Superintendent of Highways Bob Herman and the Town of Niagara

Laurie Mercer

Highway Superintendent Bob Herman’s town of Niagara highway barn is just about four to five miles from the famous cataracts that grace the town with one of the great wonders of the world.

Like a lot of local folks, Bob and Brenda, his wife, still enjoy a summer evening’s walk along the park’s pathways by the water, taking in the majesty of the American, Horseshoe, and Bridal Veil Falls. He said they went even more often when their four boys were young.

Niagara Falls. It’s a wonder we share with Canada both for its immense hydropower and equally as attractive — the tourism it draws. Estimates put visitors to Niagara Falls at 10 million per year, and that’s just on the American side. Tourism is like a pirate’s treasure trove for many towns — money left behind without having to provide many services to the temporary visitors. This year marks an especially high spirited time for the town of Niagara, which, since the early days, has always been a big supporter of local boosterism. This year marks the town of Niagara’s bicentennial.

The highway barn is, like much of the town, practical. Bob and his crew take care of 30 lane miles with a budget just over $1 million. CHIPS contributes $53,000.

Lots of traffic comes here from out of town. Niagara has one of the largest and most successful discount outlet malls on the East Coast, and that 100 acres packed with retail provides an undeniable draw to our neighbors to the north.

Getting married in Niagara Falls is still popular enough for the Town Clerk’s office to have special hours available to get a license. Why the hoopla over very large waterfalls? According to one geologist, most European nations lack anything like Niagara Falls. The sheer amount of water — which is regulated according to the tourist season — makes Niagara Falls one of the top 10 destinations in this country and perhaps a candidate to be one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

In the city of Niagara there is a modern Indian-nation casino overlooking the overlook. Meanwhile, with the bustling cataract as a backdrop, the town residents of just around 8,000 people go to work, mow their lawns, and talk to their neighbors. Bob, in his first year on the job, said they get “Buffalo snow,” but not many FEMA-related weather events.

Bob calls it a solid middle class community with great pride and spirit reflected in tidy houses and nice yards. He should know, Bob has lived and raised a family here for the past 36 years.

Just 55 years old himself, last April Fool’s Day he portaged his way into quite a different career path that landed him at the highway garage. While some superintendents lock horns with their respective town boards and others get along just great, it is unusual for someone to jump ship from one side of the table to the other, so to speak. In short, he went from being a member of the town of Niagara’s Town Board to becoming the town’s highway superintendent following a successful election with approximately 1,200 votes.

Here’s how it happened: Bob came from a background that included construction and 35 years working for the UAW union at General Motors as an educator and facilitator. During a career highlight, along with other GM workers, he managed to capture $1 billion in business that was slated to go overseas.

“For 34 years I was the director of education and training for the UAW side of the house as well as product outsource coordinator.”

In those roles, Bob’s job was to retain UAW jobs by making a case for manufacturing car part products in house rather than outsourcing to another country to buy the work. He said, “If they wanted to take work outside the plant, my job was to build the case to keep the work in house.”

The union philosophy is in his genes; his dad and his grandfather were both union members. He thinks his background makes him aware of the needs of both management and man- and woman-power.

“I worked in the auto industry, which felt a lot of pain,” he said. “It was like a roller coaster going up and down, but you walked away with an understanding of how to be more successful. How to create longevity.”

Bob’s business background and absolute joy in instituting best practices in the highway barn has made his first year on the job productive and meaningful, which is not to say dull by any means.

Fairness and Equality

While complaints from residents are few, his strategy is to go right to the resident’s house for a discussion about the issue.

“I take the time to hear their concerns. Why was one road being done before another one? What about the pothole by their driveway? They appreciate that. They respect you more for showing up instead of just talking to them on the phone. They just want you to be fair.”

Bob said often times people think of some town roads as major thoroughfares when, in fact, some of the smaller side roads that need work are often used as short cuts by locals as ways to avoid more traffic lights. For him the town is broken roughly into four quadrants.

“When it comes to allocating resources, I try hard to divide the pot of dollars into four equal pieces.”

