Hardships of Telephone Linemen

[Trade Journal]

Publication: Telephony

Chicago, IL, United States
vol. 5, no. 6, p. 325, col. 1-2


It goes without saying that perhaps the most dangerous of all occupations and the one which has more accident contingencies arising from pursuit of its calling is that of the telephone or telegraph lineman. He it is who goes forth, after bidding wife and family good-bye, to enter upon his day's occupation, knowing that his work that day will take him into a district that perhaps has seen more than one life sacrificed by coming in contact with a "hot" wire, or perhaps one whose insulation was defective to the extent that a leak made it the most dangerous and deadly of electric wires. But "familiarity breeds contempt," and he goes about his work within a few inches of a hot wire or strand cable carrying from 40,000 to 50,000 volts, with no thought of the continual dangers that are besetting him. To touch one of the afore-mentioned wires may mean instant death, although not necessarily so, as recently it is stated that a lineman received through his body the larger share of a voltage of 40,000 and lived to tell about it; but his case was one in a million.

The work of any lineman is hazardous in the extreme, but work done in the winter time in the mountains is the most dangerous of all. For instance, the care of the telephone lines crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains; aside from the ordinary work, the lineman must undergo daily the rigors of zero weather in the high altitudes, and there are many instances cited where men have suffered from snow blindness, been partly frozen at times and have lost their way in the fierce snow storms, almost perishing from starvation; and it is recorded that there have been cases of men being swept away by snow slides and never heard of again. It is claimed by those who are familiar with mountain line construction and repairing that the latter instance is of frequent occurrence and that there is absolutely no way of forecasting them or of evading them when they come.

Telephone repair men are subjected to even greater dangers than the telegraph or railroad linemen, for the reason that the latter usually follow the railroads, and therefore much of the way have the protection of snow sheds. The telephone linemen, however, are out in the exposed open much of the time, on the sheer sides of mountains, where a snow slide may sweep them out of existence at any moment.

To be a successful lineman one must have the essential qualities of muscle, nerve and a thorough knowledge of the business, besides an accurate knowledge of the mountains and their dangers. Fear or fatigue must be unknown to him, and his one care must be at all times and despite the fearfully cold temperature and.thousand and one dangers which continually interfere with his duties to keep the lines open and in working order. If tests show that a line is down he must traverse weary, painful miles on his snow-shoes, locate the break, repair it and continue on his inspection until he is relieved by another man. Often it is necessary for him to telephone perhaps miles for assistance, and in that case he is compelled to await the coming of the men sent out to aid him, and must continually keep in touch with them.

According to a San Francisco daily, there is a man now living in that city who has been through all the rigors of mountain work, and was forced to leave his duties on account of the terrible strain, although paid high wages by the telephone company employing him. By name John Gagan, he has but recently returned from his duties in the high altitudes of the mountains, and is carrying with him marks upon his person caused from his terrible experiences that will last him to the grave. He has endured every hardship that men in the business can suffer, and it is to his credit that it is said he has never failed in an undertaking or lost his nerve in any of the hair-breadth escapes he has undergone. This is, under the circumstances, a remarkable record.

To avoid snow blindness he continually wore smoked glasses, and he seemed utterly impervious to any kind of danger, callous to any risks and wholly indifferent to fatigue. He wore the nine-foot American snowshoes, which weigh about one and one-half pounds apiece, and upon these he has been forced for a period of one month to daily make his entire circuit of fourteen miles. Rocks and the sides of the mountains would be covered with snow, and every step-might mean a fall of hundreds of feet to the yawning, rocky crags below, with sure death the prospect of such a fall. Not infrequently he received shocks, knocking him off from the tops of poles to the ground below, nothing but the thick covering of snow saving him from serious injury. It is stated that in one week he fell from the tops of poles three times, and he never thought it of enough consequence to say anything about it, much less to report it to the company.

He has frequently received shocks from hot wires containing 2,000 volts, but he never received serious injury. At one time he fell over a sixty-five-foot embankment, but luckily alighted on a pile of snow about ten feet deep, suffering but the inconvenience caused from lack of breath for a few minutes.

There is one thing that the city lineman has to contend: with that is one of the greatest of his dreads namely, the acts of boys and others in shooting off or otherwise destroying the glass insulators of telephone or telegraph lines. Many a lineman has gone to his death because of some such act upon the part of a thoughtless person; sometimes the leak caused will precipitate a veritable maelstrom of high-power currents through a lineman's body, and he will fall to the ground a lifeless mass, or will fall over into the network of wires and burn until his body is rescued by his comrades.

So serious has this become that strict laws have been passed in the East bearing on tampering in any manner with insulators.


Researcher notes: 
Supplemental information: 
Researcher:Bob Stahr
Date completed:August 27, 2013 by: Bob Stahr;