Highway Superintendent Ron Brown and the Town of Hinsdale

Laurie Mercer

The town does have its own name on an exit from Route 17, but there’s nothing that says big city around Hinsdale. The lovely valley town is nestled between two busy highways and two active train lines. The second, less busy railroad line was re-activated to support the Persian Gulf War according to Ron Brown, highway superintendent.

With 108 lane miles — 10 gravel and 44 paved — the budget is $750,000 with $98,715 coming from CHIPS.

There’s enough train whistles hollering in Hinsdale to make you think you are in a Johnny Cash song. There are so many wood burners in town that it smells like a scout camp. Even professional offices, like the orthodontist’s, burn wood. The summit of the wooded surrounding hills rise about 500 to 600 feet above the town.

Hinsdale is home to about 2,000 citizens. Most of its workers commute eight miles to nearby Olean where steam billows from stacks rising in the distance. Hinsdale’s rugged foothills host lots of back-country hunting camps hidden off seasonally posted dirt roads and often unseen. Ron said there is a steady market for such places, currently going for $1,500 to $2,000 per acre. There’s plenty of water and some great views.

Highway Superintendent Ron Brown commented on the hodge podge of abandoned trailers on the same roads as high-end weekend and summer properties when he said, “The only zoning laws here are that there be no more than two non-working vehicles on the property, and that’s routinely ignored.”

Two highly visible landmarks in the town capture the personality of the place. First, the original canal bed from the Erie Canal, which helped put pioneer-era Hinsdale on the early maps, can be observed on Canal Street. A few miles away on the State Road is an enormous decommissioned fighter jet plane installed permanently and prominently in the VFW parking lot. The past, patriotism, and no real local attractions say it all. For most travelers Hinsdale is on the way to someplace else, like Niagara Falls and the casinos. Residents are fine with that.

The crew counts on Earl Dutton, Scott Linderman, Tim Tuttle, Steve Myszka, Carl Deibler — all of them operators and truck drivers.

There is a live and let live attitude here that makes it a comfortable town. For outsiders there is only one gas pump and one nice restaurant to make them want to hang around. Ron suggested that the challenge to the town economically is that they don’t access natural gas.

“There is a 42-inch natural gas line that runs right through Hinsdale,” he said. “We are not hooked into it anywhere. I have no idea why, but we lost a chance to have a Dollar Store on Route 96 because we could not provide the store with natural gas.

“We don’t have sewers in town, either. The only place with water is on Main Street.”

All town services, including the highway barn office and garage, the assessor’s office, the courtroom and town hall are all tightly packed into one location. They even have a place for stray dogs to be temporarily kenneled. Ron’s office is above the highway barn area. Because town court is held in the same building every Wednesday, sometimes people try to pay Ron for their speeding tickets by mistake. However, having an office high over the barn also keeps him from salespeople dropping by since it’s an unlikely location.

Because there is not a lot of room for all of the town’s activity, Ron said he was glad when they moved the town’s elections down the street to the fire hall. Having lots of people around heavy equipment is never a good idea.

Sherlock Bridge Over Troubled Train Tracks

The town lives on a tight budget, which is being challenged by highway work right now because the centrally located Sherlock Hollow Bridge was closed down by the state on Sept. 15, 2011. The bridge is used heavily. Repairs will cost $1.5 million. Ron estimated that about “one-third of this town runs the bridge every day.” Now motorists have to take the 1.62-mile-long, steep and narrow Flanigan Hill Road — which is the only way out of town. For some the detour is four miles. So the collective squawk that arose from the citizenry on the afternoon of Sept. 15 when they tried to come back over the bridge they took to work that morning is not likely to diminish anytime soon. Meanwhile, Flanigan Hill, already a notoriously dangerous stretch of road, is getting its share of angry, speeding motorists. Nobody loves a detour.

The Sherlock Hill Bridge itself, which is narrow, has a high crown with a blind spot, and on one end just over the tracks it drops right down onto a busy highway. The combination of the hill, the bridge and the highway entrance/egress has been the scene of several serious accidents and some fatalities in recent memory. Ron just lost a good friend who eventually died after a serious T-bone there.