Getting Involved in Town of Niagara Politics Came Easy

Bob married Brenda 35 years ago and had four boys who still work and live nearby. Michael, Jason, Bobby, Tyler, and plus grandson, Carter, complete the family photo. Bob was a wrestler in high school, a sport his sons shared a passion for. His can-do attitude can be summed up in a phrase he apparently never gets tired of using — “Be the best that you can be and you will never be out of a job.”

As his kids left home, he found he had more time to pursue another interest in local politics, resulting in a position on the town of Niagara Town Board.

“I became a councilman and then deputy supervisor elected to a four-year term.”

Bob had previously been elected to various positions within the union, so he knew what it takes to win an election.

“My experiences on the board were helpful when I decided to run for superintendent of highways. All departments come to the board when they need funds. I am very factual in my outlook. I come from a very business-driven environment where details on facts and finances matter a great deal. I have the ability to analyze things to find savings within departments because that’s what I learned in the auto industry. I had a wealth of understanding in both business and politics. I wanted to use the lessons I learned in the auto industry to help my town move forward.”

His run for office was largely based on going door-to-door and explaining his future vision for town roads.

Bob is an easy-smiling kind of guy who will greet you at the door and take phone calls at the same time. He is backed by the super-efficient abilities of Krysty Fennell and realizes how lucky he is to have an assistant. It’s a busy place.

During the interview for this story, Calvin Richards, who had been the town supervisor for many years and has a new park and community center named after him, had stopped by to report some basketball equipment had been left out on a side road.

Bob said, “At some point somebody said to me, ‘Did you ever think about getting involved in town politics?’ and that was it. I could see how I could make a difference. I had elected positions in the union, so I knew how to go out and campaign. As you can see, I like to talk to people.”

He is chairman of a kids’ fishing derby and helped bring cross-country skiing to the new town park.

“People can rent equipment now and find out if they like the sport,” he said.

The town grooms trails that are community-friendly and easily accessible in the newly developed public green space.

Belonging to one political party or another doesn’t restrict Bob’s enthusiasm for doing a good turn for his community. He said he will run on every line on the ballot that is available to him, even though he counts himself a Democrat because of his union background.

“In small towns such as this it doesn’t matter which party you are. It’s all about doing the greater good for everybody.”

When the highway superintendent position opened up, Bob ran for it and won. He saw an immediate need for some improved equipment so that the crew could be even more productive.

“We bought some equipment to properly repair bad spots rather than spending a ton of money redoing the entire surface of the road. We’ve got two trucks on their way out, two single axles, and a tandem that are old.”

He said that in the planning stages are grants to help buy new plow trucks.

“We’d also like to have a new excavator for cleaning out ditches. Last year I borrowed a lot of equipment through shared services, but you can only do that for so long.”

Repair Rather Than a Total Resurface

“When I stepped into the job I recognized that to make things flow in a smooth manner, people have to have the tools to be successful. You can’t repair a road with just a shovel.”

He said they started doing road repairs in a different way.

“We purchased a brand new Bobcat skid steer with a 24-inch hydraulic mill mounted on it. Now we can mill out the bad spots, put hard material back in, and then prepare an overlay so there aren’t any bumps in the road. This way we get more longevity by topping the roads with a spot surface repair rather than a total resurface.”

Bob said that being an active member in the Niagara County Highway Association has been a significant departure from his background in business and industry where people tend to keep their secrets for success to themselves rather than share the thunder. After just a year on the job, he said with some amazement, “Those folks at the Niagara County Highway Association have been so willing to share all of the lessons they’ve learned. It’s so refreshing. We share information and equipment.”

Bob cited the use of a large 225 Cat or a large John Deere excavator as being the kind of machines he needs, but not frequently enough in his small town to justify buying one for more than $100,000 to do a little more ditch work. In terms of practicality it would be a lot like planting tulip bulbs with a backhoe.

His crew also built a tac sprayer in-house because, “Buying one would not be on a high-priority list of needs. We had a frame from a very old crack filling machine and put a tank on it and a pump on that. Then we built it up added hoses and painted it. It’s all about being innovative here.

“When we lay down asphalt material the tac works like a glue. We mill out the spot and put tac down to adhere to the new surface. When I came here they used brooms, which are cumbersome, dirty, and slow.”

He said manpower utilization — for example, how many workers are in each truck going to the job site — is another area he takes seriously.

