Lake George Highway Superintendent Rob Lanfear grew up in Lake George with four brothers and one sister.
“I attended Lake George elementary and high school,” he said. “After that, I went to work running tow trucks and doing light mechanical work for Lakeview Automotive and C & D Automotive in Queensbury. That was a long time ago. They're closed now. Then, I worked at Warrensburg Car Care operating tow trucks and working in the body shop.
“My construction experiences began in Connecticut from 1996 through 1997. I cleaned and sealed county sewer and water lines. Then I went to a local construction company doing heavy highway work. In 2000, I went into the family excavating business, which my brother owned. I left there in 2009 to start my own excavating business. I still do that on the side.”
After all that, how did Rob make his way to the super's seat?
“Several town board members and residents asked if I'd be interested. When the word got out that the previous superintendent was retiring, it was brought to my attention that I should apply. I was appointed highway superintendent in May of 2019.
So, how are things going so far? For Rob, “It's a different kind of stress level than being self-employed. They each have their pros and cons, but I noticed I'm a lot less stressed. It's also strange. My dad held this position for 16 years. He started in 1970 and retired in 1986. I had no intention of ever working here. It was just how it ended up. I was too young to work here when he was in charge. I don't know how that would have worked. I always thought I'd continue being self-employed.”
This first-time superintendent credits his pre-highway department experience for helping him do his job.
“Just my knowledge of heavy highway work, water, sewer, road maintenance. It's not difficult being that I've installed a lot of drainage and done storm work around the lake over the years. Even though we're not installing as much, I know what's in the ground to maintain it. I also did a lot of residential work when I was self-employed. Prior to that, there were a lot of heavy highway installations, as well.”
Dealing With COVID-19
“It impacted us a little in the beginning,” he said. “When it started in March, there wasn't much going on, so our supervisor sent everyone home. We'd get updates in two-week increments and come in whenever there was snow. The mechanic, my secretary and I were here every day. We still had to keep track of operations because our gas and fuel tanks also supply EMS, Fire and the CPW. While our mechanic took advantage of catching up on things, the rest of the crew was off for almost two months. They got their regular paycheck because it was already in the budget. I don't know if it'll happen that way again because we never had to deal with anything like this or any other health emergency.
“We also had to keep the transfer station open, so those guys worked. I have three full-timers over there and one part-timer. They worked through the whole COVID process. Instead of being open five days, it was three. They didn't have contact with the public. They wore masks. Still do. We wanted to keep it separate from the highway guys in case they contracted COVID. We didn't want it to go through the highway department.”
On a Personal Note
Rob and his girlfriend, Katie, have been together for 18 years. She's an insurance agent.
“I have two boys. Cole is 20 and studying sports medicine/physical rehabilitation at SUNY Brockport. Kyle is 14 and in 8th grade. We're waiting to see if Cole will be going back to Brockport. They were rigorous about randomly testing out there once a week. Then had to be tested again to come home. Several of our guys had to be tested, too, because there was a slight scare. So was my secretary. So far, so good.”
In his spare time, Rob enjoys dirt track car racing at Albany-Saratoga Speedway, Lebanon Valley and Fonda Speedway.
“I've been racing since 2015. They raced throughout the summer but without spectators. I also enjoy snowmobiling and watching my kids play sports.”
When the time comes for Rob to turn over the superintendent's reins to his successor how would he like to be remembered?
“As someone who always gave a fair and honest opinion, whether they agreed with me or not. I also did the job to the best of my ability."
All in a Day's Work
The highway department's facilities were built in the 1960s.
“The main garage is roughly 150 x 50. It has 11 bays, all heated, and a lunch room. We also have a separate office building for me and my secretary and five cold storage buildings.”
The department also has a salt shed that “holds about 350 tons. Last year, we went through about 1,00 tons. We typically lock in for 1,400 for this season.”
As the highway department's “commander in chief,” Rob is in charge of keeping up the town's 66 lane miles of road; two of which are gravel. That translates into six plow routes that take about 1.5 hours to complete.
In spite of the obstacles and challenges winter presents, Rob is quick to admit that clearing the roads is the most important part of the job.
“We got about 26 inches with the recent snowfall. It was relentless. My plan was to call them in at three because it wasn't supposed to start until midnight. We ended up coming in at 11 and it was non-stop until 4 o'clock the next day. Just trying to keep up with the roads so you could see them was tough.
“The first plow of the year is a pain in the butt. You have no bearing where the road is because there aren't any snow banks, yet. You're trying to get from mailbox to mailbox just so you could stay on the road. But when you can't even see the mailboxes because it was snowing so darn hard ... It was difficult for the guys.”
