Highway Superintendent Robert Meehan Jr. and the Town of Austerlitz

Laurie Mercer

Sharing a border with Massachusetts in the wide-ranging Berkshire Mountains, the town of Austerlitz represents more than a geographic phenomenon. While the two states share a periphery in a heavily high-end touristed area, Austerlitz is purely upstate in spirit, direction, and certainly its stated preference for long and winding dirt roads.

Bob Meehan Jr., highway superintendent, said that in the next 100 years, “not all of the roads in Austerlitz will be paved.” Bob is one of a crew of five. Zeva, his two-year-old cocker spaniel he calls a “spoiled brat,” goes with him wherever he goes. There are lots of rich New Yorkers who have developed properties in the hills, but during the week he said it’s all locals, most of whom are on a first name basis. Residents number just 1,200 people. It is a very small town without any business unless you count the diner and the gas station just off the Thruway, which Bob still calls the “parkway,” echoing its name from an earlier time.

There really isn’t enough commerce to afford blacktop, which is exactly what many people love about Austerlitz. It is very relaxing and peaceful, much like rural life in America was 100 years ago, and this is genuine, not a museum replication of what was good about our collective past.

Bob, a pleasant individual with just a touch of gray, can go from looking very serious to laughing out loud in about a nanosecond. His walk is like that of a rodeo cowboy because of a ditching accident while working as a contractor where Bob jumped back into the ditch to save a young man. Bob got caught up to his neck in dirt instead. After three hours he was finally freed, but his hips were crushed, which left him with a permanent gimp.

He clearly enjoys his work. “We have the most dirt in Columbia County,” he said with a little bit of pride. There are 57.5 lane miles of it and about 12 in blacktop. Needless to say dust is a big problem for city people. Bob said he would like a nickle for every communication from weekend residents that begins with the question, “Do you know how much I pay in taxes?”

Dirt roads are just plain different. Austerlitz also has one of the lowest per mile budgets in the county thanks to their practical, hardscrabble approach to highway work.

Why Dirt Is Different

“I went to a seminar in Ithaca one year,” he said. “The big thing then was to put liquid down before a snowstorm. I stood up and said if I ever did that, I wouldn’t get home. We can’t take the frost out of our roads. If we did they would turn into mud. So we have a little bit of a different situation here in Austerlitz.” In addition to grading, he said, with dirt roads you are constantly cleaning ditches. Don’t misunderstand him; he doesn’t want to turn Austerlitz into a parking lot. “I love dirt roads. I grew up here.” He was in fact born just a few miles from the highway barn. For shared services he looks to long-time collaborators in the highway garages of nearby Chatham, Canaan and Ghent.

When the roads get soft he said a four-hour plow run can stretch to seven hours. When his roads are frozen he said they are easy to plow. He said they motor pave the 12 miles of blacktop that are situated in various well-traveled parts of town.

“Our elevation is about 2,000 feet at the top of the hill, so it can be raining here and snowing a few feet at the top. It changes that much.” The town’s road roster just added another 4.5 miles to maintain. The new blacktop roads came to them a little surreptitiously. Bob explained that a developer built a development having made promises to lot holders about the road that the developer said would be maintained by the town. The road was not built to spec so the town refused to take it over. Then the developer “ran,” leaving the property owners with an expensive-to-fix problem on their hands. Bob said the residents of about 25 nice, higher end, custom homes tried to take care of the road themselves but that effort failed. Residents then petitioned the Austerlitz Town Board to step in and take over, and Bob was forced to point out to them that the town could not afford to take over a substandard road. The roads, Bob said, are “terrible.”

The residents all agreed to pay for the blacktop, which came to about $3,500 per home for 10 years. Bob said they have a pretty nice road up there now, and he admitted it’s kind of nice to be able to just drop the plow and go. The irony is not lost on him that residents still have to drive over three miles of dirt to get in and out of their newly paved-to-spec development.