Green Space, Still Growing Here

Niagara has a nice new community center and park named after the town’s former supervisor. With ponds and paths, Bob is clearly impressed with the supervisor’s vision of having something in place for a long time — green space for everybody.

Bob’s own connection to the land is found in some recreational property he owns in Wyoming County near the town of Eagle where he can hunt turkey and fish. He calls himself an “avid sportsman,” often accompanied by his sons. They’ve been using farm equipment to plant trees and talk about eventually putting up a structure on the property they all enjoy.

Using Technology to Control Costs

Many Americans are trying to cut back on their intake of sodium, or salt. Bob Herman took that same approach to his town’s use of highway salt. While the town has a covered salt storage shed to hold 1,300 tons of the stuff, Bob has outfitted the trucks with some technology created by a company called Force that helped him take the town’s salt budget from $120,000 annually to a budget of $50,000 annually, which Bob added is, “real money.”

How did he do it? “I’ve learned that if you can’t measure it, you can’t control it. We purchased electronic controls on how the salt would be distributed on the roads, according to conditions. Old technology was almost impossible to measure how much salt you were putting on the roads. With this technology on my laptop I can download the data from each truck and know exactly what went on the roads.”

The cost, he said, for four plow trucks was $25,000 (the unit is about $5,200 each). He added, “We cut the salt budget in half!”

Bob’s crew includes John Sullivan, deputy; Joe White; Bob Bridgeman; Wally Blake; Bob Evrard; Jim Hagerman; Him Scalzo; and Barry Mitchell.

The crew of eight plus Bob also likes the new salt control system.

“We preset the numbers according to pounds by road mile and the system does the rest.”

He learned about the idea while talking to other highway superintendents.

“I also looked at the state DOT to see what they do.”

Another innovation he takes great pride in is an added awareness on safety with weekly, you’ve-got-to-sign-in safety meetings. All trucks are now outfitted with at least twice as many caution lights on them.

“There was an issue where a county truck was struck. When that happens, a light goes on for us, and we try to learn a lesson from it.”

To save money the crew installed the added safety lighting in house.

More Reflective Signage

All superintendents are now facing a new mandate on more reflective signage in their towns and villages, but probably not all of them responded by first creating a “story pole.”

“We built a story pole so that the crew can immediately see if the sign is in or out of spec. It tells the height of what the signs should be.” Sort of like measuring your kids in a doorway and leaving a pencil line with their name on it.

Especially attractive and graphically pleasing are the signs he had a graphic artist help develop for the town. “This year,” he said, “we are addressing signage when we take a break from paving.”

Why He Took the Job

After nearly 40 years in the automotive business Bob probably could have retired with some comfort and gone hunting and fishing without the restraints and challenges of the job going with him. And yet he left the town board as deputy supervisor to become the town’s highway superintendent.

“It was about doing something different for the remainder of my career, and maybe getting out of my comfort zone in doing so. I’m an advocate of the one-team approach to the job. I’m out there raking blacktop with them. I like to look at something and to be proud of what we accomplished together.”

What better way to look at things than with a fresh set of eyes and a business background? Bob said it’s all about manpower utilization. “You have to set the goal of how much work you can get done this season. That’s really why I took the job.”

About the Town

of Niagara

It is actually the city of Niagara Falls — the Honeymoon Capital of the World — that gets most of the tourist action since it includes the cataract, but the town is just a few miles away.

The town of Niagara was formally founded in 1812 as the town of Schlosser. The name was changed to Niagara in 1892. Originally the town’s name then was a reflection of Fort Schlosser, a supply depot in 1678 when French explorers looked to portage the falls. The city of Niagara Falls was formed from the town, taking half of the land. In 1903 the city annexed another quarter of the town. Today’s parameters are just over nine square miles.

Six well traveled state and county highways traverse the town. They are Interstate 190, U.S. Route 62, New York State Route 31, New York State Route 61, New York State Route 182, and New York State Route 265 — Military Road — whose name speaks to its historic significance.

The town of Niagara has as bloody a history as you will find just about anywhere. Battles, beginning with Indians and the British, go back for a long time. The first record of humans here dates from between 1300 and 1400 A.D. Historians believe the name Niagara comes from an early Indian tribe, the Onguiaahra. While the Indian tribes fought among themselves, French explorers called one tribe the “Neutrals” because they tried to keep peace between the Hurons and the Iroquois.

