Plowing the Roads — Then and Now
It cost $146,000 and to sit in its compressed-air-adjusted seat is to savor all that modern engineering has to throw against the snow, ice, slush and mud of Upper Valley winters. It’s Plainfield’s newest highway department dump truck, a 2012 International tricked out with the latest plow and sanding gear, two-way radio, air conditioning and, wonder of wonders, an automatic transmission.
Forgive me, but climbing up into the cab of that rig recently has been one of my highlights of the winter so far because it got me thinking about times, maybe 45 or so years ago, when Frank Sullivan, Plainfield’s road agent, would let me drive an occasional five- or six-hour shift in a plow truck pushing snow while he and his crew caught a little shut-eye during a big storm.
In those days. Plainfield had a highway department consisting of four employees, two dump trucks, a small front-end loader and an ancient grader. Sullivan and his men had a regular work week of 45 hours at straight time with no overtime differential, no retirement and no health insurance, and just a week of vacation per year.
They cared for 60 miles of town roads laid out in no orderly pattern from the Connecticut River to the Enfield border high atop Methodist Hill. One of the trucks had a transmission that would mysteriously lock up if put in reverse following a hard pull up a steep grade; after 20 minutes or so, the gears would cool down and allow work to resume.
My memory says we had real snowstorms back then, events where 15 or 20 inches would pile up over a 24-hour period, and by mid-February the roadside banks would be taller than the roof of the average car. And the storms didn’t seem to be followed by the sleet and rain that usually mark the end of storms nowadays.
It might have taken a day and a half or more to get all the town roads opened up after a storm, although in an era when four-wheel-drive was a relative rarity most folks managed to get out and about quite readily. The town didn’t use any road salt to speak of, relying on sand to improve traction only on hills and sharp curves.
Putting out sand was quite a feat. The plow trucks were fitted with spinners on the back that were powered by little putt-putt engines that were started with a piece of clothesline. The body was partially filled with sand and one of the men climbed up into it. The driver partially raised the body and the man atop the sand pushed the material through a hole in the tailgate where it hit the spinner and was cast onto the roadway. Needless to say, it took considerable cussing to make this work.
Now, sitting in the cab of Plainfield’s newest plow truck, it’s amusing to think of what Frank Sullivan might say about the tools modern municipal road crews have to work with. These days, Plainfield has five full-size plow trucks plus pickups and a crew of seven hands to handle winter storms, which I’m sure would tickle Frank.
He’d have to be amazed at the big trucks. No more dangerous humping sand out of tilted bodies — the operator has a console of knobs at his side to control a conveyor that moves the sand or salt to a spinner ahead of the left rear wheels where he can closely observe from the mirror on his door the volume being applied and how far it is being distributed.
Functions of the nose and wing plows are governed by another console of levers. Nose plows can be set to plow straight ahead instead of casting to the right, a boon when clearing intersections and turnarounds. And then there’s the automatic transmission, which replaces the venerable combination of a five-speed manual plus two-speed rear end with a push-button panel on the dash having exactly three options, forward, neutral and reverse, and lets electronics handle the decisions on the best combinations of engine and ground speed for the job.
More people to do the work, better equipment to do it with. The Upper Valley economy is based on people being able to move quickly and safely from one place to another, and it costs serious money to assure that happens. A day or two waiting for a road to be cleared and salted after a storm is simply unacceptable in most communities today, and it’s a public service that few people would have any other way.
Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden. He contributes occasionally to the Valley News.