“His health went downhill fast after that accident. It’s been a bad deal,” he said, meaning Sherlock Hollow Bridge.

A town board member and supporter of the highway crew also just died on Flanigan Road on his ATV. Ron said just moments before the accident the man had been waving to a neighbor out in her yard.

Ron seems to regard his job as safety monitor as well as highway super. His concerns are demonstrated by posting work zone signage on Flanigan Road. And the police officers are writing double-the-fine tickets in the work zone.

“Word gets out,” he said, “and people slow down. That’s a very dangerous road, and there is no way to make it any safer than it is.”

Ron said the restrictions on what a highway person can do and what he or she cannot do about speed on roads are many. In voicing his concern about crazy drivers on Flanigan Hill Road, he checked with a friend who works for the Cattaraugus County sign shop.

“He faxed me a current article that he wrote about how to post a speed limit on a detour. As long as it is a designated detour you can drop the speed limit 20 miles per hour. If the road in question is not currently posted, you can put a work zone sign and a 35-mile-per-hour limit on the sign. Then if a sheriff or state trooper writes tickets in that area, it doubles the fine. You’d be amazed at how quickly the speed drops.”

Sherlock Hollow Bridge is due to be demolished and replaced with an at-grade crossing instead.

Here’s a $100,000 Quick Repair for You!

Sherlock Hollow Bridge was built in 1902. It crosses the Western NY and PA Railroad. Physically the bridge is the collective responsibility of the town, county and the railroad. Maintenance is done by the county and town.

Ron explained that the bridge is narrow with heavy guardrails on each side, which seems to make drivers want to crowd the center strip. However, the bridge is steep, with a blind spot in both directions. Moreover, drivers heading west drop down almost directly onto Route 16, a busy two-lane highway.

Ron’s tidy desk has a big fat folder full of data on Sherlock Hollow Bridge on it, right where he can get at it. The bridge has been flagged before, so Ron expected it would be closed. His intuition was to fix up Flanigan Road instead, anticipating an eventual detour.

“The pavement on Flanigan Road was terrible. In some places it was only 14 feet wide, and it’s hard to make it wider because of dense tree growth and boulders. The pavement width is now 22 feet, but there is very little shoulder. We could cut trees non-stop for the next five years to get more shoulder.”

When the state inspectors came and the bridge failed its annual inspection this September Ron said he was not surprised at all.

“They said we had 24 hours to fix the bridge or close it. I met with a Cattaraugus County engineer at the bridge, and he said we were looking at $100,000 to repair the bridge just to keep it open to traffic through the winter. That’s not counting on repairs needed later on in spring. Even then the bridge would be restricted to 5-ton vehicles. School buses cannot cross a bridge unless it’s rated for 12-tons or more, so school bus traffic was out.”

Needless to say, the bridge was closed, and when people left for work that day they drove over it. When they headed back home, it was a rude awakening.

“My answering machine at work lit up. People came to my home to say that I had no right to close the bridge. I had to explain to them the options — $100,000 to fix it until more serious repairs in the spring, or a detour. It was not up to me,” Ron said.

“The town has been working hard for about 10 years to have the bridge removed and replaced with an at-grade crossing. Because the road drops from the bridge right onto Route 16, it’s been the scene of several bad accidents where the driver couldn’t stop in time coming off the bridge.”

The railroad, he said, wanted to make the bridge four feet higher instead so that taller box cars could run beneath it. Ron said, “That’s the last bridge holding them up.”

Why wouldn’t railroads want an at-grade crossing?

“If it’s at-grade the railroad has to maintain the signals, so that’s not in their best interest.”

In order to move the project forward, a public hearing had to be held and in the roughly 38-square-mile town of Hinsdale, the Town Hall was packed with people.

“Some people were worried, and rightly so, where they would be waiting in their cars when a train was going through. Then there was the suggestion I call the Hinsdale Skyway that would have spanned across Route 16 and cost about a billion. It was really good for me to hear that the citizens cared a lot about the bridge and the detour.

