Superintendent of Highways Eric Shaw and the Town of Cambridge Highway Department

Mary S. Yamin-Garone

He sits behind a gray metal desk in a dimly lit, sparsely furnished room. There is nothing pretentious about the man or his surroundings. With town of Cambridge Highway Superintendent Eric Shaw what you see is what you get: a down-to-earth fellow who takes great pride in what he does.

Born in St. Albans, VT, Shaw was the seventh child in a family of nine. He grew up in Fairfax, VT, before moving to Cambridge in 1971. Upon graduating from Cambridge High School in 1974, Shaw went to work in East Arlington as a furniture maker. Six months later the company closed its doors. That is when he took a position with the Town of Cambridge.

Shaw began his career with the highway department in 1975 as a machine equipment operator. In 1992, with the encouragement of town residents — there are 2,152 in all — Shaw decided to throw his hat in the ring and run for highway superintendent. He has been in the position ever since, running unopposed each time. He plans to run again when his current term expires at the end of this year.

Eric Shaw prides himself on being a quick study. His years as deputy superintendent provided him with the foundation he needed to take over the helm as highway super. It also gave him the chance to “learn the routines, the ins and outs and the responsibilities of the job. When it came time to submit my first budget I used the previous year’s budget as a guideline. In those areas where I thought I would need additional monies I put in for more.” Much to Shaw’s credit, he has never gone over budget in any account, for any year.

Married to wife Margaret for 19 years, the couple has two daughters, Amy Elsworth and Cindy Elsworth. (They just happened to marry brothers!) Both reside in the Easton/Greenwich area with their husbands and children. Eric is the proud grandfather of two granddaughters and one grandson.

In his spare time Shaw likes touring in the 1946 Dodge pickup that he restored. He is an active member of the Green Mountain Antique Car and Truck Club, the Washington County Town Highway Superintendents Association and the Town Highway Association, where he served as president from 1996 through 1998.

As superintendent it is Shaw’s job to maintain the town’s 64.37 miles of “highway” of which 43 miles are blacktop and 21 are dirt. Most of the time you can find him working right alongside his four-man crew — running the equipment, driving the truck, whatever needs to be done.

“This winter I either was driving big trucks plowing the snow or I was in the pickup plowing lanes,” he recalled. “This time of year [spring] we are drawing gravel from the pits onto the dirt roads.”

With Shaw’s guidance the Town of Cambridge highway department functions on a total operating budget of $390,130, which includes salaries and benefits for employees and an annual CHIPS allocation of $80,000. Its headquarters — built in 1960 — consist of a seven-bay garage, an old garage for storage, another L-shaped storage area off the garage and the superintendent’s office.

Due to an idea of Shaw’s, the highway department also boasts a new 24- by 30-ft. salt storage facility. “We saved all the logs from trees that were cut down along the road. The logs were then cut into planks and in one summer we built ourselves a salt barn,” Shaw boasts.

Keeping the town’s machinery up-to-date is one of Shaw’s top priorities. Since taking office he has implemented Cambridge’s first-ever 20-year equipment plan. “Four years ago I developed an equipment/truck plan to keep the [town] board abreast of what I anticipated my vehicle needs would be. It has been well received because they [the board] know what to expect come budget time. There are no surprises. That was the first time anything like that had been done before,” he said proudly, readily admitting it has been his biggest accomplishment thus far.

Currently the fleet consists of a 1989 Cat grader, a 2001 New Holland front-end loader (purchased outright), a John Deere 5200 tractor with a sweeper on the front, a 1964 Galion roller, a 1988 International tandem axle truck, a 1992 International single axle dump truck, a 1994 single axle dump truck, a 1998 International single-axle dump truck, a 2003 Sterling tandem axle, a Reads Screen-All for screening out gravel and a 1995 Chevrolet pickup.

Although Shaw feels the department is not lacking any necessary equipment, he does hope to add a backhoe to his fleet soon. None of the town’s trucks or equipment is leased. However, excavators are rented when needed, usually during the summer months.

To keep the vehicles in tip-top shape Shaw and his staff adhere to a regular maintenance schedule that includes changing the oil, rotating tires and performing repairs as soon as they are reported. “One of our operators is a good mechanic. Thanks to him, we’ve been saving big bucks on maintenance and upkeep. During the four years he has been working for the town, he has done a great job taking care of all our trucks,” reported Shaw.

