Thursday, February 17, 2011

Charles Cooley: Winter Roads

"The tunnels that we dug were not just igloos. We made some that were nearly 75 feet long." 
In 1930 Vermont towns had for the most part abandoned the snow rollers and were striving to make winter roads usable by automobiles. It must have been quite a shock to Selectboards to figure out how to get the snow off the roads. I doubt if they were accustomed to budgeting for snowplows even if they knew they had to have them. The technology of both automobiles and highway maintenance has come a long way since then. Today as far as snow removal is concerned I believe rural highways are maintained at least as well as urban streets and sidewalks are.
    Back then the trucks used by many towns for highway maintenance were often privately owned and hired as needed for road maintenance. Randolph did not use a truck to plow snow for several seasons after the Town started a policy of maintaining roads for use by automobiles in the winter. The first machine for that purpose that I can remember was a crawler tractor outfitted with a V-plow. The tractor was owned by Charlie Belisle and maybe the plow was too. I don’t know what the financial arrangement was. The tractor was quite slow so the snow was not thrown away from the road the way the faster trucks do it today. Consequently the snowbanks were higher than they usually are now.
   Plowing didn’t start until the storm was over. I suppose the reason was that by waiting for the storm to stop the road only had to be plowed once for each storm. Of course the result was that roads were often impassable until they were plowed. The plow was so slow that some roads were impassable for quite a while. I believe Randolph had about 100 miles of town highways at that time. Some of them were not used in the winter but at 4 or 5 mph it took several hours to get over the roads one time. Fortunately one time was enough to make the road passable, but if there was a lot of snow the result might be a path too narrow for cars to meet and pass. In such cases the operator of the snowplow would make a few wider places where cars could pass.
    The snowplow had “wings” that extended its reach on both sides. The wings could be raised and lowered with chainfalls. This required an assistant for the driver. Early in the season with not much snow the wings could be lowered to the same height as the plow and the result was a nice wide road.    If there was a lot of snow or if the banks were high the wings had to be raised to lighten the load for the tractor. Often the wings were only used to push the top part of the snowbank away, making a flat elevated path near the top. Under the right conditions the snow might become hard enough to walk on that path. Since we walked home from school quite often I liked to climb up on the path where I could look down on the cars.
Snowplowing, once started, was usually continuous night and day until all the roads were plowed.    There were often interruptions due to breakdowns. There was no heat on the tractor so it was a cold job and the two operators could not be faulted for taking a coffee break now and then. Charlie Belisle was our next door neighbor and quite often one of the men who worked for my father during the day would work on the plow at night. This was convenient because when the plow went by our house at night it would turn in and plow our driveway.
When the banks grew high enough they became ideal places to dig tunnels. The tunnels that we dug were not just igloos. We made some that were nearly 75 feet long. Our cousin, Buddy, lived in a house about 500 yards from our house. One winter John, Buddy and I started a project to dig a tunnel from our house to his. I believe we only dug about 50 feet before we gave up.  
   When the wind blew and drifted the snow, it of course ended up in the road. It sometimes got nearly as deep as the banks created by the snowplow. My father once told me about some drifts that developed on the Hibbard Hill Road that got so deep and hard that dynamite was used to clear the snow. To prevent some of the drifting the plow would sometimes be used to plow a strip on the windward side of the road to trap the snow. Of course snow fences were used for the same purpose but they sometimes got buried and became ineffective.
   The roads were hardly ever bare in winter. Salt had not been invented, it seems, or else it was too expensive. Consequently the roads became coated with packed snow and ice. If there was a hill it was a good place to slide. There was nowhere near as much automobile traffic so we did quite a bit of sliding in the road. I’m sure it made my mother nervous but we did it anyway.
"There were days when we didn’t get to school on time, but there were no days when we didn’t get the milk delivered. That milk sometimes seemed to be the whole point of our existence"
When I got a license to drive on the public highways my father bought a small truck and we started carrying our daily output of milk to the receiving station at the railroad in Randolph village. This was something that had to be done every single day and it was expected that it would be completed by ten a.m. The driver, usually me, had to put the cans of milk on the truck and unload them at the “creamery.” Prior to the purchase of our own truck the job was done by an entrepreneur who served that purpose for several farms and was paid by the farmers for the service. It didn’t matter to us that subzero temperatures made trucks of that vintage nearly impossible to start or that the snowplow might not have cleared the roads yet that morning. Nor did it matter to us that icy conditions had rendered the place where the milk cans were made available for loading inaccessible to the truck. The milk truck was supposed to perform its daily ritual without our assistance. When I became involved in this task it mattered a lot to me. I not only delivered the milk to Randolph but I delivered myself and a couple of neighbors to high school when school was in session. I had to get the truck started when it was cold and load the milk cans which, by the way, weighed as much as 110 lbs. Needless to say there were days when we didn’t get to school on time but there were no days when we didn’t get the milk delivered. That milk sometimes seemed to be the whole point of our existence, after all.
    Now back to the kid stuff. When the snow started to melt in the spring the snow banks made a channel for the water in the road. Grampa Small would patrol the road near our houses and create ways for the water to escape from the road into the ditches. This was a source of great fun for us boys. Some of the resulting brooks had sufficient water to float little toy boats. With the weather getting warmer we spent a lot of time playing in the water and “helping Grampa.”
    Now, dear readers, you must pay the price for the entertainment furnished by the preceding paragraphs. Although the maintenance of the town highways has improved exponentially since the 1930s and automobiles are vastly more dependable it seems as though there is even more mayhem and disaster on winter roads. This is not a direct result of those improvements, but rather the result of the way the driving public, meaning you, have reacted to those improvements. I am a paragon of virtue with respect to navigating winter roads successfully. You should heed my sage words of advice on this subject. I have probably driven more miles on winter roads in Vermont than 95 percent of the driving public and I have for the most part done it successfully.  I know how to put on tire chains under the most adverse conditions and I have all the necessary reflexes for dealing with the operation of my own vehicle under all sorts of emergencies. I am here to tell you what you should do about driving in the winter and you should listen carefully. I do this not to save your life but to save mine because we both travel on the same roads. First and by far most important slow WAY down in winter. Your all -wheel drives and fancy braking systems are little if any help in stopping on slippery roads. By slowing way down I don’t mean to stay under the speed limit. I mean slow down to way under the legal speed limit. That means not more than 30 mph on town highways. Second and nearly as significant is stay put wherever you are if there is a hint that anyone can get into trouble because of the condition of the roads. By staying put I mean stay off the road with your car. I do not want some crazy flatlander running into me because they don’t know what to do about bad roads. Time was when almost everyone in Vermont could walk to work if need be. We lived and thrived with that condition, but now the countryside is overrun with people who moved to the country in the summer oblivious to the fact that winter comes every year. Most of the households now have no way of earning a nickel unless someone gets the car out and goes to a job miles away. Better to forgo the day’s pay than to get me and yourself killed on the way to or from work.
   Those two precautions could eliminate most of the automobile accidents if they were understood and practiced by all drivers. It is more than I expect of most of you to bear with me for a discussion of how and when to brake, how and when to put on tire chains, maintaining a proper interval between cars traveling in the same direction and using winter tires that are not all worn out. They are important but they will have to wait for the next lesson.

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