeat in the Star continued in 1881 with a report on January 29th headlined, “Wires under the ground,” followed by another report on February 23rd in which it was noted that telegraph poles cause massive harvesting of trees, and on March 1st, an editorial titled “Telegraph pole nuisance”.

While Greene moved on to the asphalt paving business after his short stint at West Point, the pressure for undergrounding wires continued. Pursuant to a provision in its annual District appropriations act, Congress required a feasibility investigation. On December 10, 1888 the Commissioners transmitted their report on the subject of “removing electric wires from the air or surface of the streets and placing them underground.” The report was authored by Engineer Commissioner Major Charles W. Raymond; he served for only a little over two years, from January 26, 1888 to February 1, 1890.

Gen. Chas. W. (Charles Walker) Raymond.

Gen. Chas. W. (Charles Walker) Raymond. photo–

While probably not as detailed as what Green would have presented, Raymond laid out the history of the various conflicting types of wires. By 1878 telegraph wires were a concern, followed by telephone; since then electric lighting and then also electric tramways. He was careful to distinguish between telegraph and telephone wires which “convey harmless current” and the electric power transmitted through wires for lighting and trams — and also the conflict between them.

He noted objections had been raised against undergrounding telegraph wires, yet they were operating successfully in Chicago and even already in Washington for the federal and District governments. New York City and British and German statistics were also cited.

Similarly, telephone wires had also been successfully placed underground in Chicago, Washington, and Pittsburgh. Also noted was that “Incandescent light” wires had also been successfully undergrounded, mostly using Edison tubes.

Leaks from arc light transmission wires disrupted the other wires — proper insulation had been difficult to devise. Experiments tried insulating the cable or insulating the conduit. It became pretty obvious that the cabling needed the insulation as well as the conduit.

Raymond recommended that telegraph and telephone wires be placed in conduit on one site of the street and street lighting wires in conduit on the opposite side and that that streetcar wires would be located in the middle of the street, thereby avoiding interference of high potential wires with the others. Interestingly, he dismissed the idea, suggested in New York, of universal conduit including gas, water, steam as well as electric as far too expensive.

Patent 340432 page 1 Daniel H. Dorsett. Conduit for electric conductors. image—U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Patent 340432 page 1 Daniel H. Dorsett. Conduit for electric conductors. image—U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Conduit options included solid lead conduit – Edison tubes — as was currently in use for federal and District cables at the time. An alternative scheme was the Brooks system of cotton-covered wires in iron pipes insulated by rosin oil. Another option was Dorsett conduit, as was open creosoted wood conduit.

He then considered how the conduit would be built, governed, and funded: A private company construct then rent to utilities; or District government construct them and rent to utilities; or utilities construct and maintain the conduits.

Raymond recommended the third option. The Star enthusiastically endorsed Raymond’s report.

A host of issues faced the telegraph, telephone, electric light, and trolley companies, as well as both the District and federal governments, touched on by Commissioner Raymond. Ending the visual pollution of overhead wires by putting them underground could seem obvious but in the 1880s the technology had not yet been developed or perfected. Insulating the wires themselves or the conduit was debated. Numerous technologies were developed and patents proliferated. Technology for streetcars was particularly debated.

Other challenges than technological faced those who advocated putting the wires underground, some of them outlined by Raymond: Who would build the conduit, individual companies or the government?; conduit would be put in public space, so did the companies need to lease and pay for that space?; would each company build its own conduit?; how would the disruption of tearing up streets to place conduit be managed?; and how would the District govern its public space?

The District spent years deciding these questions, aided and encouraged — and obstructed — by Congress. Federal legislation was required because the Commission government, while it had authority to issue regulations, these did not have the color of law. From 1874 to 1974 law in the District was passed by Congress, frequently at the instigation of — and usually in consultation with — the Commissioners. A regulation to underground wires would not be enforceable the way an act of Congress would be.

The companies opposing undergrounding of wires struggled through the 1880s and 1890s fighting provisions, for example, requiring them to provide free conduit space for government purposes. One put in a contract bid proposing to use a competitor’s conduit — specifically, the section of conduit reserved for the District. A commission was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison at Congress’ behest “to consider the location, arrangement, and operation of electric wires in the District of Columbia”.

The distinguished committee members (engineer Andrew Rosewater, physicist Henry A. Rowland, and Assistant Engineer Commissioner Francis R. Shunk), in their 1891 report developed a plan that would include municipal ownership and construction of the conduit. (Baltimore considered a similar plan in 1896.) The law passed in 1897 restricted the extension of overhead wires and also conduit. Perhaps surprisingly, the Evening Star editorialized in its May 1, 1897 edition for the District to lay conduit for electric street lighting (“Public Conduits Needed”).

Two laws settled the remaining overhead wires/underground conduit issues, one in 1902 and the next in 1905. In 1902, Wisconsin Congressman John Jenkins introduced a bill for the removal of overhead wires in a limited area. Senator James McMillan introduced a similar bill in the Senate. The final bill was passed on June 20th and mandated a four-year deadline for implementation . The Washington Post reported on June 25th that “there is a general feeling of happiness at the District Building over the passage of the oft-recommended legislation.”

Commissioner Henry B.F. Macfarland. photo--Library of Congress.

Commissioner Henry B.F. Macfarland. photo–Library of Congress.


Three years later, the legislation passed by Congress in 1905 encouraged then-Commissioner Henry B.F. Macfarland to predict (as reported in the March 31st Evening Star) that all wires would be placed in conduits within the next five years. Macfarland was president of the Board of District Commissioners from 1900 to 1910. He closely identified with progress in Washington and was an indefatigable booster of the city; he was married to the daughter of a predecessor commissioner, John W. Douglass. He had pressed Congress (both in 1902 and 1905) for the legislation to enforce the ban on overhead wires. The 1905 legislation followed quickly on a tetchy conference held between the District government and representatives the utilities in January, presumably fraught due to the looming four-year deadline.

It is worth noting that in the 30 years from Cluss’s 1873 letter to the 1905 legislation, Washington had changed dramatically. Even still, here remained the distinction between the downtown core of the city (City of Washington) and the more suburban areas beyond Florida Avenue. The area where overhead wires were banned was periodically debated, redefined, or enlarged, as the urbanized area expanded. Some areas never were included in the prohibited area.

Overhead electric power lines on Georgia Ave. NW, ca. 1940.  photo--Theodor Horydczak; Library of Congress.

Overhead electric power lines on Georgia Ave. NW, ca. 1940. photo–Theodor Horydczak; Library of Congress.

The energies of successive Commission governments, the enthusiasm and dedication of engineer commissioners and consulting experts, in (sometimes antagonistic) partnership with Congress, under pressure from the press, overcame the legal, political, and technological challenges of the task.

*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at; he is also on the Board of Directors of Humanities DC. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2015 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.