The superintendent's 18-member crew help serve the town's 3,500 residents. His staff includes Deputy Superintendent Paul Livingston; Head Mechanic Tim Hill; Snow and Ice Specialist Rob Vopleus; part-time worker at the transfer and recyclables station Randy Smith; MEOs Chip Dodson, Phil Goucher Jr., Joel O'Dell, Jody Ovitt, Charlie Mellon, Alex Greenmier, Alex Lanfear and Bob Kramer; and Secretary to the Highway Superintendent Kathie Erceg.
Rob knows the importance of having a good and loyal staff.
“I love to watch my guys come together as a team. They always do a good job.”
He also admits that “sometimes dealing with their different personalities can be challenging. Not that they're bad. Just different. Their ages range between 18 and 64. Some come from the private sector and others have been working here their whole adult life. There's also been some turnover. Two retired, one transferred and one went to work for a construction company. I've replaced two of those spots.
During the regular season, “They did a lot of work and it was done well. It showed that they care about their work. I'm proud to put my name behind them.”
Under Rob's conscientious eye, the town of Lake George's highway department runs on a total operating budget of $1,907,750.
“I also receive CHIPS money. This year our reimbursement was reduced to $60,446.25. Extreme Winter Recovery was also reduced to $13,797.46. PAVE-NY money [$17,246.82] was submitted at the same time, but we haven't heard anything yet.”
To help with its daily operation, the department uses an armada of equipment. With such a big fleet (totaling more than 40), how often does Rob have to replace his equipment?
“It depends on how much they get used. The smaller trucks we use almost every day year-round will wear out faster. Wearing out we can kind of keep up with. It's the rust that's difficult. We still have a good truck that I'd love to use, but it's 20 years old and the frame is broken. The rest of the truck isn't that bad. It's a shame really.
“All but a few of the old trucks are under cover. They're spares that stay outside. We don't really use them in the winter.”
What about the rust factor?
“That's the problem keeping them in the heat. If they stay out in the cold, they don't rust as fast. Rinsing them off, then bringing them in until the next time it snows. Things have changed. There are more products out there to help prolong the rust period. Now, we're using oils that don't drip or harm the environment. They weren't available before. We're hoping to be able to keep trucks for 15 years.
“Since I've been here, I've purchased one new loader for $160,000. We also have a new, board-approved being built. There aren't many ready to go on the lot. Most of our vehicles are built to our needs right from the manufacturer. Then, it goes to be fitted with the plows and dump boxes. We recently ordered a 10-ton truck for $217,000. So, asking the board to buy more of those trucks is hard for them to say 'yes.' That one truck will replace two 20-year-old trucks. Getting municipal trucks that last for 20 years is pretty darn good.”
Budgeting for new equipment is still a challenge.
“I'm still learning how to do it the right way. I ask the comptroller what she needs me to do to get what I need. Then I send a resolution to the board. That's what I did this last time to buy a new dump truck. I mentioned it a few times. It fell on deaf ears, so I did my own resolution. That way, the board has to vote on it and I don't have to keep begging. They don't have to vote on it, but I sat in on the meeting and explained how it works. Sometimes the communication between board members is lacking. I go to one board member, but not necessarily the rest to submit the resolution. We're looking to improve the equipment budget as far as putting money aside every year. We'll have meetings about that soon. In the past, it's been, 'Oh crap. We need this. Where's the money coming from?'”
Technology also has changed how the highway superintendent does his job. Rob isn't convinced that the more technically advanced machines are better.
“The life spans are shorter. The technology is great until it's not. The emissions on the newer diesel trucks' equipment are troublesome, expensive to repair and very finicky. Another problem with the new stuff is letting the trucks idle. With all the computerized equipment, the salt water really takes its toll. You have to pay close attention to how they're treated.”
Switching gears, what's been the best, worst or most memorable moment so far?
“We had to bury a dead horse for a private homeowner. I tried getting out of it. I kept telling her she had to call someone with a backhoe. Meanwhile, the horse had been dead for several weeks. It was locked in the barn and it was starting to be a health issue. We turned down the road the lady lived on and instantly started smelling it. It was bad. I never smelled anything like that in my life. So, I called my deputy superintendent, Paul Livingston. He was on the other side of town with a backhoe. I said, 'You have to come down to Stanton Road. We have to dig a hole for a dead horse. It's only been dead for a day or two (wink, wink).' He got here, looked at me and said, 'A day or two my ass.'
“The barn doors had been nailed shut. The smell was so bad we had to borrow air packs from the fire department so we could breathe. We got the horse out. That was probably my worst day or my funniest.”
What's been the most difficult part of the job?
“Keeping older equipment going. Parts aren't readily available anymore. Also rust and the amount of time it takes to keep things going. They're not just fixing. They're rebuilding because they're so far gone. One truck needs used parts because they're discontinued. Another is a 1997. That has nothing to do with being old. They're outdated. Time to kick them to the curb. I would like to see a 10- or 15-year turnaround. Some of our trucks are eight years old. We have a 2013 one that's been troublesome. A truck just like it is a year older and it's been great. It's not written in stone on when to get rid of one, but if it's a financial burden and constantly unreliable, it's time to let it go. That's why there's a warranty on that stuff.”