In the early 1600s the tribe, at one time led by a woman, had 20,000 to 40,000 members. As peace keepers, warriors, traders, farmers, and business people, the Neutrals were the original entrepreneurs in the town of Niagara.

Inter-tribal warfare continued unabated until late in the 1600s. The French were committed to protecting the fur trade. In the late 1600s they built a fort called Fort Denonville at the site of Fort Niagara. During the winter the Seneca surrounded the fort. The French starved to death; only 12 of the original 100 soldiers survived.

During the war here between the French and the British, the Mississauga Indians supported the French while the Iroquois supported the British. By the American Revolution, the Mississauga supported the British. By 1788 there were nearly 600 Mississauga Indians living at Queenston (then called Queenstown). In the early 1800s, Delaware Indians lived on the banks of the Cattaraugus Creek.

During the War of 1812 the violence escalated. For example, On November 21, 1812, the British bombarded Fort Niagara. The American defenders responded with an artillery barrage of their own, striking at Fort George. The following year when the Americans attacked Fort York (Toronto) the British abandoned the fort, but not before setting the fort and supplies on fire. The Americans occupied the fort for about a month and then burned the Parliament Building to the ground as they left town.

In retribution for the Americans’ burning of Newark, the British burned Lewiston, Manchester (Niagara Falls), and Fort Schlosser (Niagara). As the British marched south they continued their arsonist route by setting the settlement at Black Creek on fire and then incinerating Buffalo. Sometimes the numbers involved were staggering. In the battle of Lundy’s Lane, July 1814, for example, 5,000 American troops faced about 2,200 British soldiers, militia, and Indians. A total of about 267 dead soldiers were cremated on the battlefield while a total of 1,183 more were wounded and 338 were taken prisoner, reflecting about equal numbers of prisoners on both sides.

While a peace treaty was signed with the British on March 15, 1815, both sides suffered heavy losses and the Niagara Frontier with its pioneer settlements and commercial hopefulness was now a ruin. For Canada nationhood would come in 1867, while in this country the Civil War lay just ahead.

Attacks and counter attacks give this area along the Niagara frontier and the town an amazing storehouse of well-documented historical narratives that involve multiple Indian tribes who had issues; the French, British, and Americans who also hated each other; and a valuable fur trade and land acquisition with promising rewards for the victors. Next to visits to the falls, a tour of the battlefields of the War of 1812 — especially Lundy’s Lane — is also a popular thing to do.

The town had a simple beginning with just 12 houses, a grist and a saw mill, a tannery, a tavern, a post office, and a rope walk over the Gorge measuring 360 feet long made out of hemp for a perilous pedestrian crossing. Creating bridges to places like Goat Island (with goats in residence) and watching the structures get destroyed by ice kept men, including Augustus Porter, occupied. Around 1818 they manufactured iron on the island thanks to an iron bridge.

Bath Island, another landmark here, had the country’s largest paper mill until 1885 when the state took it over to form NYS Reservation Park. One can’t overstate the importance of cheap water power during this time in history. Niagara Falls’ primary purpose was industry.

Having a good time here also developed to support the local economy. By 1850, 60,000 people visited Niagara Falls. By 1914, the number of visitors reached one million. Rowboats and ferry boats began to ply the trade, and covered stairways were built to reach landmarks like Table Rock. Tours began to take tourists behind the falls. Stagecoach service brought Europeans, and in September 1827, the first recorded of many publicity stunts took place. It is unimaginable today, but the proprietor of the American Eagle Hotel, William Forsyth, sent the lake schooner Michigan with a cargo of live, wild animals over the falls for a crowd of 15,000 thrillseekers to enjoy.

Among the doomed “passengers” were a buffalo, two small bears, two raccoons, a dog, and a goose. The 16-foot ship was decorated to look like a pirate ship with dummies of humans tied to the deck. As the Michigan reached the rapids, the hull of the ship was torn open, and the two bears escaped and swam to Goat Island. All of the animals were caged or tied to the ship and died except the goose, which survived.