“Basically, during the meeting and speaking as highway superintendent, I had to say the town can’t afford to repair and maintain the bridge we have now.”

Ron said the paperwork regarding a decision on what to do about the bridge sat with an administrative judge from April to the morning of Sept. 16, following the closing, when the distressed phone calls started reaching the judge’s telephone.

“That’s when he said OK to an at-grade crossing.” Due to the slow moving wheels of bureaucracy, Ron said, “we probably won’t be able to bid the job out until May.”

Ron is not clairvoyant; but he did know the bridge would be shut down by the state because, “Last year it had flags on it to be repaired, and we did those, but the foundation was rapidly crumbling and heavy vehicles were helping shake it loose. So September 1, 2011, rolls around, and I knew they would be doing an inspection on the bridge again. I couldn’t imagine that it got any better than it was, and it wasn’t. Residents are madder than heck, but the state, not the highway department, closed the bridge.”

How Much Is This Going to Cost?

Including demolition Ron said the work needed to bring the road almost level to the crossing and onto the highway intersection will be about $1.5 million. The money is expected eventually to come from federal, railroad and town coffers.

“This is why the town has set aside money for the past 10 years, because they knew this would have to happen eventually,” Ron said.

Unhappily the town never could have foreseen rampant inflation. The estimate they had in mind 10 years ago was for a $600,000 project, and the savvy Town Board began putting money aside to pay for it.

“Now,” Ron said, “they are saying that the town has to put up $281,000 to get this in motion. That is reimbursable, but they have to come up with the money first. Hinsdale has only $70,000 set aside for the project, so we are short.”

He said if they jacked the taxes up to pay for it, townspeople would be “smashing our windows.”

Rather than anarchy, he said the only option is to borrow the money on a bank note with low interest and hope for a quick turnover on their initial investment so they can pay it back on time.

“This is going to be a huge deal in town,” Ron said. “Building it and paying for it.”

No CHIPS for Gravel

Hinsdale has 11 miles of dirt road. Ron said they try to use gravel as much as they can for repairs, but the town can no longer use CHIPS money for gravel. He said gravel may be used as a sub base, but you have to be paving over top of it to get the reimbursement. Anything to do with CHIPS, he said, has to have a 10-year longevity to it. Science indicates that a gravel road can lose an inch a year by being reduced to dust.

“On gravel roads our goal is to ditch them. Some may have never been ditched before. On some roads we do a sub base this year and pave them the next with an oil and stone treatment. Roads like those are supposed to be sealed every three years.”

More Than a Pinch of Salt

Ron estimated that covering the town’s highway salt pile could cost as much as $100,000 and that grant money for such tasks has completely disappeared. For now the salt pile, anticipating the slow-starting winter of 2012, sits uncovered. With stocked trout streams nearby, it’s just a matter of time before the salt pile rivals the bridge as a deal breaker to an otherwise smooth running operation.

“Eventually,” Ron said, “That might be a headache.”

Ron Brown — the Back Story

Ron has lived in Hinsdale all of his life. He built a new ranch house in 2002. He has 24 acres right next to his parents’ home, where he grew up. He must like mowing because he has about 11 acres of lawn. Newly single, he is enjoying having his girlfriend, Amy Bennett, and her two daughters in his life. Ashley, 19, is in college while Ava, 8, is an accomplished athlete. Amy works for the Department of Social Services.

He likes to deer hunt, and this spring while deer hunting he unexpectedly shot a black bear, which is mounted and on display in his living room. Ron has two brothers, including one who helps him in his second source of employment — a mulch and landscaping endeavor, which he does in early evenings and on Saturdays. He said he sells about 1,000 yards of “nice, double-hammered mulch” a year and has some heavy equipment including a one-ton dump truck. After putting in his time at the highway garage, he uses Fridays and Saturdays for landscaping. Sunday is his day to go out on his Dyna 2007 Harley and ignore the telephone. He has been a motorcyclist since he was 18.

Ron said he has always enjoyed working with heavy equipment. He began as a kid working on farms by driving tractors when he was only 10.

“By the time I was 18 I was feed manager on a 1,000 head dairy operation.” He said he has always been entrepreneurial. During high school he bought D.J. equipment and rented himself out for all of the dances.

