The clock to the left of where Dick Reyn, highway superintendent of the town of Huron sits, ticks off the hours, minutes, and even seconds until he retires in late 2017.
Actually, the clock is a gag gift from a friend. Dick is completely at home and with directing his crew of five (including him). A certain level of goofiness characterizes the work environment sometimes. This is rural America, and the heartland of the nation's apple belt — second in the country for apple production — so there's a lot of heavy equipment on hand needed to handle the town's wind-tossed environment.
Have you ever heard of the weather-famous-vortex — the Route 104 corridor in upstate New York?
This corridor is famous for big snow and almost a daily mention in weather reports. The corridor runs right beside the town of Huron by Lake Ontario. There is no village, no four-corners, no post office, no schools, and not even a gas station or a grocery store. But it does have accommodations of many tourists and summer residents. Dick has a camp on an island reached only by boat in what was once a Boy Scout property. And when the sun shines once again on a new summer season, look out. It's as if the lights came on for the first time. Boats stored in many back yards now hit the lake. The town boundaries include three bays. In season, the docks at Skipper's Landing on Sodus Bay are crammed with tie-ups in summer and regulars year-round. Just like it has always been.
The town of Huron's logo showcases the famous Chimney Bluffs State Park along the shores of Lake Ontario, joined by sailboats, all encased in an apple shape. The logo says it all, or as Dick puts it, “God's country in the summertime, and the rest is history.” Dick respects history; he has a vintage sailboat rescued from a friend's backyard. It was covered with moss and neglect, and he carefully restored it. Then there's his vintage car (that's his vintage) parked in a barn, waiting for his retirement.
Chimney Bluffs, now a state park, is distinctive for its unusually shaped high hills along the shoreline. The bluffs, as locals call them, were borne from the glaciers during the most recent Ice Age and have been nuanced by wind, rain, snow, and waves ever since. The apexes rise about 150 feet and are always falling, which is why visitors are warned from climbing the bluffs themselves. If a big rock goes down, you might even hear about it in town as part of the local chatter. Ever changing, Wikipedia estimates the average rate of erosion of the bluffs is from one to five feet annually, so rock climbing is off limits.
The town of Huron has 99.64 lane miles and the crew also plows 61 lane miles for Wayne County. This is not a match made in heaven. The budget for 2017 is $900,000 to $950,000, depending on whether or not they are buying a new truck. CHIPS contributed $152,000 this year.
“I keep two accounts, one is contractual for repairs,” Dick said. “The winter account is all about sand, salt, fuel, and fabricating, along with little notes that would remind anyone taking over this job why the work was being done.”
Worst day of his career? “Probably when the school bus fell into a hole in the middle of one of the town's bridges. That shook things up,” Dick said. “The calls came in saying, you aren't going to believe this, but there is a school bus stuck in a hole on a bridge.” (More on that later.)
“Last year we probably put in 30 new pipes not counting the under-drainage and culvert pipes alone,” he said. “Probably cost about $35,000. The ironic part is that I had just gotten a quote for a new pipe so we could put a sleeve into the pipe where the bus fell, which was totally rotted. I had money set aside to do that. So, it was on the short-term checklist, but two days later it collapsed.”
Working His Way Up
Dick walked into his office a few years ago and was completely startled like a deer in the headlights when he first saw Mr. Shovel Head. The life-size sculpture was created — complete with Kubota tractor hat, a bandana, khaki pants, shirt, and shoes, and installed into his office by his dad, Chris.
The motive? “Just to mess with me,” he said of the prankster being pranked by his parent. Humiliating. They are a closely-knit family. When there are outdoor jobs of consequence, like bridge rebuilds, his father and Kaye, his mom, can be counted on as the “sidewalk” supervisors who bring cookies.
Dick uses the word MacGyver to describe what he likes best about the job. MacGyver was star of a popular television show (1985). As a verb or a noun, what he means when he says it (which is often) is that sometimes there are ways to get things done by thinking outside of the box. At this point, after rebuilding three bridges in a slightly unorthodox manner, the crew has saved the town of Huron nearly a million dollars.
In his seven years of being superintendent, after 34 years total on the town of Huron highway crew, he is especially proud of their work on three town bridges in desperate need of repair and rebuilding.
As a consequence, a lot of steel beams that were once part of Midtown Plaza in Rochester are supporting vehicles of all kinds, without weight restrictions, as they traverse three fast-moving creeks, streams, and marshes in Huron. More than a few fisher people angle the water using the rebuilt headwalls on the first bridge the crew rebuilt. If they look closely they might see “Team Huron” and the highway crew's initials making a lasting impression in new concrete.
