The Town of Whitehall Highway Department likes to keep things all in the family. Its current highway superintendent, Brian Rozell, is the third family member to serve in the post.
“My family moved to the town [of Whitehall] in 1975 so my father could go to work for the highway department. At that time, my uncle, Alan, was the superintendent,” Brian recalled. “In 1980, my father took over for my uncle, serving as superintendent until 2002. That’s when I was appointed to fill the last year of his term so my father could retire. I was elected to my first four-year term in 2003.”
Brian began his career with the highway department in 1980. He started as a laborer at the age of 18 and moved up the ranks to become deputy in 1994. Before joining his father’s crew, Brian was employed by various farms around town.
“I worked at four different farms, going from one to another whenever they needed help. I would operate and maintain the equipment and, of course, a farmer always knows how to build a road. That is a constant thing on a farm … contending with mud holes and such.”
It was his belief that he could follow in his father’s footsteps, however, that led him to the highway department’s top spot.
“I watched my father work hard trying to keep taxes down. He took control of the spending on the highways because there wasn’t a big budget. Dad saved the town considerable money and I felt I could carry on what he started: maintaining the roads as best he could in the cheapest way possible. I think we have been quite successful at doing just that,” Brian said.
Brian was born in Glens Falls, N.Y., and raised and educated in Whitehall. He is the father of two sons, Stephen, 23, and Michael 22; and grandfather to Stephen’s 18-month-old son, Landon.
In his spare time Brian busies himself with his collection of antique tractors.
“I have seven tractors, all of which are operational. Five are John Deere two cylinders and two are International Harvesters. This is something my father and I do together. We buy the tractors when they are quite run down. We have found them in the brush and in old barns. Depending on their condition, it can take up to one year to refurbish [them]. I have no intentions of selling them. They’re my toys.”
On the Job
The highway department’s facilities include a 60 by 120 ft. steel building, built in 1974, that serves as its garage. The structure also houses Brian’s office — such as it is — and most of the department’s equipment. There also is a 60-ton salt shed and a 40 by 80 ft. pole barn that is used for cold storage.
As superintendent, it is Brian’s job to maintain the town’s 37 center lane mi. of road; five of which are gravel. That translates into five plowing routes that take two and a half hours to complete.
Brian depends on his crew of four full-time employees to serve the town’s 4,400 residents. His staff includes Robert Putorti, deputy superintendent; and Louis Pratt, James Shattuck and Barry Lane, all of whom are operators/mechanics.
“Bobby has been here the longest — 17 years. Lou has been with me for 16; Jim for 5; and Barry’s been a crew member for two years.
“I don’t think I could be any luckier than to have the crew I do. They are dependable. They know their job and they make my life easier,” Brian boasted. “They deserve a lot of credit for what goes on in this department. They take the initiative if they see something that is wrong. We get along well, like a small family, all brothers, I’d say.”
Under Brian’s vigilant eye, the Town of Whitehall Highway Department functions on a total operating budget of $351,000, which includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $53,000.
Staying within that budget is not without its challenges — especially for a small department — but it seems to be something that Brian has mastered.
“It is tough sometimes,” he admitted, “depending on what arises during the year. Winter is the hardest because you don’t know what you’re going to get in terms of weather. The good thing is whatever money isn’t spent throughout the year rolls over into my general repair. I’ve had funds left over at the end of every year I’ve been in office. It hasn’t always been a lot but I’m still in the blue.”
To help get the job done, the department uses an imposing fleet of equipment that includes:
• Sterling truck and plow
• Model “P” sander
• International Trucks with/without air flow sander
• Dump trucks with/without air flow sander
• Tarrant MFG plow/wing/sander
• Bengal Zwack sanders
• Everest plow
• Viking wing
• John Deere tractor with cab
• Other tractors
• Dresser motorgrader
• Eager Beaver Lowboy
• Allis Chalmers HD II bulldozer
• John Deere 4WD bulldozer
• Landpride rake
• Brush saw
• Utility trailer
• Hyster roller
• Echo tree trimmer
• Lawn mowers
• Lawn tractor
• Air compressor
• Hydraulic bead breaker
• Troy Built Sickle Bar
When it comes to purchasing new equipment Brian exercises caution.
“We put ‘X’ amount of dollars into our budget each year for equipment and hope we don’t have a major breakdown, which has already happened. Because the town doesn’t have a big commercial tax base we don’t have a five-year equipment plan. We watch our spending as to ‘picking the people’s pockets’ simply because the highway department could use a new piece of equipment. These are working people. If we had a larger commercial tax base it would be easier. We earmark $21,000 annually for new equipment but if something unexpected comes along we have to start from scratch.”
To prevent costly breakdowns Brian’s crew is diligent about maintaining their vehicles.
“The men do a great job of keeping track of their own trucks and performing all the standard maintenance, such as changing the oil and filter.”
Maintaining those vehicles, however, isn’t as easy as it once was.
“When I first joined the department all the repairs were done in-house. Back then you could crawl under the hood of a truck and change a set of points or plugs, rebuild the engine or whatever you wanted to do. Thanks to technology, you can’t do that anymore. Instead, you need to place more emphasis on preventive maintenance,” Brian explained.
What piece of equipment is replaced most often?
“Mowers. We go through more roadside mowers than anything else. The department is responsible for mowing the town’s own 37 center line miles of road and we also are contracted with the county to do 26 miles of their roads. Generally, it takes us two weeks the first time around with two mowers [tractors]. The second time out takes one month or better.”
Each year, the highway department resurfaces at least 1 mi. of road as part of its CHIPS program.
“About one-third of the town’s road miles are oil and stone. Those roads gradually are being changed over when we do our annual resurfacing. If we have a good base we can grade the road, draw some gravel on it and then shape it up the way it should be. We follow that up with three courses: a prime coat; a coat of number 1 stone; and a coat of number 1A [smaller] stone over that. We’ve had good luck with that formula. It holds up well,” Brian said.
For Brian, there isn’t much about the job he doesn’t like … except winter.
“Winter time is the most difficult part of the job. You have to be on the ball to get out there before the buses and to get people back and forth to work. There’s no slacking.”
It also was winter weather that gave Brian his most memorable moments on the job.
“The blizzard of 1993 was quite an experience. Between 2.5 and 3 feet of snow fell that night. The wind was whipping and we were plowing in first gear instead of third. All the surrounding towns were in the same boat. It was a tough deal. It took 24 hours before things became manageable. Unlike many other highway departments, we stayed out all night. That’s what the boss [my father] wanted. Although you’re not making much headway clearing in a storm like that, suppose there was a fire or someone needed an ambulance. At least we were out there to get that road cleared.”
It’s not all road work for Brian and his crew. Cutting brush also takes up a lot of their time.
“Brush always is a big problem. It grows faster than we can cut it and if we have a snowy winter we don’t get to it. We’ve cut a lot of it over the last five years. We also have been able to improve many of the ditches, which in turn will improve the roads.”
One project Brian would like to see come to fruition during his tenure is the resurfacing of 3.5 mi. of dirt road on the south end of town.
“I’d like to see them resurfaced at least with oil and stone until we can get a hard top on them. That would save on maintenance. It takes tremendous patience to sustain dirt roads. Trying to keep it smooth results in potholes so it has to be graded frequently and in the spring you have to contend with mud.”
When all is said and done how would Brian like to be remembered?
“As someone who did the best job he could to maintain the roads and keep taxes down.”
But don’t expect Brian to file his retirement papers anytime soon.
“If I’m like my father I’ll stay until I’m 70.”
About the Town of Whitehall
Whitehall, N.Y., can claim a special place in the history of Lake George and Lake Champlain. Known as Skenesborough for a good part of this nation’s early history, the small settlement at the southern end of Lake Champlain figures prominently in many of the key events that took place in the region.
As early as 1690, military expeditions were using this location as a staging ground for incursions against their opponents. Largely due to its strategic location on one of two main transportation corridors through the wilderness, the region was the scene of much activity through the French and Indian War.
After the French gave up their claims in the area, British settlers arrived. Before long, Philip Skene [aka Skeene], a former British officer and loyal subject of the Crown, had established a thriving community. The peace and prosperity that resulted from the end of the French wars, however, was short-lived. Before long, the American Colonies were in open rebellion. Agitation for independence led to war and the hostilities that ensued were to involve Skenesborough in no small way.
