Cryptic Utility Pole Labels and Sunken Manhole Covers

Every so often, I walk by a utility pole with a small sign that says “MELP.” I assume it identifies the owner, but who or what would that be?

Those letters stand for “Municipal Electric Light Plant,” the city-owned utility established in 1899 to cut the cost of commercially purchased electricity for street lighting. In 1903, the city built the coal-fired Municipal Light Plant on Dublin Avenue (today Nationwide Boulevard) west of Downtown at the Olentangy River. Around 1910, the city began selling power to public and private customers in the Downtown area and within 25 years had more than 6,000 customers. In the late 1960s, the city started buying commercially produced electricity, and the light plant closed about a decade later. Today, the city’s electrical operation serves more than 12,000 customers and powers more than 55,000 streetlights in a service area bounded by Worthington on the north, Valleyview on the west, Whitehall on the east and Lockbourne on the south. (Bexley is within this area but does not have service.) All profits support the streetlight system. The 1903 plant sat empty for many years but is currently being rehabilitated for an interesting mix of uses, including the new home of Garth’s Auctioneers and Appraisers, which formerly occupied a historic barn in Delaware.

While driving city streets recently, I hit what felt like a large pothole. When I looked, however, it turned out to be a manhole cover set below the road surface. It seems pretty dangerous; is there a way to do something about this?

CQ can’t speak to the whole city, but we do know of several such problems in the Downtown area along streets such as Parsons and Grant avenues. This doesn’t seem to be the traditional pothole trouble—broken-up surface material. The pavement at these manholes is sound, but the cast metal covers sometimes are 3 or more inches deep, certainly making for some nasty bumps. Street re-paving projects appear to be the cause, raising the road surface above the manhole covers. Now, let’s give credit where it’s due—there has been a lot of re-paving going on, both of city streets and local highways, making them much nicer to drive. (Have you been on I-670 toward the airport lately? Smooth.) We have seen plenty of newly paved areas where workers have installed metal collars to raise the manhole covers to the elevation of the new surface. And taking care of all these streets and roads is a huge job in any case. Still, these low manhole covers are a problem. Fortunately, a call to the city 311 line (a great resource for things like this) brought a helpful return call from the Division of Sewerage and Drainage. The city has a manned 24-hour phone line (614-645-7102) for reporting these types of situations. If you call, be very specific—street name, closest street number, nearest intersection, the precise traffic lane. The more detail the better, and the sooner the trouble will be fixed.

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Jeff Darbee is a preservationist, historian and author in Columbus. Send your questions to cityquotient@columbusmonthly.com, and the answer might appear in a future column.