Making a Big Deal Out of Dust

It’s not for nothing that the super rich of New York City fled the city to build super camps and mansions in the hills of Austerlitz’s Harvey Mountain for their weekend retreats, especially following 9/11. Their large houses are often not visible from the road, way up half-a-million-dollar driveways, behind high fences and locked gates. If you have ever been to the tony Hamptons on Long Island, you know the look. Locked gates do seem out of place in a town where plenty of people don’t lock their doors in the daytime.

The weekenders are the loudest complainers about dust on dirt roads, especially this spring after three weeks with no rain. They also support the tax base that makes life nicer for everyone.

“When I was a kid they used motor oil for dust. It worked great. If you did that today you’d go to jail. We use calcium to control dust. We use bagged stuff right in front of their house if they complain, but we also contract out for liquid applications. We have a section all graded up and then have them come in for liquid applications. We put it out to bid and the price per gallon came down a little bit from last year.”

Mowing the town park also is contracted out, as was the new blacktop on the tennis court, but the highway crew handles the daily maintenance like fixing swings.

“I like doing the park stuff,” he said, “It’s for the kids and for the community.” The only real hamlet in Austerlitz is Spencertown, which appears as if time stood still with its pristine circa 1830s buildings, including the Spencertown Academy, a beautiful ramshackle antique shop, and Dan’s Diner, a period establishment from when diners were made from railroad cars. It would take a lot of cups of coffee to pay for this. Dan’s is open for breakfasts and lunches only and reflects a carefully done three-year restoration that is clearly a labor of love.

Austerlitz’s roads, largely free of any traffic lights and few stop signs, roll along a ridge on both sides of Harvey Mountain, sometimes in view of the faraway Catskills. The town’s well-maintained rural roads and just about 12 miles of blacktop are bordered by fresh moving water, waterfalls, forests, and miles of old stone fence lines. Bob said the woods are full of deer and lots of black bear. And there used to be a lot of antique tractors, but more about that later.

Back roads he believes have a different feeling about them, plus multifarious needs for maintenance. His road inventory is about 50 miles of dirt, 12 miles of blacktop, and three seasonal roads of about a mile each. The Austerlitz town budget is $500,000 with $90,000 from CHIPS. While he advocates for more heavily trafficked roads to get paved he loves dirt roads as well. The town has a lovely pastoral feeling about it with lots of hometown pride. For example, the hamlet of Spencertown, which was named because in the lightly populated frontier times there were at least 12 families of Spencer’s, is charming. In Spencertown the Austerlitz Town Hall is constructed from stones taken from local creeks.

How He Got Here

Bob was elected to the job in 1997 following a brief appointment when the previous superintendent passed away from cancer.

Bob may be the only person in his profession who still connects emotionally to dirt roads. Bob’s ideal road is rural dirt with “grass growing up in the center of it.” Austerlitz has a few of those. One of Bob’s favorites has a hilltop view of the Catskills that looks like a Hudson River Valley school painting.

A self-confessed rock nut, Bob planned the approach to the town’s new, 75-foot by 150-foot highway garage, which cost $680,000 and was finished in 2004, to have the entrance flanked by a 12-ton boulder that was dug out of the ground by Bob’s crew, right where the garage now sits.

“There was this little rock sticking up a few inches where we began to dig. As we dug deeper it just got larger!” he said. The adventure continued as they pushed the beast to the end of the new driveway. On the push they used their DE6 bulldozer, which had “all it could do to move it.” The garage is intelligently situated off the road and somewhat out of sight of passing motorists. The exterior colors of green and cream were chosen to blend into a pastoral environment that many people have long come to appreciate, protect and value. Without any cell signal it’s easy for Bob to become lost in his work, which he said he loves. Even the news of 9/11 passed him by until he got home later that evening.

“It’s beautiful around here,” he said. “That’s why when people move away they sometimes come back here to live. They say it’s the prettiest part of the country they’ve ever seen.”

It’s a very can-do highway garage with a lot of inventory since parts and supplies are often many miles away. When Superintendent’s Profile stopped by, they were replacing a belt on a very old Jetson-like riding tractor with a hand painted name on it of “Grouchy,” named after an employee. They use it to cut tall grass around their building. They were also repairing a pipe where they had stripped some threads. The crew did much of the work for the new building, including clearing the land with a new 12-inch chipper and the excavation of both the contaminated soil and the site for the new building. They also built the septic system because Bob said that in addition to excavation, “I’m into that.”

A ribbon cutting for the new garage included a dedication to former supervisor Peter Gable, who died before he got to see the project, which he helped champion, to completion. Now it has been almost 10 years and the local architect who helped design the space is due back for a walk through to discuss how it is working.

“We have radiant heat now, which is nice, but it’s not cheap to run,” Bob said. “When you back in six, 10-ton frozen steel trucks at the end of the day, the furnace works all night. The best part is you come in and the trucks are melted off and the floor is dry.” He asked for lots of windows so you can frequently walk in and work without hitting the electric switch. Another thing for him was the overhang. “Every highway garage seems to be built so the stuff goes in front of the doors. Our local architect designed the roof pitch. I also asked for 2-foot overhangs in front of the building on each side so the water doesn’t run down the side of the building.”

From a Mud Hut to a New Garage in Three Years

Bob has an ample back story for comparing what it used to be like before the new facility.

“When I first came here all the trucks were parked outside. We dragged them and put air in them to get them started. We also had to plug them in sometimes. We went through starters and windshield wiper motors because they never got thawed out.”

Between the ribbon cutting on the new highway headquarters and the eventual controlled burning of the old garage, there were three uncomfortable years where the crew worked out of a small, dirt floored shed that is still in use for storage. Bob said in the final year they poured a concrete floor in the alleged highway garage because they still weren’t sure when and if a new building would get approved. Dirt floors can be dangerous. “Somebody was going to get hurt,” he said.

Eventually the town put a bond on the contamination remediation and the construction of a new garage. Figuring out how to pay an as yet undetermined amount for contaminated soil and building a new facility were slowing down the wheels of progress at the Town Board level.

Eventually they pulled the old tin off the old building and stripped it of all electrical wires. The DEC allowed them to burn the wooden frame with the local fire department in attendance. “Had I known it was going to be that much work, we might have just put it all in dumpsters and sent it to the landfill. But it was alright.”

“It cost $450,000 just to get the material out of here. It killed the budget,” said Bob of the project to remove contaminated soil from the old garage. This is where a previous employee many years ago had the place flagged because there was oil going down the drain. Bob said when the DEC came to discuss the issue, the then highway superintendent became belligerent. He even got handcuffed but not arrested. Bob explained his cantankerous personality by saying, “If you said something was white, he would say it’s black. So then the DEC put it off for about 10 years.”

Once Bob assumed the position in 1997 the DEC said he had to clean it up. “I looked at them and said OK. So we began to work with them. The actual work itself began in 1999. We ended up moving over 9,000 tons of soil out of here to a certified burn plant across the river.”

It still makes him chuckle with some amazement at how far the digging went, well beyond any expectations. The pit eventually measured 22 feet deep and 120 feet long. He explained how the blob grew. “When they realigned Route 203 here in town they put all that fill in there. So there was about a 4-foot layer of topsoil over the ground. The gas and oil being discarded went down and leached through the old topsoil going wider and deeper. We ended up digging a lot more than we thought we would.”

“They had done a whole bunch of tests before we started to see if it was moving. We were digging for a month and a half,” he said. While his crew used a rented excavator for the dig, he hired a company that does soil contamination to oversee the site. The truck hauling to the burn site also was offloaded to companies familiar with this specialized form of trucking. “I like to call it the plastic project,” joked Bob as he described the rolls of plastic used to line the truck beds and more to go under the dirt when it was on the ground. Testing also slowed down the pace. “You can only move 10 tractor trailer loads and then you have to test again. These plants can only accept so much material. I think 300 ton was the limit before we had to retest. There was a lot of testing going on!”

As for the excavation hole, it stood open one winter carefully fenced off. Initially they talked about having the treated dirt hauled back, but that was “outrageously expensive” at $25 a ton to bring it back. To save some money they worked with Columbia County where they were taking a curve out of a nearby highway. Bob scored the leftover blacktop. “We also had our ditch cleanings, so we filled the hole back up with that.”

Today the footprint of the former highway garage has a big pile of millings on it. Bob said the two oldest old-timers in the crew were gone by the time the new building was in use. Edgar Logan, known as Butch, had 36 years working for the department, and George Pulver, who passed away this spring, had 20 years in the old highway garage.

Lots of Tired, Well-Maintained Equipment

The big news in the highway garage this spring was the much-anticipated arrival of a new excavator. At least we hope they get it. Bob explained that there are practically no businesses in town unless you count the gas station off the Thruway, and Dan’s Diner and the store in Spencertown. As a result, budgets are strained. He described some of the equipment as needing replacement. “We have 550 Fords that are 4-wheel drive. Normally we can get our less well traveled roads open with that.”

Austerlitz has some wicked hills and valleys including a 19 percent grade on Pierson Road. Bob said that while nobody lives on the road, the farmer who owns the fields wants it kept open. “It’s a back road with a view of the Catskill Mountains.” But, before Bob joined the crew, the same steep road had also cost the town a new truck. Bob said a highway truck trying to plow the road came down the hill backwards in a snowstorm, flipped upside down, and totaled the big single-axle dump truck. “Even with a small truck the road can take two hours to plow. We do it at the end of the storm. We asked the town to make it seasonal, but they turned that down. We often have one truck down during any storm because of the age of our fleet. Another problem here is that most of our soil is clay, hard pan, and rock. It’s very tough. It’s like concrete out there today, but in spring it can be a couple feet of mud in spots. We have worked to make them better by using shale. We dig out the soft spot and put shale in. If there are springs we also have to put drainage in.”

“All our roads are posted at 30 mph but we have had people pulled over doing 60 miles per hour on a winding dirt road.”

He said that his blacktop is “motor paved.” That is, cold blacktop put in place and then treated with oil and stone every five years or so. “We try to oil and stone them every four years because we think it holds a little better, but it’s not cheap.”

As for salt he said they don’t use much of it, estimating they use about 250 tons a year. Salt would defrost the roads and then they would turn into mud. “Too much salt,” he said with a laugh, “and they get sloppy. We do have a different situation here.” It may be the nice new garage that leads him to believe their salt storage could also use a serious upgrade. Currently it is kept indoors in a former free stall dairy barn. Support posts holding the roof up make backing into the barn for materials a job for the experienced operator. Of course, money is at the core of need. The barn, which is several miles from the garage, costs a few thousand dollars a year to rent, and it works. A new salt storage shed by the garage, while more efficient, could cost the budget-strapped town several hundred thousand dollars.

People both for and against dirt roads often take their issue to the town board. Bob has some highly traveled roads, including Reed Road, that he would like to see blacktopped, but a citizens group from the neighborhood initially objected and had about 100 signatures to back leaving the road alone.

Bob said nearly 10 years have passed, and most of the same people who signed the petitions are rethinking that they may want blacktop after all. That’s the chatter from the town. “They’ve gotten tired of the dust and dirt.”

New Road Grader Upgrade

“I’ve got a real good supervisor right now,” said Bob. “We are in the process of having a new road grader before the summer is out.” The cost could be around $250,000 for all-wheel drive. In Austerlitz the graders are used for just about everything from pushing snow back to “ripping ice off the roads.” The two graders now in the barn are “ancient.” One of them is pushing 16,000 hours on it, but it continues to perform because of diligent maintenance after 22 years of heavy work. Oil sampling indicates that the motor is, in his words, “seriously wore out.” In addition, he has one 2008 truck with an underbody scraper on it to help save the old grader.

“We’ve got two 1988s, a 1990 International, and one that is 1995. One tandem is 1988. We don’t plow with that one, just haul materials. The other tandem is 2002. The little trucks are 2000 and 2008. We have two loaders, one is 1992 and the other is 1997. We have a 1986 wheel excavator and a one-track excavator that is a 2006. Probably one of the newest pieces of equipment is the tractor outside that’s a 2007. We’ve got some nice equipment, but we need some new trucks.”

More Unofficial Assignments

A few years ago the town board asked the highway crew to stop mowing cemeteries. Austerlitz has at least 18 cemeteries, including a few that are still operative. The others are falling into disrepair. Picking up trash along the road is another unofficial chore. Bob said that when the cost of garbage and recycling tires goes higher, more trash — even toilet bowls — appear along the edge of town roads. “What about all these beer and soda cans? We probably spend two weeks in the spring picking up garbage.”

Austerlitz is home to the Beebe Hill State Forest with about 3,000 acres of state forest to attract hikers and campers. Not everybody practices the credo of “carry in, carry out.” The fire tower is a good destination near the summit where a wild blueberry field still exists that historically once provided a source of revenue to area residents. During a well-attended blueberry festival at the museum grounds called Old Austerlitz, the berries continue the tradition of honoring nature’s tasty anti-oxidant, enjoying new popularity in the grocery stores. During the Austerlitz in Autumn festival people wear period clothing and demonstrate pioneer lifestyle skills.

How to Save the Town $34,000 for Pipe

Hurricane Irene caused serious flooding in town, and one fast moving creek took out an old culvert. Bob had already noticed an old boiler pipe in a field on Stone Wall Road so he asked about it. The town ended up purchasing two 1/2-inch steel plate pipes that Bob said were like new. After trimming and welding they hauled it in on a flatbed truck and rolled it into place using two loaders and an excavator. He estimates the price for a new pipe was about $40,000 while the recycled boiler cost the town just $6,000 and will probably last forever.

It’s not all about recycling here. When Superintendent’s Profile visited, the crew was ready to put in a three-sided concrete culvert on West Hill to prevent flooding to neighboring yards. The 14 1/2-ton pre-cast concrete module requires a crane to lift it into place.

Like a lot of highway superintendents in these parts of the state, Bob grew up on a small dairy farm with about 50 head milked in two shifts. By the time he was 16 he had hired himself out to work on anther dairy farm while he went to high school. After graduating from the Chatham school system he went to work in a body shop doing prep work and painting, which he still enjoys. He started as an equipment operator for the village of Chatham doing highways, water, and sewers, “a little bit of everything,” he called it, where he stayed for the next nearly 16 years.

Coming into the superintendent’s position proved to be daunting. “The former superintendent passed away, and there were a couple of guys here who were spending FEMA money we got due to a big flood and not marking anything down. It was a little ugly when I got here.” He said that with the help of a capable office assistant he tried to figure it out. He said some jobs had to be done twice because of a lack of records and that in tracking down materials they found “pipe everywhere.”

In 1980 he began his own excavation business, which he still pursues. He called it, “playing in dirt.” While the work hasn’t made him a rich man, he seems to be satisfied that the work has brought him lots of toys. The single father of a 21-year-old son likes to snowmobile with his boy, and in his spare time collects, some might say hoards and restores vintage tractors — especially those made from steel.

He estimated he has about 15 tractors that are restored and another 25 waiting to get done. Most of the machinery came from local farms. He said the downside of a strong market for junk is that many nostalgic old machines end up for meltdown in China. On brands he said he is partial to Massey Harris and McCormick or the “reds over the green ones.”

Following the town’s 1970s penchant for orange equipment, the color of the town trucks is now red. Trucks are repainted frequently enough that even an old 1988 looks pretty good. Bob added, “to be honest with you, I love to paint. It’s sad we have so many laws.” While they can no longer paint, they do try to prep the body work. Most of the crew is younger people so OSHA laws and safety training are part of their backgrounds. What makes hiring people more difficult for Bob are the insurance companies increasingly stringent demands that new hires have clean driver’s licenses. “If the person has two or three tickets they don’t want them hired even if they are minor infractions like no seat belt or an accident that was not their fault.”

“When somebody says they have a clean license, I have to see that paper.” Drug and alcohol testing is also routine for Bob and the crew. “I was a farm boy and never got into it.” His tip for improving morale is to “leave them alone.”

“At one point nobody in town wanted to work here,” said Bob. “But things have improved a lot in the highway department. Now I think it is going the other way. We used to have to go far away to hire people, now the entire crew lives within 6 to 7 miles from here. I’ve got a good crew.”

And where else could he take his dog to work everyday?

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