Clearing our public highways

Winter traveling through our Mohawk Valley has improved considerably since the very harsh winter of 1634 when the first known white visitor, the Dutch surgeon/trader Harmen Van Den Bogaert, left Albany with a couple of assistants, packing west into what he called “Maquasse country.” Somehow he managed to keep a journal, and somehow it survived.

“It snowed the entire day, so it was very difficult to climb the hills. After an estimated seven miles, we came to a bark hut where we kindled a fire and stayed for the night. It continued to snow with a strong north wind. It was extremely cold.” The following day they forded several frigid creeks, water up to their waists before reaching the eastern ‘Maquasse’ castle, where a chief befriended them, who “had a big fire lighted and a fat turkey cooked. We slept in his house, ate heartily of pumpkins, bear’s meat, and venison.”

Today, no matter how much snow, sleet and ice has accumulated, by the time we need to drive to or from work, our gallant state, county, and town highway crews have seen to it that the roads will be clear enough to get us there, as long as we’re patient, careful drivers, and we don’t need to ford any frigid creeks either. It wasn’t always so however, as the following story, in the April 1, 1920 Fort Plain Standard relates.

Under the headline,” A Good Job”, we learn, “A company of 75 volunteers under direction of Superintendent Giles Fonda of the Johnstown Street Department, reopened the road between Johnstown and Fonda Sunday. The huge drifts of snow and ice, which for the last several weeks have proved a barricade to cars, trucks and other conveyances, have finally been removed, and the highway is now open to all traffic. About sixty men from Johnstown and Gloversville were augmented by fifteen Fonda volunteers. The tractor, which was already successful in opening the roads between Johnstown, Gloversville and Mayfield, was pressed into service. The Johnstown snowplow was hauled down by the tractor and pushed forward by a service vehicle. Several teams of horses were also on hand.”

Here’s a clear example of communities sharing both men and equipment for the common good in our old times. The men were recruited when H.B. Ten Eyck, Chairman of the Fulton County Automobile Club’s Good Roads Committee, issued the call for ‘shoveling bee’ volunteers. The Standard concluded, “The event was a great success in every way.” Unfortunately, no details as to exactly what types of machines the ‘tractor’ and Johnstown’s ‘snowplow’ were are mentioned.

By 1923, Fulton County had apparently acquired some kind of motorized snow plow, as indicated by this brief mention in the Jan. 30, 1923 Utica Observer-Dispatch. “The road between Dolgeville and Johnstown was plugged yesterday for the first time this winter, but it is expected it will be speedily reopened by the Fulton County snowplow.” Notice the word ‘snowplow’ is singular, suggesting there was only one, and not many of them like today.

As more Fulton County citizens purchased automobiles, the pressure on our Supervisors to improve winter highway road travel increased. After all, drivers voted, and merchants and grocers needed trucks to deliver goods on time. While road paving continued every year during the warm months, improving our snow-fighting abilities remained an equal priority. The December 3rd, 1925 Morning Herald complimented our Supervisors for their progress in a mini-editorial. Under the by-line “A Step Forward” it declared, “Fulton County residents and all others who have had occasion to travel our roads this winter have reason to be thankful for the spirit of advancement ruling the present Fulton County Board of Supervisors. No one must stay at home because the roads are banked high with snow, no more forego a shopping trip, a business adventure, a jaunt to the movies. The Board has appropriated $27,500.00 to remove snow from the highways of the county. The trade of glove cities merchants will certainly be enlarged by keeping the roads open.”

More aggressive control over winter highway conditions must have been advanced during the next five years. In his winter 1929-1930 Fulton County Highway Department Report to the Supervisors, Highway Superintendent Burt Kasson summarized winter snow-fighting activities as follows: “The snow-removal program covers 157 miles and was completed at a cost of $15,705.24. Approximately nineteen miles of snow fence was erected and later removed at a cost of $8,534.18, of which $4014.16 was spent to purchase snow fence and posts and $4519.99 for labor.” Note there was no mention of expenses relating to the purchase or maintenance of motorized snowplows or other snow-fighting equipment, only for snow fences.

How many readers remember when snow fences lined the outer edges of country fields, placed where heavy, wind-blown drifts could sweep over roadways? While reasonably effective, if you contrast what today’s labor costs would be to erect and remove them, compared to the efficient snow-removal ability of today’s mighty highway plows, it’s obvious why the snow fence is now history.

Today, when traveling cautiously but safely through a snowstorm, I sometimes think of Harmen Van Den Bogart’s journal relating his incredible endurance while slogging through the deep snow and frigid creek waters of 1634 when there were no roads at all, no heated SUV’s, and no cozy Motel Six to leave the light on for him.


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