Down the Rabbit Hole

As an urban explorer, I’m, obviously, fascinated with both history, and the rarely-seen corners of human existence. As a long-time computer geek (I got my first Commodore in 1985), I’m also fascinated by networks and related technology, and all those things that go with them. (Yes, I read 2600.) The two sets of interests coincide fairly often, though it pains me to admit it, in part because, locally, a lot of ethically-challenged computer “hackers” prove to be ethically-challenged where urban exploration is concerned, as well. Still, it’s fairly rare that these two interests coincide at the same time, but it does happen…

Several years ago, an eBay merchant began selling thousands – literally – of photographic negatives that once belonged – and, according to the lawyers, still belong – to a newspaper in Utica, New York. There was, apparently, a bit of legal wrangling, much of it reportedly having to do with annoying rights-ownership issues, and while the merchant seems to have more-or-less triumphed, one cannot help but feel that they probably are, in fact, selling stolen property to history buffs. And, while I normally frown on that sort of thing – okay, I always frown on that sort of thing – I was willing to compromise my principles to acquire a couple of the images. Below is one of them, scanned from a 2-1/4 by 3-1/4 negative, and slightly cropped due to damage:


The seller dates it to the 1950s; it’s on Kodak “safety film”, from either 120 or 620 rollfilm, was taken by Dante Tranquille, whose name you can Google for further details, and was probably shot in a 2×3 Speed Graphic. It shows, at first glance, a fairly young technician doing something down a manhole, which was good enough for me – I’ll take a second look at pretty much anything that involves manholes, those ubiquitous steel portals to all kinds of interesting places.

A closer look suggests the fellow is doing something – splicing, probably – with telephone cables, down in his cramped little vault. This seems to be in the era before duct tape; the close observer will note that everything seems to be held together – or at least held up – with tied strips of fabric. (I really like how the ladder is tied to what I believe are cable bundles.) What, exactly, all the equipment down there is, I don’t know; I’ve never seen anything like it, but you don’t see much 1950’s Ma Bell stuff around anymore, do you?

I have it on fairly good authority, incidentally, that the insulating material wrapped around the cable bundle that this fellow’s left hand is resting on contained – contains – asbestos. Hey, it was a simpler, more innocent time, right?

There seems to be a headset down there, for whatever reason; I have no idea what the big ribbed thing is. Transformer?

The fact that the “vault” has a wooden floor – partially covered in straw, apparently – and that the floor around the “hole” is littered with bits of rope and fabric suggests to me that this is a vault inside a building – either a fairly large office building, or a local Bell switching office. The raised collar around the “manhole” seems fairly permanent, and I’m not convinced this opening ever had a lid, or cover.

Assuming that this building is still there, the cable vault seen here likely hasn’t changed much in the half-century since this was taken; there will be several sizes of fiber-optic (or “lightwave”, as they were once called) cables in among the copper, but for all the “progress” that has marched forward over the years, a telephone vault still looks much the same today as they did here, in the 1950s. The asbestos may or may not still be there, and you don’t see hay or straw much anymore, but otherwise, today, the most notable part about this picture would be how young the linesman is…

Published in: Geekiness, General, History | on December 29th, 2008| 1 Comment »

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  1. On 6/20/2014 at 3:14 pm Al Said:

    Ok. A couple of things:

    This looks like a NYC manhole by the way the chimney is set up.

    That’s not straw on the manhole floor. It’s cut offs from the wires he’s splicing. And all manholes have floors. Usually mud covered concrete.

    The headset is used to establish a “talk pair” or utilize a working telephone line to communicate with other splicers at other locations.

    The “transformer”, I believe is just a form for enclosing a lead splice. Most cables of this era were jacketed with lead and the splice cases were created by forming hot lead over the cable pairs.

    The “asbestos” is a group of cable pairs wrapped to maintain their grouping or keep them out of the splicer’s way. It’s likely just muslin.

    The fabric is cotton sleaving. It was used as a insulator inspllicing as well as tying up groups within a splice. It’s
    Also used as a all around rope, just because it’s handy and plentiful.

    The manhole ring at the top of the chimney is very temporary. It’s used to protect the employee and the splice from falling debris and water. It only takes a minute to set up.