Dick is a third-generation resident of Huron.
“My father Chris was born in the house right down the road.”
He lives with his wife, Beverly Rose, who teaches reading. His son, Gerritt, works with him, and daughter, Tatum is just finishing an intense nursing degree program at Brockport State. His own home, which he built himself, is just about two-tenths of a mile away from the highway barn. In one big storm the location was critical because he could get to the payloader and then go dig out his boss at the time.
Following school, he went to work “wrenching” for his dad's farm equipment business.
“I learned an awful lot from my dad,” he said. “He was a hands-on guy; my mentor in work ethic.”
Dick joined the town's highway department part-time from 1977 to 1983, mostly “running wing.”
“When a guy left in 1983, they offered me the position,” he said. “My dad encouraged me to go for it full-time. My father, who worked into his 70s for the same company, thoroughly enjoyed meeting with farmers and solving their equipment problems. I've heard that he was the most thought-of person in the state for selling tractors and sprayers for the treatment of orchards in Wayne County and vineyards in the Finger Lakes.”
In 2011, Dick became superintendent.
“My old boss left mid-term. I had been deputy for 20 years. I had to get elected and teach myself about bookkeeping and payroll. Basically, the old superintendent left on June 21. He never really told me he was leaving. He just asked me to give him a ride home, and he never looked back. I had to get elected and it was up to me to run the department as I saw fit. A lot of what we have done is a departure from how things had been done before. I think it's important for superintendents to put their own stamp on the job. We all have strengths. My guys are very dedicated. They are not afraid to work through their lunch hour or stay late to get it done.
“In the beginning as superintendent, my best help turned to be the Justice of the Peace here. She was also a court clerk and a computer programmer who had set up spread sheets for Xerox, a big area employer. Now I've got things like inventory and payroll on spreadsheets so that I know right down to the last pennies what I have left in each account. I do wish I had a secretary, but I don't. I would much rather be out there working with the guys.”
He maintains his own plow route. “I may be the only [superintendent] in Wayne County who sits behind the plow for 2.5 hours when it snows.”
As a lifelong resident, can he claim a normal snowfall? With a knowing eye roll he answers, “That lake is either going to keep us warm or come in like a cannonball. There is no normal along the lake. We could leave this building and go half a mile in any direction and be hit with a blinding blizzard. It's always been like that. The snow does not pile in the same places either. We will be plowing when nobody else around here is and vice versa. There are no rules.”
One recent blizzard became a lucky accident of fate when 70-mile-an-hour winds completely removed the snow from the roads, eliminating the need for plowing.
As for facilities, Huron has two barns across the road from one another.
“In 1990, we left the old barn, removing the furnace to make room for cold storage, and moved to a four-bay facility across the street.”
Building the Fleet
Dick quickly says that the heavy equipment in the barn is all in mint condition. His tendency to be a “neat freak” keeps the power washer busy year-round. A new Western Star 10-wheel dump from Tracey Road Equipment, a 2016 Beau-Roc box, some tarps and light bars, and Henderson plow equipment are just a few items added to the inventory this year. Then, add in some two-way radios, a Caterpillar payloader, a power boom, a Clark forklift, and a few smaller things, like a weedeater. He said, eying the inventory sheets, “That is everything we bought this year. We kind of went on a spending spree, because when I leave this job, I am going to leave the guys with the best equipment we can afford.
“I worked with junk and tried to make things work for 20 years. I know what it's like to be out there on a broom tractor without a cab. I know what it's like to be out there on a mower without a cab. I know what it's like to continue to weld and try to fix stuff that is worn out by salt. I guess it's because I sit in the same seats as those guys. Today, the town, highway equipment-wise, is sitting really nice.”
He even has a very attractive color portrait of the trucks fanned out in front of the barn as his screen saver.
“We buy a new truck every three years. We used to rotate them after 15 years. Sometimes it is more valuable to keep them to have them go to auction and bring $8,000 to $10,000.”
Dick and his crew morphed a 1999 Sterling with only 124,000 miles on it and converted it into a road tractor. “Then we bought a used 35-ton dump tri-axle trailer so they can haul two loads for the price of one.”
Another strategy that helps keep equipment up to date is a one-year buy-back arrangement with Caterpillar, so Huron gets a new loader every year. He hopes the same idea will apply with a three-year buy-back agreement on a new backhoe.
“We've got four really nice cab tractors. When these guys go out mowing, each one of those tractors has a different size mower on it so they can suit the machine to deal with things like poles and steep banks. These guys are really fine-tuned. They know what they are doing. Great work ethic. This is probably one of the only towns in the county that is non-union.”