Forsyth even chained off nearly 60 feet of border on the Niagara Gorge, restricting access to Table Rock and some of the best views of the falls to Forsyth’s paying guests. Ultimately the government of Upper Canada broke his chain and eventually forced him to give up his hotel and 400 acres of land.

The practice of sending boats over the falls on purpose continued in September 1831 when an old steamboat called the Superior was launched but became stranded on some land a short distance from the brink, so the crowd dispersed before it finally made the plunge. In 1837, when British troops invaded what is now the town of Niagara, they set fire to the steamboat Caroline and set her adrift to go over the falls in flames.

Europeans, mostly missionaries, first came to the area in the 17th century. The first recorded Europeans to see the falls — which were at least twice as large and strong as they are today — were Frenchman Robert de la Salle and Belgian priest Louis Hennepin.

Who really knows about the name? Native Americans here were of the Neutral Confederacy and are described as being called the Niagagarega people on several French maps of the area drawn in the late 17th century. The first written eyewitness report — think of it as an early postcard — was published in a gentlemen’s journal in 1604.

A concern for road work began very early here when the British gained control of the portage — and thus the fur trade on the Great Lakes — and began making improved roads to support supply wagons to be pulled up the escarpment. Various forts and structures called redoubts provided some needed protection. For example, in 1763 500 hundred Seneca attacked a British wagon train along the top of the gorge resulting in the “Massacre at Devil’s Hole.”

The need to supply the westward expansion and the fur trade resulted in the creation of the first elevator built in North America, in this instance, to get supplies up and down the escarpment. In 1764 the British built a mechanized tramway, called “the cradles,” to move boats, supplies, and arms to the top of the gorge. The elevator had two wooden tramways leading from the dock along the Niagara River at the base of the escarpment to the top of the cliff.

Two cradles were linked by rope over a pulley at the top so that when one cradle moved down one tramway, the other one moved up. Each cradle could haul 12 to 14 barrels of supplies at a time. The tramway was still in working order 46 years after it was built.

During the American Revolution the Loyalists were British and many of them lived in the area around the town of Niagara. Formed in 1777, a group who fought on behalf of the British were known as Butler’s Rangers, named for John Butler, an early pioneer here. Butler was instrumental in bringing settlement to the west bank of the river, which had been Indian Territory.

Following the revolution, which favored the American forces, in 1783 the King of England instructed Butler to purchase all the lands between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario for settlement by the Loyalists — Americans who fought for the British cause. Portage Road, which dates to 1788, became the main supply route as it ran from below the Niagara escarpment to the top. Ox-drawn carts were often the vehicle of choice as travelers, soldiers, and fur traders used Portage Road for future development.

By 1785 water here was first tapped to power a saw and grist mill right where today’s Toronto Power Generating Plant stands. By 1791 a modest log hut for travelers became one of the first hotels, with a path from its location on Portage Road just above Horseshoe Falls. Visitors followed the path to Table Rock to better take in the view. Taverns and hotels were built at a rapid pace. By 1798 two stagecoach lines met increased demand by visitors. By 1816 the stage between Niagara and Toronto (then called York) cost $5 and took 17 hours to complete.

By the mid-18th century tourism, a burgeoning industry, was already the area’s main source of revenue. Distinguished guests including Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, visited with his bride in the early 19th century.

Local history is full of unusual things that continued to happen by the falls. The Caroline, a rebel supply ship, was burned and sent over the falls. In March of 1848 the ice was so thick that the water was down to a trickle for at least 40 hours. By later that year a clamor grew for a bridge to be built over the Niagara River. First came a footbridge, then Charles Elliot’s Niagara suspension bridge. That was updated by the German-born John Augustus Roebling’s Niagara Falls suspension bridge in 1855.

In 1866, Leffert Buck replaced Roebling’s wood and stone bridge with the predominantly steel bridge that still carries trains over the Niagara River today. The first steel archway bridge, known as the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, was completed in 1897 for cars, trains, and pedestrians between the two countries with customs stations for each country at each end.

In 1941 the Niagara Falls Bridge Commission completed the third crossing in the area near the falls by building the Rainbow Bridge. After the First World War, the popularity of automobiles soared as did destination points for the newly mobile public to travel to destinations like Niagara Falls, but its popularity began long before.

