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Washington Roads Report

from Ben Tiefenthaler, FEMA admin

TOWN OF WASHINGTON ROADS REPORT
up through Monday, September 18 th and looking out ahead:


The end of August and opening of September saw our road crew out in the central part of town, first on
Turnpike and then on Ryder Road. On Turnpike, two undersized culverts were completely overwhelmed–a
24″ cross culvert at 1147, and another eighteen-incher, parallel to the road, and across what used to be a
driveway at 1287. Here, just north of Batchelder, on the longest stretch of Turnpike’s class three span, the
road heads up in a little trough between Cyr Heights to the west and the ridgeline separating it from the Hart
Hollow corridor to the east. It’s just north of the 1147 damage that the topography alters and the road rises,
plateauing out from the ridge channel, where the sides moderate out, giving something like a gentler and
wider drainage area curtaining out north towards the Cheney Road intersection.

But back in the tighter pass all the heavy rains of July 10th must’ve rushed down those hillsides streams and gullied over their forested slopes, made impermeable and uncomprehending by the sheer volume of inches coming down at a time. And
curious to me that in both Fred’s photos laying out the damages– the 300’+ expanse headed south from 1147
(below to the left), and the deeper 300′ expanse headed back north from 1287 (below to the right)–that in
each you get the same washout signature: a succession of ogee curves, wider but shallower at first (an average
of 6′ wide x 2 1/2′ deep), then giving way to a more compacted (5′ wide) but twice as deep gouging (5′ deep).
A fjorded landscape in minature if you didn’t have the trees to offer scale. Why these serpentine curves, I
wonder, rather than one broad continuous arc of a washout?

By the end of that first week, two 30″ culverts, each 30′ long, had replaced those that had managed the storms
of a generation ago. Ditches were dredged back out and packed with larger stone, and those mesmerizing
curves were cut back to mere banks, the sides of which were then wedded with the road built back up from
its bedding.

The little geological glimpse into what stones have been working their way through the ablation
till–this is gone too, leaving only a frequency of property-marking monoliths out by the road, or still
half dug out in the field for wallers to build with in their driveby minds, or amateur geologists to pause over.


From Turnpike, the crew headed down to the southernmost tip of the town, and began repairs on Ryder
Road, bringing in a fair amount of material to fill in the washouts, whole sides or halves of roads calved off in
one push–their contours lobing down like continuous teardrops or variations on Vermont and New
Hampshire puzzle pieces, with sheer sides and pretty uniform depths. All at odds with those curves up on
Turnpike. Is this because the floodwaters here traveled down the roads before chasming them out, rather
than coming sideways at them in successions of side gougings along that plateauish Turnpike hollow?

A 40′ long culvert with an 18″ opening was slid in at a skew up high, and a larger-apertured 30′ long culvert, with a
3′ wide opening, was installed lower down to meet the greater drainage area it has to catch and help meander
crosswise.

By that second weekend in September, Mike, Owen, and Elwin had groomed, ditched, and top dressed the
road’s slalomy upwards climb towards Scales Hill with fresh stone packed and graded. And though a minor
thoroughfare, still it’s someone’s road home from work, I imagine, and for that one weekend, it might’ve been
the finest spec’d out road in town.


Ryder Road finished, over the weekend AJ and Fred hauled loads of debris from across town to a central
burn pile: two large ten cubic yard loads from an East Carrier catchment; one massive fourteen yd 3 load from
the Sky Acres area; and seven loads from right around Braman’s bridge below the massive landslides of Williamstown Road.

These were added to the preexisting piles from the immediate aftermath of the storm–those Tim Ward brought down from north of the Wishing Well bridge on Williamstown (3 loads); and those Mike Avery brought from the span between the landslide and failed culvert on Poor Farm south (7 loads).

Elsewhere that weekend, road commissioner Jesse Lambert was amassing machinery for the start of
the Notch Road rebuild on Monday: a dozer and roller he hauled from up north; and a mini excavator from
out west.