Dick is somewhat old school in that he is nostalgic for straight sand on the roads. Today, they use a mix of 60 percent sand and 40 percent untreated salt. The storage barn can hold 3,000 tons of salt.
“In a good winter, we go through between 1,500 and 1,700 tons of rock salt and about 2,500 tons of sand. The winter before last we used 5,000 tons of sand. The difference is entirely due to the weather.”
Why does he like straight sand so much?
“People drive too fast. They want to see blacktop. We have bright LED lights on the plow, and yet they will go speeding by you onto unplowed road. I can see the whites of their eyes! They miss my plow by inches. They just want to maintain their speed no matter what is right in front of them. Old timers would prefer hard packed snow to drive.”
He added, “We keep going with the V-plows. We've had 20 ft. drifts we had to dig out. The last time we had the V-plow out was in 1992. If it's real windy, I might call in my part-timer and have him go out and push banks back for a while.”
The issues surrounding plowing snow for Wayne County are multiple and full of speed bumps.
“I think we are getting ripped off by the County for plowing 61 lane miles of their roads. Who comes to town and says this is what we are going to pay you? We are the ones with the plow equipment. Even a snow jockey who does driveways doesn't operate like that. I won't sign the snow contract this year because I do not agree with it. This puts the highway superintendent in the equation on liability. They are holding the superintendent for liability on these roads. My town supervisor signs it now.” He summarizes the situation as, “The county has engineers running the show now.”
He wishes the Wayne County Highway Superintendents Association would address the issue of compensation for plowing county roads as a group.
Shared services also help in controlling budgets.
“You could never do all the work by yourself. I am a big fan of recycling a road because of the way we do it. We hire a company to come in and mill out the shoulders. We take that material out and replace. it. We work with the town of Sodus and use their shoulder machine. If there is enough blacktop left, we recycle the road. If not, we add a little more stone and oil. We can remix and re-profile a 1.5-mile-long road cheaper than we could cold mix a mile of road. It is still more reasonable than cold mixing, and it keeps the profile of the road lower.”
How to “MacGyver" Three Bridges
If you ever visited Midtown Plaza in downtown Rochester, you were in one of the very first indoor shopping plazas in America. Created by bridging several short inner city side streets and developed by Gil McCurdy and his father (McCurdy & Co. was a major retailer of the day), Midtown Plaza allowed shoppers and office workers to stay out of the sometimes cruel elements. Midtown was crowned by a tall office building at its center and supported by vast underground garages. When Midtown itself was recently demolished with little historic or even nostalgic fanfare, its steel beams were scrapped for reuse. And that is why the Midtown Tower now supports all kinds of heavy traffic from school buses, farm equipment, and trucks full of apples driving across three short bridges over culverts in Huron.
The frames of each are strengthened by steel beams from the former Midtown Tower. Each bridge frame is powder coated in a different color—yellow, green, and blue. The color choices were based on what was around at a good cost.
Built with reused materials where it matters, the bridges each cost about $22,000 from the demolition launch to being open to traffic. The work done by the crew and the expertise from a good engineer probably saved the town of Huron nearly a million dollars. Dick started all three projects by working with John Collins, an engineer from MRB Engineering in Rochester. “Using my ideas, he drew up the plans.”
Bridge Number One: Mill Pond Creek
The first bridge was Mill Pond Creek.
“When I took over in June, I didn't realize how bad it was. It was built in 1986, and we never had an inspection program. You could fall right through the culvert bridge on Mill Pond Creek. I went to the town board and said, we have a major problem on the Slaght Road bridge. The estimate I got if we had outsourced this bridge was $150,000 to $175,000. Our budget was $10,000!
“The Town Board gave me $10,000 to work with out of a fund balance. I reviewed three firms and chose MRB because they think the way I do — let's get it done without spending millions.”
They got lucky with a local wrecking company where the beams from Midtown Plaza were stored. The beams are 16 ft. long.
“We were able to rebuild the whole bridge with asphalt and open it up to traffic in three weeks before the snow flew. I was running on Mother Nature's time clock, so Gerritt and I went down there on the weekends. We tore this out in November, and I wanted to have my plows going over it safely in time for snow. Around here you never know.”
How did they do it?
“When we ripped out the old bridge, there wasn't much left. The head wall was also shot. We did everything from above to prevent contaminating the water below. This culvert is actually a concrete flume that transfers the water from the mill pond to a creek that runs through there. Everything was shoveled off and nothing fell into the water. We reused the aggregate, and the leftover steel, which was shot, went to the recycle plant.
