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New York Utilities Went Underground in 1889

Updated: Feb 14

New York City’s utilities went underground long before anyone could even imagine something like ground penetrating radar systems that we use. Of course, back then you wouldn’t have needed utility locator services – a forest of utility poles covered the Big Apple.

As Frederick N. Rasmussen of The Baltimore Sun reported, “Wires belonging to Western Union Telegraph Co., Gold and Stock Ticker Co., and the United States, Metropolitan, Brush and East River electric lighting companies, as well as those of burglar alarm companies and the police and fire departments, were draped from poles that ranged from 55 to 150 feet tall, with dozens of cross arms.”

In late 1800s, New York City buried wires and took down the poles. It was Mother Nature who inspired changes to the system (a fact that should come as no surprise to the folks we serve in The Palm Beaches and Treasure Coast).

The Winds of Change

There had been attempts to bring about change. A law was passed in 1884 that mandated that utilities be undergrounded, but it was largely ignored until Mother Nature weighed in.

“After the Great Blizzard of 1888 dumped 20.9 inches of snow on New York City, pulling down wires, plunging the city into darkness and snarling communications for days, city officials ordered that all overhead wires be buried,” Rasmussen wrote.

“As the snow hung heavy on the wires and quickly turned to ice, the system gave way, with blue-gray, hissing, sputtering and gyrating wires landing in the streets. Terrified of possible electrocution, New Yorkers remained indoors.”

In 1889, the city once again decreed that all the utility wires had to be buried underground. This time there was a deadline and, if the various utility companies didn’t comply, their poles would be cut down.

The Baltimore Sun quoted from Mary Cable’s book about the Great Blizzard, in which Cable said, “In mid-April 1889, the poles began to fall like forest oaks, and wires were rolled up and taken away.”

New Yorkers must have been thrilled to be able to look up and see only sky!

More than 100 years later, we’ve made a lot of progress. These days, homeowners and businesses need ground penetrating radar to locate private utility lines underground before they start any kind of project.

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