The most rewarding?
“Having the guys' respect seeing how I came in from the private world. They're getting used to my way of working and I'm trying to get used to theirs.”
If he were to look through a crystal ball, what would Rob see on the horizon?
“A new highway garage and salt barn. They're being talked about. We have a water district in Diamond Point. I'd like to see the infrastructure for that updated. The town does own other properties where it may work, but there are bodies of water around it. There are concerns about salt contamination, which is a current problem we have at the highway garage. Also, the fund for water quality for Lake George. They do a lot of testing and acquiring grant money to possibly help us get a new covered salt barn where we can load trucks inside. The good news is there's no spilling or runoff from where it's getting in the lake. That's a serious topic right now. I'm more optimistic about the new salt barn than the garage. We have the right people in place who want a new highway garage because this one is far from efficient and has years of salt.”
Looking back, one of the highlights of the job so far for Rob has been “following in my dad's footsteps. It wasn't my life plan. I wasn't expecting it. When I was approached, I thought it would be pretty neat, especially since he didn't get the chance to see me in action.”
About the Town of Lake George
Lake George, a gem of the Adirondack Park in Upstate New York, is 32 mi. long, 3 mi. wide at its widest point, and reaches depths of nearly 200 ft. According to the Lake George Association, the lake as we know it was formed around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.
There is debate over who was the first non-Native American to discover the lake (was it Samuel de Champlain in the early 1600s or Father Isaac Jogues in the 1640s?), but Jogues, a French Jesuit Missionary, named the body of water “Lac Du Saint Sacrement” — Lake of the Blessed Sacrement — in May 1646.
The Battle of Lake George
Some 110 years later, the French and Indian War (Seven Years' War) broke out over France's expansion into British Colonial territory. The Lac Du Saint Sacrement — Lake Champlain region was crucial for the British to secure since the French dominated Canada and areas to the north. The French were using Fort Saint-Frédéric at Crown Point, N.Y., to control the use of Lake Champlain and prevent the British from colonizing that region, so British General Edward Braddock ordered Commander William Johnson to defeat the French forces at Fort Saint-Frédéric.
As he traveled north, Johnson came upon Lac Due Saint Sacrement and re-named it Lake George for the British King.
In September 1755, a series of three engagements between British and French forces broke out at the southern end of Lake George. These would collectively come to be known as the Battle of Lake George, which is commonly considered to be one of the first major victories for the British against the French.
The Fort William Henry Massacre
Fort William Henry was constructed that same year at the southern end of Lake George in order to guard the lake, protect British interests in that area and serve as headquarters for any future operations should the French encroach from their strongholds in the north.
In 1757, the fort endured and withstood two French attacks, the first led by Sieur de Rigaud de Vaudreuil and the second by General Marquis de Montcalm, perhaps the best French General at the time. The six-day attack by Montcalm and his 8,000 French troops, Native allies and Canadian volunteers left Fort William Henry near collapse. British Lieutenant-Colonel George Munro agreed to surrender, so long as the English were allowed to retreat to the nearby Fort Edward. Montcalm agreed, but his Native allies were not pleased.
When they could be restrained no longer, the Natives attacked the unarmed soldiers and civilians — including women and children — which resulted in massive loss of life. The exact death toll is uncertain, with some estimates as high as 1,500 and others ranging between 70 to 180. It is this massacre that was depicted, albeit inaccurately, in James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans. Montcalm and the other French officers risked their lives trying to stop the Natives, and once the conflict was settled, returned to burn Fort William Henry to the ground.
A replica of Fort William Henry was built in the 1950s, and that is the attraction you can visit in Lake George Village today.
The American Revolution
Although no Revolutionary battles were fought as close to Lake George as those in the French and Indian War, the Battle of Saratoga — the turning point of the Revolution — was fought about 30 mi. to the south. There also was a conflict at Fort Ticonderoga, located at the northern end of Lake George. This conflict resulted in that fort being burned and abandoned.
Lake George Today
When you visit Lake George, you'll see that history is everywhere. There are signs on the side of roads marking important sites, monuments in parks honoring fallen war heroes and even some of the lake's most popular attractions are named from its history (like the Lac du Saint Sacrement, the largest boat in the Lake George Steamboat Company's fleet, that was named after the lake's original moniker).
Visitors can enjoy boating, golfing, parasailing, horseback riding and a multitude of other activities in Lake George, as well as visiting local historical sites, like Battlefield Park, Fort William Henry, Fort Ticonderoga and Saratoga National Historic Park.
(History courtesy of www.lakegeorge.com/history/battle-of-lakegeorge/) ? P