“We got scrap money for the junk beams, but they were not worth much. There were also mill pond gates, which we pulled. It was fall in the year so the water is low anyway.”
They protected the stream with sheets of plywood, and diverted the water as best they could with 2,000 tons of sandbags. They also added another 2 feet to the height of the structure.
“We replaced the pipes and then welded everything back in with a welded steel plate on top. The bridge now has an unlimited rating, which means school buses and big tractors filled with apples can safely pass over Mill Pond Creek.
“The head wall was shot, full of cracks. It was not safe tying anything into those walls. We dug everything out behind the old walls. We built forms and made new walls behind the old ones so there is a double thickness to them now. There was a lot of welding on this project. Back at the barn, we prefabbed all our beams. Gerritt welded each beam to a piece of rod driven into the ground. A powder coating of Ford/New Holland blue paint distinguishes the beams.
“We 'MacGyvered' it with an excavator with a pounder on it, and pounded this guard rail vertically into the ground. I have a friend who works on docks around here. I asked him if I could get his help with sheet piling and his excavator with a pounder on it. He came over that morning and worked with us on weekends. It took us the better part of two months. This road was on my CHIPS program, so I invested some CHIPS money to do it right.
“All these beams sticking out were all drilled and epoxied and driven into the old head wall. Then we built these forms up. There is a footer that goes around here. We called the concrete truck and poured a nice wall, and then we took the forms all apart and did it the next day on the other side. All that plywood stayed right in the ground because we back filled to support it. When you put concrete in and then vibrate it, it can blow that concrete right up.”
He estimates that this one bridge, in walls and deck combined, probably used more than 100 yards of concrete.
That's where the crew left their initials and the date they opened the structure back up to traffic. “I feel sorry for anybody who has to try and get it out of there years from now.”
Also updated were the old mill gates used to shut water off at the mill pond. Previously the gates were made from treated lumber. Now they are made from steel fabricated in the highway barn.
Bridge #2 — Slaght Road, Built in 1986
“We had to leave the road closed for the winter because this open-decked bridge had beams that were rotted out. I was working here in 1986 when this bridge was put in. Now we had to tear it out in two pieces, and quickly. My thought is that it should have never been designed as an open-deck bridge.”
Because snowmobiling is key to tourism here, they left enough decking in place so the sleds could maneuver over the creek while riding the trails along the lake shore.
“We measured it all up and prefabbed everything here in the shop. The beams were in a skyscraper, so they were a pretty good size. Each beam weighed 2,600 pounds. We had to fabricate special spacers for the decking so that it came out level with the road. For the decking, we used 1-inch steel plating.”
The beams were powder coated with the color that was in supply and cheap. Hence, they are green. Kind of a John Deere green if that color wasn't copyrighted. The total cost for the bright new look was $7,000.
“When spring came in May, that's when we moved in. For this bridge rebuild, we commandeered a raft so that we could work from beneath the structure. We took it out in two pieces. We used the raft to help us with the cutting torch.”
Upcycling opportunities abound. They donated the old bridge to a local snowmobile club. The town plows two parking lots for snowmobilers accessing trails in the area.
Bridge #3 — Also on Slaght Road
The need for an expedient third bridge recovery was spotted in 2012 by a muskrat and beaver trapper who was setting traps near the bridge's aging structure. “Dick,” the trapper said when he got him on the cell phone, “you might want to go down and take a look.”
“What a mess. There were even holes in the I-beams, so we had to close off the road. I put $30,000 in the budget for this one. If we had subcontracted it, the engineer on the project says it would be more like $350,000 to $400,000.”
This time the steel beams were powder coated in yellow.
“When we tore it apart, we had built a deck beneath the structure out of 3/4-inch plywood to catch any debris from falling into the water. The old bridge was built in two sections — first as a one-lane bridge from the horse and buggy days, and later they added a second lane. All the header walls were shot. We had to 'MacGyver' the plan, which meant leaving the decking in place so we could move from one side to the other while we worked.
“To move the existing big beams, I brought in these big rollers I had at my house. Then we slid the beams out because it was too much weight for the excavator to boom them out of there without tipping over.”
Smaller Culverts With Big Problems
The recent school bus falling into a sinkhole on another short bridge was probably the most talked about incident. In summer of 2016, a culvert pipe gave way where it had rotted out, catching the bus as it crossed.
“This is why it's good to keep a good rapport with the DEC people. They had blocked off this culvert pipe to raise the wetlands.”
They took two smaller pipes and two three-footers and put them in side by side so if a flood occurs, the water will not back up, and it keeps the water a little bit higher, which is what the DEC people wanted.