Early Monday morning, before heading off to their own FEMA-repair work at the bottoms of road chasms in
Brookfield, AJ and Jesse met with the town crew at the garage, spec-ing out the Notch rebuild, estimated at
costs of more than a half million dollars in the state Department of Transportation’s assessment. The
thinking back in mid-July had been to put both Notch and Stellar out first to the bidding of engineering firms
for studies and new roadway designs. The storm of July 10th had so thoroughly overwhelmed the catchment
infrastructure of both narrow-valleyed roads: culverts were gorged, debris-plugged, and drowned when the
banks weren’t already overrun before them, driving turgid waters along and then across the roads, carrying its
hardpack and gravels down in a second makeshift tributary to its main waters.

On Notch, the spans were the size of small fields: a par 4 dogleg 350′ long, 16′ wide, and 5′ to 8′ deep up below Mason, then a brief overwash interval, and picked up again in a 650′ long stretch, 5′ deep, and 12′ wide, bulging out to a road-
obliterating 21′ wide chasm at the end, just above the Peyton’s field. But without clarity from the state, or,
eventually, FEMA about project thresholds to clear engineering reimbursement, the cost was too great to risk,
and we kept trying in July and August to get some greater assurance.

A hydraulic study was also long in coming, ordered on 7/18, reordered on 8/9, and then followed up again on 9/4. This did arrive, at last, on Tuesday, the 12th, a day into the rebuild, and will likely be the most valuable document in the eventual Notch
Road that emerges from out of this, with mitigation-approved structural improvements to come in 2024 and
possibly into 2025.

At some point in August, though, with contractor bids rising in price, winter looming in a
matter of months, and the town road crew coming together under Elwin’s skill as an operator and Mike and
Owen’s trucking and support roles–the need and ability to carry through a different plan started to emerge,
and as the exigencies increased and the crew’s fine work on smaller projects like Turnpike and Ryder attested
to their ability in comparable types of repairs, this all started recommending that Notch and Stellar be in-
house projects. AJ, Jesse, and Elwin could bring together expertise from three different but complementary
backgrounds–and now the way engineers had drawn up studies and given specs for various projects all three
had been primary operators on could be yoked to AJ’s ability to engage with the principles underlying this
work, grounded in his civil engineering degree; to Jesse’s farmer’s knack for seeing a way through or around,
and finding the loosening threads in almost any problem; and to Elwin’s unmatched knowledge for the small
uniquenesses of our town roads, and his vast and mindstored experience on those same non-theoretical roads
that engineers are plotting their office designs upon.


The three of them, then, and Mike and Owen, talked through the rebuild that Monday morning, and then the
trucks all headed for Martin’s Quarry out in Bradford, and in staggered intervals, for the next five days, load
after load of 3″ dense grade came in 14 cubic yard hauls, each one received by Elwin first running the dozer,
spreading it out in rough ten foot wide swathes, then banking the dozer and hopping on the roller, smoothing
it out and packing it down in foot-high 10-foot wide spans of roadbedding.

That Monday I was down there, and finding a rare pausable moment–Elwin down from the roller and the next truck not yet there–I asked why he was moving sort of staggered from side to side in that chasmed-out pit, five feet below grade. It
wasn’t a question with any great specificity to it, as I had no idea how you would go about filling in a hole like
that, and getting it to hold tight as the bedding for a road. “Some guys will just put fill in a hole and pack it
down,” he said, but the problem is that then you’ve got all these fault lines straight down (cutting down with
his hand in the air to show where one ten foot wide section of road, five feet high, would abut right up
against another, with a running joint carrying all the way down). The problem with that, is your road’s not
locked in. There’s nothing tying it together. Instead, I take the dozer and I get my ten foot width all spread
out and rolled, and then I cut into the bank a foot, to the side. Lay that back down on top of my lift a foot,
and now I’ve got tie-back into the road.”

Maybe the way to visualise the whole process is like this: the load drops, with the truck driving forward as it
does, so it doesn’t come all in one big unwieldy pile. Elwin’s halfway along the driver’s side, helping with this
drop, because he doesn’t have time to waste spreading it out with the dozer before hopping on the roller and
getting it nice and packed in those 10′ wide by foot-high lifts. The next load will be there, most of the time
just when he’s making the last pass on the roller. Now, at the start of that 21′ wide x 5′ deep chasm, he’s got
plenty of room to work in. Can build back a better road in lots of ways with that wider expanse. He lays out
his first 10′ wide by foot-high lift, and then he can just start his next length with a foot overlap, making sure
no joint travels up from the roadbed to grade, but that the joints are all crossed. If you took a cross section of
it down there at the start, across from the end of the Peyton’s field, what you’d see is a wide slabby staircase,
ascending right-to-left, made of three stairs, each one lipped over the other by a foot on its leftmost edge.