While he doesn’t appear to be super-rushed and busy, he clearly knows how to get things done. A lot of experience came during his 10 years with the Ungermann Excavating Company in Cuba. He also had studied heavy equipment while a student at BOCES.

“At Ungermann we put two lagoons in and two large building pads for Wal-Mart and Home Depot, which helped me understand drainage.”

He said he operated payloaders and bulldozers on large sites including new milk parlors. His employer also ran two gravel pits so Ron got to understand what products to use and how sub base materials affect roads.

During one of the worst winters in memory, he plowed snow for the town of New Hudson seven days a week and enjoyed it. His particular skill could be reusing materials. In one job he specialized in custom making metal guards from scrap to be used to protect workers from moving machinery. Guards, he said, just need to be painted a certain color; there are no specifications for what kind of metal to use.

“During winter we repaired equipment and built stuff like a rock crusher, which began as a set of axles.” That machine is still in use every day of the week. He also helped build a nearly 300-foot-long conveyor for washing gravel that saved the work of two loaders and lots of fuel.

Always adapting, he said he built his own top soil screener for home because he was sick of having to get out of the skid steer to clear it off.

“I made the screen, and then I bought a gas engine and now it’s a vibrating screen. It works great,” he said.

Making things on the fly with materials on hand is something of an art form for Ron. By way of example he said, “We took some junk out back and built a skid box blade for patching roads. When we were building it there were some comments that this is never going to work. We closed the ends up to make it like a box blade, which we hook to a farm tractor. The skids we put on the sides help carry the blade.”

In spite of the comments, Ron said the skid box blade is one of the most often used pieces of equipment.

“We can use it for patching roads and instances like where heavy truck traffic has left tracks, to smooth it up before we seal the road,” he said.

Getting Elected — Working for the People

Ron was elected to the position of superintendent in January 2010. He was re-elected in 2011. He was completely new to the department of several men; all but one of them is older than he is.

“In all honesty I am glad that I get to be elected because that way the public gets to speak,” he said.

Ron Tuttle, the previous superintendent, had a total of 29 years in the department. That’s an enviable record. Ron said,

“He was a good guy. He was a worker. When I heard he was going to retire I asked him about it because I was not going to run against him.”

Tuttle’s son Tim is currently on the crew.

“So I asked the town, what do I have to do?” Because the Democratic, Republican, Conservative and Independence lines were already filled on the ballot, they said he could run on the Worker Party line or create a party of his own. Meanwhile he needed 30 signatures on a petition due in just four days. Once on the ballot, he went door to door, targeting the 400 of the 1,200 registered voters who were likely to vote. He is modestly proud that he received the second largest number of votes, following the ever-popular job of town clerk.

On his campaign promises he said, “I just said that if elected this is what I would like to see accomplished, which included a lot more ditching. On a couple of roads flooding was a big issue. My predecessor had some tough years for flooding when Hinsdale got hit worse than anybody.”

He said his other main area of concern was to replace the 12- and 15-inch plastic sluice pipes with pipes that are 18 inches or larger whenever pipes need to be replaced.

“We put one 24-inch pipe in, which some of the guys said was senseless. But we have not had to touch it since.” Hinsdale is at the base of steep hills with several creeks running into larger streams. The hamlet itself is at the point where Ischua Creek and Oil Creek join to become Olean Creek. Ron says when water gets running here, “It will wash stuff right out.”

Time Flies When You Are Having Fun

“The problem with a lot of roads here is that they were built over 100 years ago with gravel over topsoil. The gravel keeps sinking down.”

Here in Hinsdale where the earth is notoriously heavy with clay, Ron has learned to appreciate the geo-textile fabric, which he says some people find expensive.

“It does cost $300 to buy a roll of fabric, but it’s 14 feet wide and 200 feet long,” he said. “You can dig an area out, put it down before you put the sub base gravel down, and if you have a major clay problem where clay is pumping water up through the road and making soft spots, the geo fabric keeps that garbage down and the gravel up.”

Training offered through the superintendent’s association has been invaluable to him.