Other drainage issues have occurred near cottages along the lake.
“The cottagers were really happy to know we were taking care of it. It took us a couple days with a mini-excavator. It was quite a project. There were lots of phone lines in there. It's a high pressure main line they are working around and a fiber optic line. They did a phenomenal job. We've got some good guys who are talented with equipment. To solve the drainage issues, we used what are called French drains. They are perforated 8-inch pipe. And then we had to bring the surface all the way to the top with #2 stone.”
Dick is unlikely to ever run out of things to do. He just helped his son Gerritt re-do an old farmhouse so he might want to buy another property with the idea of flipping it for profit.
“You give up a lot when you have this job,” he said. “I can remember the times when Beverly and the kids would go skiing and I would have to stay here. When I retire that will change.”
Even though he traded in his Harley Davidson motorcycle, he has several boats, the camp, and lots of other interests. Breaking his back in three places dimmed his enthusiasm for snowmobiles, but what he seems to be welcoming most is a chance to have a late morning coffee with his parents. And if his son Gerritt, now deputy, who he said has a phenomenal talent for fabrication and repair and a degree from Alfred Tech, follows him as superintendent, Dick will be thrilled knowing that, “He will be here because he wants to be.”
Now back to that countdown-to-retirement clock ticking away. In early February, mid-morning it read 338 days, 24 minutes, and five seconds.
About the Town of Huron
The Wyandot or Wendat, also called the Huron Nation, was probably the most populous confederacy of the Iroquois culture in North America. They may have numbered 30,000 when the first European traders made contact with them early in the 1700s. The Wyandots settled in an enormous area from the shores of present day Lake Ontario, which is where Huron is located, northwest to Georgian Bay.
Reduced by epidemic diseases after 1634 — both measles and smallpox— to which they had no immunity, they were routed in battle by the Iroquois in 1649. The Iroquois's deadly attack shocked the Huron. The word Wendat means “dwellers of the peninsula or islanders.” It was the French who first described the Native Americans as Huron, which might mean “ruffian or rustic” in French, or it is from the “hure” or “boar's head.” The bristly hair style of the natives might have resembled a wild boar's head. In 1760. they made a treaty with the British, thus protecting the Huron-Wendat's internal affairs.
During the Northeast Indian War, they fought alongside the British against the United States. In time, wars, disease, and Indian treaties dispensed the once-mighty tribe to places in Canada and the midwest. Today, federally recognized tribes are found in Oklahoma and Kansas.
The first white settler was Captain William Helms, who came from Virginia with about 700 slaves in 1796. William left, but his brother Thomas stayed. Thomas and his family (wife and four children) and their slaves were the only inhabitants in Huron until about 1807.
Formal settlement came around 1826 when the town of about 22,000 acres was briefly called Port Bay. It has roughly 15 miles of coast. Early industry came with saw mills along many creeks and streams that flow into the lake. The soil proved to be unusually fertile along with sand and loam. Several islands in Sodus Bay have provided land for summer homes since the early days. Two of the islands are now reached by roads.
Early roads followed commerce, with the “old Galen road” being established, running from the salt works in Savannah to Glascow. This primitive thoroughfare was opened by the salt company prior to 1808. The first surveyed highway was established in 1810 from Sloop Landing (Port Glascow) to the village of Wolcott. History records the surveyor was Osgood Church, who surveyed many of the early roads, including one from Port Bay (now Huron) to Clyde.
For a while it looked as if Huron had an unlimited future. Under the name of Sloop Landing, the site of Port Glascow had a large warehouse and sailing vessels to take produce to Canada. In 1813 choice land went for about $3.50 per acre. Village lots were laid out, and a grand hotel opened for business. One early entrepreneur brick maker even made bricks for the proposed “City of Sloop Landing.” In 1819, the Sodus Bay Bridge Company was formed with the intent of constructing a bridge over Sodus Bay, but the heralded opening of the Erie Canal dealt a deathblow to all of this commercial excitement. In 1837, a ferry for freight, carriages, and passengers went across the bay instead of a bridge. Around the same time, the stagecoach from Rochester was a daily event.
In 1850, the Pennsylvania and Sodus Bay Railroad was established with Port Glascow as its northern terminus, but the big dreams for Huron as a shipping point failed to catch the wave. As a fruit production hot spot, however, the road leads to success, mostly with apples. The areas' perfect conditions for seeded fruit trees is evident in a story taking place in the mid-1800s when some children passing through Dutchess County on their way to the Huron area to homestead were given some Virginia pears. They saved the seeds and planted them near their wilderness home.