It was after the Civil War that the New York Central Railroad publicized Niagara Falls as a focus for weddings and especially for honeymoons. The train from New York City to the falls may have been the most romantic ride at the time.

People just can’t leave nature alone sometimes. For example, in 1969 the Army Corps of Engineers dammed the falls in order to remove clear rock and repair some faults. To do so they built a dam measuring 600 feet made from 30,000 tons of rock to temporarily divert the flow to the Canadian side. Other focal points include Terrapin Rocks, which were once connected to Goat Island by a series of bridges. In 1955 the area between the rocks and island were filled in to create Terrapin Point.

During the 1980s the Army Corps of Engineers filled in more land and built diversion dams and retaining walls to force the water away from Terrapin Point. As a result, Horseshoe Falls is now entirely in Canada.

The first recorded effort to use the falls for power was in 1759 when Daniel Joncaire built a small canal to power his sawmills. In 1805 two brothers bought some property from the government to power their gristmill and tannery. In 1853 the Niagara Falls Hydraulic Power and Mining Company was chartered. In 1881 the first hydroelectric generating station was built.

The force of the water falling 86 feet ran machinery in the local mills and lit many of the streets. Improvements in creating electric power resulted in many technological changes at the falls. For example, on August 26, 1895, the world’s first large AC power system was activated and the Adam Power Plant Transformer House remains a landmark of that achievement and its implications to commerce, even today.

Water turbines came next financed by the industrial moguls of the day. J.P. Morgan, John Jacob Astor IV, and the Vanderbilts all had a hand in backing underground conduits leading to turbines generating enough horsepower to send power to Buffalo, 20 miles away.

On the other side, Canadians also harvest the falls for power and cater to tourists for their buying prowess.

In 1961 when the Niagara Falls hydroelectric project went live it was the largest hydropower facility in the Western world. Niagara is still the largest electricity producer in New York state. According to Wikipedia, currently, approximately 50 to 75 percent of the Niagara River’s flow is diverted via four huge turbines far upstream from the falls. The water returns to the river well past the falls.

Due to an agreement reached with Canada in 1950 to preserve this natural attraction, water usage by the power plant is limited during tourist season. Half of the natural flow must go over the falls during daylight hours from April through October.

Already popular, visits to the falls increased following the 1953 release of the movie Niagara with Marilyn Monroe and Joseph Cotton. The falls also were a featured location in the 1980 movie Superman II. IMAX made the most of it in Niagara: Miracles, Myths and Magic. Even Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons take place near the hydroelectric plant.

Most recently, location footage of the falls is featured in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

It’s curious that the amount of water now going over the falls reflects the tourist season, because in the 1870s visitors had very limited access to the majestic sight. The falls were devoted to industrial and commercial use. A lack of public access resulted in a conservation movement known as Free Niagara led by notables including Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church, landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and architect Henry Hobson Richardson. As spokesperson, Church approached the governor-general of Canada for international discussions about the establishment of a public park.

In 1879 the New York state legislature commissioned Olmsted and James T. Gardner to survey the falls and create the single most important document in the Niagara preservation movement. The report recommended the state purchase, restore, and preserve through public ownership the scenic wonders surrounding Niagara Falls.

Preservation vectored in 1885 when the governor of New York created the Niagara Reservation, the state’s first state park. In the same year the province of Ontario established the Queen Victoria Niagara Falls Park for the Canadian side.

There are plenty of ways to enjoy the experience. The Niagara Scenic Trolley offers guided trips around the area. The Maid of the Mist tourist boats work both sides of the river astounding mist-drenched passengers. Goat Island is accessible by foot and car. From the island the Cave of the Winds is accessible by elevator to a point beneath Bridal Veil Falls. For the bird’s-eye view there is a space needle with a restaurant on top and a charge just to ride the elevator to the top.

There is plenty of noise besides the water, and enough scenic helicopter rides to make you miss your putt if you golf on the public course nearby.

Panoramic and aerial views can be taken from the Flight of Angels helium balloon ride. A Discovery Center showcases natural and local history, while an Indian casino helps separate tourists from their wampum. Colored lights at night reflecting off the ice and falling water are a prime time attraction here in winter.

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