Different Seasons, Different Challenges

Winter in the great northeast can be challenging for highway crews, especially those in rural areas. This year was no exception. Record-breaking snowfall amounts meant using record-breaking amounts of sand and salt to keep the roads safe for travel. This year alone the town used 400 tons of salt and 3,000 yards of sand. That is compared to using approximately 300 tons of salt and 1,500 to 2,000 yards of sand over the past 10 years.

“I have a ‘winter’ budget of $33,000 for salt, sand and fuel,” explained Shaw. “This year the high cost of fuel cut into that considerably. On the bright side, because my budget year starts on Jan. 1, I have $26,000 left over.

What’s good about that is whatever money isn’t spent at the end of the year goes back to the town to try and keep taxes down.”

For Shaw, Cambridge winters are his least favorite part of the job because they bring long days and sleepless nights, especially when there is an impending storm. “You agonize over what is the best time to call the men out, how long do you wait before you make the call. No matter what you do some people think you are out there working too much while others think it’s not enough. We are lucky that the system we have been using hasn’t generated any complaints.”

Shaw’s system involves the use of two-way radios. “Since we began using the radios in 1984, the highwaymen prefer to plow alone. For safety reasons, however, I have them double up during the big snowstorms. They don’t like it when I do that,” he claimed. “They feel safe since the radios allow the drivers to tell each other their location.”

Nice weather — or lack of it — also affects the highway department’s work. Each spring and summer Shaw and his crew hope the weather cooperates so that once the paving season begins in May they can get their roads done early and avoid the rush at the blacktop plants. “Last year we prepared the roads, replaced the culverts and performed all of the ditching for the roads that were scheduled to be paved this year,” Shaw asserts. “By blacktopping early in the spring we have the plant to ourselves and the culverts have time to settle.”

Shaw’s penchant for advance planning also has helped to minimize the town’s mud season, which starts in mid-March. Every spring members of the highway department can be seen patching, digging ditches and graveling up the roads, with the expectation of reducing the number of sinkholes that appear. This year was deemed a success: there were only three.

Much of the summer season you can find Shaw and his men cleaning ditches along the road and replacing culverts. Weather and acid have caused many of those already once replaced culverts to rot out. To prevent that from happening again, Shaw chooses to replace the culvert’s metal with new plastic that won’t rot out and is less expensive. The addition of an inner liner to the plastic has increased its durability.

The Town of Cambridge also has been known to join forces with the towns of White Creek and Jackson on certain projects. “We work together in instances where more than four to five men are needed for a paving or ditching job,” said Shaw. “All three towns have the same size crews and similar equipment.”

As for his success? Shaw attributes it to one thing — people!

“I have developed a good working relationship with the [town] board. They listen and understand my needs, even when I explain in detail. My budget generally remains intact. I don’t go overboard in my asking so the board doesn’t cut anything out. I also have a well-balanced crew that works and gets along together. Between them they have all the bases covered. That makes my job easier. But most important, I have a supportive wife who is understanding of my job, even when plans get cancelled in the winter because of storms.”

The Town

Nestled in the rolling valleys of New York State’s southern Washington County, the town of Cambridge was established in 1788. It is home to scenic views, historic buildings and one of the premiere fly fishing streams in the country. It is bordered on the south by the Hoosick River, on the west by the town of Easton, on the north by Jackson and Greenwich and on the east by the town of White Creek. Saratoga Springs, Albany, Glens Falls, Lake George and Bennington, VT, are all within an hour’s drive.

It was said that “pie a-la-mode” was first served in the Cambridge Hotel in the 1880s. Some of Cambridge’s other culinary delights include cheesecakes made by the nuns of New Skete, arguably the best in the country, and maple syrup that comes with an international reputation.

Cambridge even boasts a working buffalo ranch in addition to llamas and emus, but don’t let the rural appearance fool you. Cambridge also is the home of one of the top public school systems in both academics and athletics in the Capital District region. Several internationally known manufacturing companies call this town home, as do renowned artisans like folk artist Will Moses, doll maker R. John Wright and jeweler Ed Levin.

Throughout the year the area teems with activity — from concerts and plays in the restored 1878 Hubbard Hall opera house to relaxing afternoons floating on the river or swimming in the lakes. Scenic train rides, fishing, canoeing, skiing, outdoor concerts — are all part of Cambridge life. The Cambridge Balloon Festival is held the second weekend in June and the “Christmas in Cambridge” celebration is the second weekend in December. P

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