On May 9, 1775, Skenesborough was captured by American forces in the first aggressive Revolutionary War action in New York State. Skene’s trading schooner became the first ship of the U.S. Navy when it was taken to Crown Point armed and used under the leadership of Colonel Benedict Arnold to capture a British ship renamed Enterprise on May 18, 1775.
In 1776, Congress ordered General Philip Schuyler to construct a fleet of ships capable of countering an unexpected British invasion. The first U.S. Naval fleet of 13 ships added to the four already patrolling.
Lake Champlain was constructed during the summer of 1776. Led by Benedict Arnold, the action of this fleet at the battle of Valcour Island in October of that year caused a delaying action that ultimately saved the American Forces at Saratoga. This naval fleet was the only one to see active service during the Revolutionary War.
In July 1777, another British fleet, this time commanded by General John Burgoyne, would occupy the mighty Ticonderoga/Mt. Independence complex to the north and drive south, down Wood Creek to Whitehall. Burgoyne would ultimately meet with disaster at Saratoga, largely because he chose to take the route down Wood Creek, through Skenesborough, rather than the easier Lake George route.
For a time after the end of the Revolution, prosperity again returned to the tiny hamlet between the mountains. Within too short a time, however, Skenesborough would see itself transformed into a military post. The War of 1812 saw the village shipyard buzzing with the construction of hundreds of bateau’s, which had long been the standard means of transporting troops on the lakes. After the Battle of Plattsburg, the ships of victors were brought there and stored “in ordinary” where they slowly rotted away at their berths.
With the end of the war, Skenesborough, renamed Whitehall, saw a resumption of the busy maritime trade that was to become its hallmark.
A canal was built along the route of Wood Creek, where sleek, specially built canal schooners would ply their goods along the critical transportation corridor between the St. Lawrence and the Hudson.
Throughout the 19th century, up until the coming of the railroad, this canal was a scene of bustling activity. Once the railroads were established the canal lost much of its importance as a means to transport goods and passengers.
Whitehall, steeped in Revolutionary War history, is still the link between America and Canada through Lake Champlain and its highway and rail links.
The area boasts a wonderful lifestyle afforded by the natural assets of New York’s Adirondack Mountains, Vermont’s Green Mountains and the shores of Lake George and Lake Champlain. Whitehall is situated in northern Washington County at the juncture of Lake Champlain and the Champlain Canal, just a few miles from the Vermont border.
Whitehall offers a unique mix of rural mountains and valleys with the added flavor of a downtown harbor area that provides plenty of reason to “drop anchor” in this historic town.
The Skenesborough Museum and the elegant Skene Manor are several of the links to Whitehall’s rich history. Local businesses welcome visitors from all parts of the globe, whether they arrive by highway, water or rail. The area’s marinas offer dockage, repairs and boat rentals and there are multiple lodging choices. The area’s fishing is second to none and the lower “Champlain Elbow” is a particular favorite of bass fishermen. Cruises are available, through Lock 12 and into Lake Champlain, with a “talking tour” of the area’s history.
Other points of interest include:
• Skenesborough Museum: The museum contains a model of Whitehall during the Revolutionary War period and includes audio effects. The model shows a town centered around shipbuilding and a full harbor.
• Skene’s Mills: The Lock 12 Marina is where the sawmills were located. The marina can be found by crossing the bridge over the canal and turning left onto North Williams Street. It is several blocks up from William Street. The Skene’s Mill marker is between the marina and the canal and can only be viewed by parking at the marina.
• Naval Artillery: The armory houses some of Benedict Arnold’s naval artillery. It can be found by reversing direction on North Williams Street and following it to its intersection with U.S. Route 4. The armory is an imposing castle-like structure across the street. It is the current home of Company I, 2nd Regiment, National Guard of New York. Inside the armory fence are two cannons retrieved from the bottom of Lake Champlain and a marker.
Today, Whitehall is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. The city has revitalized its historic waterfront, where warships were built, canal schooners were docked and lovely pleasure crafts put down anchor. There is a beautiful park adjacent to the museum on the waterfront as Whitehall again beckons to travelers along the historic lakes.
(History courtesy of the Whitehall Chamber of Commerce.) P