And as he builds up from this, always right-to-left, and always cutting back into the bank with the dozer to
ensure that joint-crossing, the pattern repeats itself in that same tessellated squat staircase right-to-left, right-
to-left, right-to-left, and repeat. Then, as the width of the chasm starts to narrow, he’s dozering into the bank
and pulling back the bank to cover a foot of the just rolled roadbed to keep that same structural feat of a tied-
in and side-overlapping road intact all the way up.

Think of it like the twelve year-old Elwin out on his family’s Morrisville and then Williamstown farm–milking the Holsteins and one Jersey; hauling the sap buckets to the horses, getting in the twelve thousand square bales every summer. What was required was not specialisation in one field, and hiring out in all the others; but you needed wherewithal in a hundred things,
and a good craft-honed skill in more than a handful of them.

And there’s Elwin, now a one-man engineering firm, up and down these machines that become, with him at the controls, more animated prosthetics of his hand and mind than joy-sticked blunt tools, holding a hundred separate road histories and make-ups in his mind, and keeping the subterranean structure of this one intact and moving forward up the bottomland of
this minor pass, though all anyone will ever see is graceful Yankee-magazine curves and a flat surface that will
probably antiquate just fine by October’s last leaffall. Like it’s been there since time before time.

Monday and Tuesday went much like this, with Mike and Owen hauling loads, and up to five trucks at one
point strung out along twenty-five between here and Martin’s, with Elwin up and down the dozer and roller,
getting those lifts in, each time tying back to the left and up again. That first chasm begins just a little past the
back end of the Peyton’s field, the digsafe stick still in the ground across from a hoary old wallpaper-peeling 2′
diameter yellow birch. The road veers a bit more north-northwest, before jugging out to the right across from
the Petyon’s pond, and then righting itself back north again prior to the first culvert.

It was just before that righting out stretch that Elwin picked up again Wednesday morning. Steady rains and faster-than-scheduled work out in Brookfield had freed Jesse up, and so he was out too, volunteering time and operator skill on the
roller and mini excavator. A load of large stone he got bucketed down and banked up at that jug-out point
across from the Peyton’s pond, and while Elwin kept forwarding along the road, dozing and rolling across the
chasm, Jesse went out ahead to the first culvert, just past a little bowery of two younger silvertightbarked
yellow birches, and went to work. The culvert was an 18″ wide, 30′ long compound affair, made up of a 20′
length of corrugated plastic coupled to a 10′ length and seated slantwise across the road, channeling not the
stream but the ditch runoff from the east, beneath grade and daylighting out into a trench aimed at the brook
in its last meander down before turning west above the Peyton’s field. It had gotten stuffed full back in the
storm with a mass of brush, road washout and floodplain sediment, all packed tight and sprouting out the
inlet site. Jesse freed it clear, decoupled it, and added back a 20′ section in place of the 10′ extension, giving
the slantwise replacement an extra 10′ of length. Towards the end of the day, I wondered about the extra
length and asked him about it. It seemed the inlet side was much the same as before, and the outlet side only
had better clearance from the road, but with no greater apertures on either side, how could this move more
water along? That wasn’t the problem it was solving, though, he said. What had happened was the 30′ length
laid slantwise only got just to the edge of each side of the road, and caused the width of the road in that
section to need to narrow a bit, not just at the base, but above the roadwalls, too, up at grade. Why was this
significant? Well, you think about in a storm event, how you can keep water from speeding up. Now in order
for your road to shed and not hold water, you want to have some sort of a crown: 3-4″ if you’re Elwin, 5-6″ if
you’re Jesse. On a 20′ wide road, that crown’s got a nice half-roadway’s length to gently shed water off a
gradual slope. But now think about how your roof sheds water, he said. You’ve got that steeper pitch on a cape to keep snowloads from building up. But if you’ve got a pitch like that-and here he’s making a point with
his finger tips, triangling up his hands–and you’re trying to slow water shedding rather than speeding up snow
falling, you’ve got a problem. When that slantwise culvert got laid, you lost some roadwidth at first and then
some more as the edges around the inlet and outlet side eroded some.