“It takes place in Ithaca. I ride my Harley there. I’m in classes from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. learning everything that I can. There are so many regulations to understand.”

And when class is over he rides into the sunset around Cayuga Lake on his hog, soaking in the June weather, enjoying the Finger Lakes breeze.

“The first two years went by really fast,” Ron said. “I learned a lot.” He said that by keeping track of what his crew is doing on his computer, it is easier for him to see progress being made. The new Freightliner, a 10-wheeler and dump truck that cost $176,464, is the first piece of brand new equipment the department has bought in many years.

He said selling scrap from the yard this year yielded $17,000 for the town, and perfectly good guardrails that were in the weeds are now in use along winding roads.

Ron said that coming into the job as a younger (now 38) outsider with a lot of new ideas was not greeted with great enthusiasm.

“It took some time,” he said with a smile when asked about pacing himself.

About the Town of Hinsdale

Hinsdale is defined by its highways. The Southern Tier Expressway Interstate 86 and New York State Route 17 pass through the town. New York State Route 16 is a major trunk road and partially follows the same path as the expressway, while New York State Route 446 crosses the northeast part of town and has its western terminus in the Hinsdale community called Maplehurst.

Easy terms were offered to pioneers by the agents of the Holland Land Company to entice the settlers to stay here. The earliest pioneers made their claims near the present site of the village in 1806. There must have been some religious fever because the first religious meeting was held in a log barn the following year. By 1820 they had a full time preacher — not the usual circuit rider — and churches. The erection of saw mills and grist mills, schools, inns and stores soon followed. In time, Hinsdale evolved to become a canal village and later a station on the NY and Erie Railroad.

There is no romantic story about how the town got its name. Hinsdale was formed from Olean by the legislature of the State of New York, April 14, 1820 — fully five years after a road had been surveyed from Olean to Angelica. The name was given to it by the Hon. Elial T. Foot, of Jamestown, Chautauqua County, who was then a member of the standing committee on the erection of towns and counties in the assembly. Asked to provide a name for the new town, he chose his mother’s birthplace, Hinsdale, N.H., for its namesake.

Hinsdale has a rich and colorful history. Historians write that one of the area’s founding fathers, Major Adam Hoops who pretty much put Olean on the map, was of “medium height, rather stoutly built and also of dark complexion. He was a bachelor, and by the women was considered rough and disagreeable in his dress and manners. He was known by them as the “women-hater.” The women said he carried blankets with him when he traveled so as not to sleep between sheets that had covered a woman.

Other colorful characters include wolves chasing people through the woods, log homes being constructed with the help of Native Americans, and a colonel who was taken prisoner at Black Rock and sent to Halifax as a prisoner of war until 1814 when he was released and returned to his home in Hinsdale.

This chapter in Hinsdale’s history could be titled, “When Good Highway Men Go Bad.” Another noteworthy story would have to be David D. Howe, who is remembered as the man who built the state road — the route still traveled — from Hinsdale to Angelica in 1817. But it’s not his road work that is remembered. Described as a “tall, handsome, dark-complexioned man, with ruddy cheeks, and eyes as black as night,” he borrowed some money from the church he could not repay. The church then began selling off Howe’s stock, crops, and even the vegetables in his garden.

Howe then seized his rifle, mounted his horse, and rode off toward Allegany County singing about persecution. The record here is so brief as to suggest more questions than it answers. It says, “The Church was shot that night, and Howe was convicted and hung at Angelica in 1824.”

The national economy may force Hinsdale’s Post Office to close soon. In 1825, the semi-weekly mail delivery from Hinsdale to just about anyplace was as follows: under 80 miles, 10 cents; over 80 miles, 18 cents; over 400 miles, 25 cents.

At its formation the population was 347 residents. By 1875 the population was close to what it is today at 2,000. These were wild times. The town paid a bounty on “wolf-scalps of $5, and that the same bounty be paid for panther-scalps, to inhabitants of the town only.” Today the bounty is gone; and coyotes have replaced the wolves and panthers. P

You can also view previous issues of Superintendent's Profile.

Jump to Profile: