Highway Superintendent Dan Amatura and the Town of Lancaster

It’s not every town that has a highway department sign out front with the deputy’s name on it, but Dan Amatura, superintendent of the town of Lancaster for the past few years wouldn’t have it any other way.

Here’s why: Meet Lou Cacciotti, deputy superintendent, and a seasoned veteran with 50 years in the department who has worked with six to eight different superintendents. Some were gentlemen, like Dan, he said, and some were perfectly horrible to work for, but Louie kept working and while doing so compiled an incredible record on every project.

Lou was 21 years old when he joined the department 50 years ago. He also worked in relatively primitive conditions. He remembers plowing with a truck with no working headlights. He said he and another worker each held flashlights out the windows and flashed the lights whenever a car approached.

“We wouldn’t be the department we are today.” Dan said. “That’s why his name is on the sign and not mine.” Someday, Dan concedes they will add his name as well.

Lancaster, a town of about 36 square miles has 150 lane miles. They also plow 16 miles of road for the county. The budget is $4.1 million with CHIPS kicking in $71,000. With 40,000 residents and enormous malls grounded by every mega store possible, Lancaster has lots of traffic, especially at the west end, which is commercial.

He said that while the south end of town is in a snow belt, the crew can go to the other side of Walden Avenue to the north and find no snow at all.

“The guy’s name that is on the sign is the guy who deserves to have it there,” said Dan of the sign in front of the highway department. “He has helped me so much in the last three years. I come from road construction, so I am used to thinking it all has to get done right now. Louie reminds me that I am not in the construction business any longer; he said I am superintendent of maintenance.”

Come hell or high water, Louie has remained on the job for the past 50 years, where he began a painstakingly detailed record, including text, hand drawn schematics, and photographs, of every job the highway department has been involved in.

Besides being historic, Lou’s records are now scanned and married to the latest and greatest in GIS systems, which Dan pioneered here. While Louie tends to work more often directly with the men (there are 29 of them including Dan and Lou and one full-time and one part-time secretary) and talks to residents who might be having a bad day, it is Dan who can swiftly bring the entire town into focus on his computer screen.

“I had a woman call me yesterday,” Dan said. “She lives on Westwood where they have a race track behind the road because they train race horses. She thought drainage from the other property was causing problems to her home. In June, we had more than three inches of rain over what is normal here, so we’ve had lots of water. I could talk to her on the phone while looking at the situation on the computer screen. Lou was dispatched to talk to her in person and to see if it’s a problem we can correct.”

“Drainage,” he said, “is not rocket science. Water is supposed to run downhill.”

Lancaster is drained by several streams flowing from east to west. The watersheds are from north to south.

The idea to employ GIS came to him in a random meeting on an airplane with an engineer who was once a town supervisor who suggested he look into it.

“When I started here I didn’t have a file cabinet, just a couple of drawers. When I explained my vision to Louie, he showed me these immaculate notebooks that he took upon himself for years of being here. I saw that and I knew that we needed to get all that data into our computer system. We were very fortunate the way a series of events fell into place.”

Dan got an $8,000 grant to improve their record keeping, and the scanning began with some technical assistance from a University of Buffalo professor and a talented student.

“When the engineer I met randomly on a plane showed me what the GIS could do, I was like a kid in a candy store. I was so excited about the possibilities.”

The town is about to include its entire sign inventory on the system. They will also include an inventory of all the roads.

“GIS is an important tool when we want to know the condition of all those catch basins before we pave the road. There are also programs where you can put in your inventory for when you plow and salt your roads. It is important information, especially if there is an accident.”

Dan can look at trouble spots from his desk, while Louie is often the person who speaks to a complaining resident.

“A lot of problems are caused by the residents themselves,” Dan said. “You find that they put in a garden shed or landscaped areas, which changes the drainage. If someone has a pipe in their backyard and they want it replaced, we will do that if they supply the pipe. We back fill the spot but they have to be responsible for top soil and seeding.”

What residents appreciate the most from his crew is the brush crew that goes out to pick up resident-made brush piles in spring and fall.

“We are making the taxpayers happy. They can see they are getting some bang for their buck. They see it as a great benefit.”

The leaves they pick up go to a local nursery where they are turned into mulch.

Back to the Beginning, Bonding for Progress

“When I first came in, I tried to get the town involved in a capital improvement program for the whole town, but I didn’t get a lot of cooperation. For me, it was taking too long. I said I have to do something about the infrastructure. The culverts, for example; I have culverts in this town that haven’t been touched in 20, 30, and 40 years. In fact, there is culvert we just replaced that hadn’t been touched in 50 years!”

“That culvert was flagged by the DOT because the infrastructure was falling apart. I had three of them that were flagged, and we finally got the board to bond the work to get them fixed. We have one more to go.”

Dan said there is still a lot of “old cow pipe” that needs to be replaced. Of his original proposal for $4.1 million in infrastructure that he presented to the board for approval, they have already accomplished about a million dollars of the budget. Two more box culverts in the works will require about $400,000.

“You can’t wait until things are falling apart because you then get into a situation like those bridges where we had to bond them because they were flagged,” Dan said.

To pay for some badly needed new equipment, the town board let him bond for one year at a time. This year they are bonded for $1.63 million for equipment, which will get them a couple of dump plow trucks and some other needed improvements in equipment. They go through county bids to purchase trucks.

“Western Star looks like the best price right now. The last one was a Kenworth and we have lots of others.”

With a goal of sweeping all the town roads twice a year he said the two new sweepers are valued, as is the new wheel loader, and the new mini-excavator to help with drainage problems. A new small roller is also on board.

When asked how he determined what he needed most in a department with a lot of old equipment he said, “We mostly went by age. We had trucks that were more than 15 years old.”

While he would like to have a new paver, his shared-services agreements with Lancaster’s two villages — the village of Lancaster and the village of Depew — has helped him out immensely.

“We help each other in many different ways, but mostly when we mill and pave with hot materials,” he said. “They give us trucks. Then when they need to pave, we have the paver, men, and the roller to pave for them.”

Good record keeping extends to shared services. A mutual sharing agreement totals man hours only because a dollar amount would be impossible to accurately peg.

“I don’t have a pipe cleaner to clean out pipes so I go to the village of Lancaster for that,” he said. “The village of Depew has a camera truck because they also do water and sewer. So I go to them when I need a camera. We work well with both villages.”

From Hard Copy

to GIS

“We have seven creeks that run through town year around. Ellicot Creek and Cayuga Creek are the two major ones. So when I hired the help for the GIS system, I said I have two major trouble spots and one big issue — drainage. One area in the south of town always had complaints and another was in one park where two baseball diamonds were always flooded. You could not get that area to drain. I said you have got to target these two areas so I can eliminate some problems. With Louie’s help and the GIS we eventually did just that.”

Speaking of drainage, Dan can now sit at his desk and immediately pull up photographs and records of all 159 ditches in town and all of his catch basins.

“We actually have a record on when the ditches were cleaned out. Through Louie’s records we knew all about our catch basins such as when they were built and what they were built from.”

Appropriately, when the DEC asked the town for an inventory of its catch basins, there was no need for people to locate each one on site aided by a hand held GPS. The woman at the DEC he spoke with said that Lancaster was the only town in Erie County with GIS records like that.

Dan said the town was fortunate that they had some money in the budget for outside contractors. The initial investment in GIS was about $19,000, including $2,500 for maintaining the site. The initial investment included inputting the inventory of the town’s drainage, catch basins, sign inventory, and Web map training.

Dan is a firm believer in education and gets his staff to enroll in every relevant opportunity. In addition to training sessions in Ithaca, he goes to meetings of the Association of Towns Highway Superintendents in New York State. “I have been fortunate networking with people there. I like the program a lot.”

A Unique Perspective From a Former Town Board Member

When Dan was on the town board for five years, he asked for a town-wide traffic study because life in what was once a small town was rapidly changing, and he felt the need to intelligently direct its rapid growth. Lancaster is just about 12 miles east of Buffalo and also has many large industrial parks of its own. The malls along Transit Road cover hundreds of acres devoted to every store and franchise you can name.

“You have to look at the whole picture and not just a part of it,” said Dan. “The boom in housing in Lancaster was from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. We are still building lots of homes. Right now maybe 150 new homes are going up a year. Back then we were doing nearly twice as many.”

Housing here is not cheap. There are even developments of nearly identical patio homes in the $300,000 range. Dan has been instrumental in upgrading the specifications for new development roadways saying, “What was on the books was obsolete.”

“We have 91 subdivisions with more than 160 cul de sacs to plow. We hate them. Every superintendent here has tried to point out why cul de sacs are more costly to maintain. I have actually made up slips so that my drivers can document the time they spend on cul de sacs.”

Thanks to that tracking, he said the current position is to say “no” to any future cul de sacs.

“Part of the problem, besides time, is the snow that piles up in the middle. Kids often want to play in the snow pile. You’ve got kids digging tunnels and sliding out into the street. So you’ve got to get the trucks out there and remove it, and it is costly. When the current chairman of the planning board said ‘no’ to more cul de sacs, I said, ‘thank you!’”

“When I was on the town board they would say a new subdivision was coming in, for example Pleasant Meadows. I would read the responses from the DOT and the state, and they would say there would be no significant increase in traffic. With 1,200 new homes! I already know Genesee, Transit Road, and Harris Hill are very busy intersections so how can this be? I called the DOT and they said they are not concerned about what happens in Pleasant Meadows because they are not DOT intersections. Well, 1,200 houses means roughly 2,400 additional cars. Being on the town board was a real eye-opener, but if you don’t have a majority to work with you, it can be kind of tough.”

He readily admitted that he can be a little crusty to work with.

He said of his time on the board, “I have had my major battles. You don’t want my opinion.” Were the battles about money? “It’s always about money,” he said.

Dan said his concern for far-range thinking for the town encouraged him to leave the board and run for highway superintendent, a position where he felt he could be a positive force in the community. He said the first thing he wanted to do was to put in a comprehensive drainage program.

“I wanted to run for highway superintendent because of my background,” he said.

He grew up in Lancaster in a family where the men often worked in construction.

“This is what I know,” he said of the highways and his many years in road construction. “When I was a kid here, we had a drug store with a soda fountain, auto stores, three shoe stores, and three shops for women’s clothes. The village is like a ghost town now. The malls ruined small town America.”

“When you needed new clothes you went to the New York store and tried them on. The clerk would mark it down in a book. Then on Friday when your parents were paid they would come in and pay for the clothes. That’s the way Lancaster used to be.”

Dan, a single father with two daughters, ages 11 and 14 who are active in sports, said his forefathers were muck farmers in Port Byron.

“I was born and raised in Lancaster. I went to a junior college in Florida for two years and studied political science. I came back here, went to the University of Buffalo but never finished. “I was going to make big money in construction; instead I got $3.65 an hour.”

“Life was fun and easy here until my father died in 1959 in an accident when I was 11. He got buried in a cave-in doing sewer work some 20 feet down. Back then safety was not as big an issue.”

Dan’s mother raised him and his four sisters. He continues partial ownership in a business with two of his sisters who run a Lancaster restaurant called Frank’s.

“I worked on DOT projects back when the county let out a lot of work. Most was road construction, and some infrastructure with water and sewer and things like that.”

He said lots of work on the Thruway taught him about paving, milling and filling.

When the previous superintendent’s career had run aground on some ethics issues that also got him arrested, Louie was temporarily appointed to the position. Louie could have run for highway superintendent himself once the job was posted, but he chose to back Dan’s bid instead. It was a close race, and Dan went door to door and used a lot of direct mail to get the word out. He credited friends and family members for making phone calls for him.

Both Dan and Lou have large, busy offices on either side of the entrance to the highway garage. Michele Barbaro, the full-time office secretary, is totally hands on and has her own open office space, with glass all around, situated between them.

Second Salt Storage Area Saves

Time, Money

In spite of burgeoning development, both commercial and residential, there is still a lot of vacant land in Lancaster. One site owned by the town is about to become a separate station for salt storage in order to cut down on the number of truck runs necessary to cover both ends of the town. The crew has cleared the site and expects to build a fabric-kind of storage facility for about $15,000.

“I can save that much money in a couple of years; I’m excited about it,” Dan said.

A new storage area also is planned for the main highway garage site, which back in the 1960s once housed missile silos nearby. The building that is about to be torn down to make way for a new storage facility has the unmistakable air of a low level military barracks. Dan said some of the empty silos still exist.

The apparent teamwork between Dan and Louie is evident during calls about snow. Dan said, “During the wintertime it is the police who call us. Each one of us goes north and south at the same time. The crew chief comes in and gets direction as he is calling guys in.”

He said they have two picnics for the crew each year — one of them when the paving is done. There are no new hires until somebody else retires. Dan’s first hire was a young man who had worked for minimum wage for the department for five years as summer help.

“He also went out and got his CDL, which is very important. I put in the contract that they have to have one to get hired.”

Sharing One Vision, Sort of

It would be tempting to think that Dan and Louie are cut from the same cloth, but they aren’t. They may be on the same team, but they each have a vision of what is beautiful.

“When we are out plowing at night I might go into the office, but Louie has to be out there with the crew,” Dan said. “One night we were together and it was snowing late at night. The snowflakes were coming down and Louie says, ‘Isn’t this beautiful’? Beautiful? I said, ‘Take me home!’”

That’s just another reason that Louie’s name is on the sign out front.

Lancaster’s History Begins With

Wooly Mammoths

It’s not surprising that evidence of Lancaster’s earliest residents would be camps and tool working sites along both Cayuga and Ellicott Creeks where nomadic hunters who followed wooly mammoths and other larger animals worked along the fringes of melting glaciers about 10,000 years ago. Later the Seneca Nation of Indians, one of the five original nations of the Iroquois, tilled the soil with their three sacred vegetables — corn, beans, and squash — and tended their fruit orchards.

A log cabin, called the Gipple cabin, still stands near Harris Hill Ro, and it is said to have been built by the Indians about the time of the Revolutionary War. The cabin is the oldest wooden structure in Erie County, but, located on private land, the structure is in very poor condition.

In 1803, the Holland Land Company sold its first plot of land in the future town at a cost of about $2 an acre. Around 1804 the first white settlers came. In 1808 a road was cut from Buffalo through Lancaster village, eastward. In the same year the first saw mill was built as was the first schoolhouse made from logs. Fish proved to be plentiful in the creeks. Historian records show that in 1811 when workers building the first grist mill stopped for the night, they also caught 955 fish in the mill race. The state legislature established the town of Lancaster in 1833. Why the town was named after Lancaster, Massachusetts, is not known. The town’s pioneer name was Cayuga Creek.

History is important here including the National Register of Historic Places designation for the Warren Hull House, the oldest stone structure in Erie County.

In 1849, Lancaster was known for its glass works. Glass factories were rebuilt after they burned. Tanneries were also big business. When a tannery burned in 1849 it was quickly rebuilt. A second tannery became a soap factory. These were entrepreneurial people. By 1850, the village, which had long had a tavern, had its first hotel. There were iron factories and saw mills.

Stock speculation here took off in 1865 when a company was organized to drill for petroleum, which led to failures to find any. A German fellow who manufactured church organs had more success. Things changed. For example a no-longer-successful brick factory became a malt house. Gas street lamps lit the village in 1867 and were updated with electric lights in 1897.

In the early years, the only fire apparatus was a small hand engine owned by the glass works, and in 1876 a real hook and ladder company was formed. The town newspaper, the Lancaster Star, rolled off the presses in 1878. Fires destroyed large parts of the town in 1894. The town hall, erected the same year, was made from brick. Two years later a major fire took out the soap company, the Cushing block, many stores, a hotel, and many other buildings, causing a loss of about $45,000. Most of the buildings were rebuilt.

Lancaster has always had its share of high energy business people. In the late 1800s, the town had two breweries, a large carriage factory, an iron works, a machine and knife factory, a brickyard, and banks. The two villages were served by their own water system in 1893. The Buffalo, Bellevue & Lancaster Electric Railroad connected those three population posts that same year. A loop through Depew came soon afterward. Depew in fact is named in honor of Chauncey M. Depew, president of the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad Company to which the village owed its existence. The railroad decided upon this site as a location for its shops and auxiliary establishments, which led to a building boom in the vicinity. Lancaster Village also was a station on the Erie, the D. L.W., the Lehigh Valley, and the New York Central Railroads.

The spirit must have been strong. With a population of only 3,000 in the late 1800s the town had six churches. In Depew residents could walk along nine miles of plank sidewalk. Transit Road is still a major thoroughfare. The street was even popular back in the early days. Transit Road was first macadamized in 1895. It seems fitting that the town’s highway garage today is located today on Pavement Road.

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