Now your 3-4″ crown hasn’t got ten feet either side to gradually slope down, but you’ve got a higher pitch because of less width, and now every time water’s shedding off, it’s riding that steeper pitch at a faster rate. This means it erodes more off the sides of the road, and it’s more vulnerable to failing in a massive rain event, where that faster water coursing down
its sides pulls material with it which slumps in and around and then into those inlet and outlet apertures.

Probably Wednesday, with Jesse solving the culvert problem up ahead and keeping Elwin able to stay
forwarding along on dozer and roller behind–probably that day they got as much road laid as the two
previous days combined. By the mid afternoon, they were a ways past that 18″ extended culvert and finishing
up the end of that long 650′ stretch, having come around the bend and up the straightaway that extends, in a
little mounded humpback rise now, over the first 5′ stream-crossing culvert, and out towards the still
enroaded interval centered around the 15′ span 2017 bridge. I was down there while Jesse was on the roller
helping in last passes, and Elwin was finishing up spreading out the last load with the dozer. You’ll notice, if
you drive up Notch this fall, that in that stretch between the Peyton’s and the first 5′ culvert, that the ditches
are slightly different than up beyond the bridge. Here, a subtle and both-ways-reasoned variance between two
experienced and skilled roadbuilders: in Elwin’s ditches further up, the base is shallower and the ditch is
allowed to remain a dredged-out surface of native soil. The shallower trench is to keep frosts from cutting in
from the sides and heaving up the road. The unriprapped and unstoned soil surface and bank is to encourage
the sods and roots of vegetation to hold that bank in place. Below the first culvert, looking at Jesse’s ditches,
you’ll see deeper cuts, and a different bed shape. They are rounded concave channels, and with roller-
compacted stonelining. The depth is to allow greater water volume to flow through it, and more potential
water expression from the sidewalls of the roads. It’s water that freezes, not soil, Jesse parried back to Elwin,
when they were both weighing on their ditching styles to me. But hard to get all the saturation and
groundwater out of the soils, I imagine runs through Elwin’s mind. And figure he’s seen just about every kind
of site that frost heaves up into.

As for the stonelining, a different techinque aimed at the same end: trying to
make those ditches hold, whether using the native flora to do it, in Elwin’s way, or Jesse’s kind of stone-
compacted underrunnel–in either case, these are ditches, like every other component of the road, that have
their own deliberateness, and are built from thought-upon and experience-tested principles. There’s a
throughline of reasoning, not a simple pass of a blade making a contour at some that’ll-probably-do-just-fine
depth.

Thursday and Friday, Elwin, Mike, and Owen moved above the bridge into that firmed slurry of sand and
cobble washout, and onto the smaller chasm above it headed up towards the intersection with Mason Road.
Here, Owen worked Thursday morning getting some of the bigger stones out of the trench, so they wouldn’t
continue working their way up, frost heave by frost heave through the till to the bare road top, fixing on
Elwin’s spring time grader blade. This also was to give Elwin a more manageable trench to build side-to-side
and up in, and to keep the sand packed Topsham telephone line clear of danger. A dozen scattered stones are
off now in the stream near woods, wanting a wall to aggregate them, and seeing their first daylight since the
pre-soils meltback of the last of those valley-detained basal masses of glacier. And hard not to wonder
whether these largely granitic stones, sometimes comet-tapered, sometimes breadloafy, are those torn off
from local bedrock, Notch lying in (I think) that thinnish strand of the Knox Mountain granite belt, separated
within Washington by the Jail Branch drainage to the west and the Connecticut-headed Waits drainage pitched
southeast. Or whether, more closely studied for their internal composition–whether these flattish-topped and
handsome-faced granites ultimately come from more northern Laurentide reaches (see Murthy, “The Bedrock
Geology of the East Barre Area, Vermont,” in Vermont Geological Survey, bulletin 10, 1957: esp. page 18 and the
geologic quadrangle map on page 122). 1.


In any case, from stones back to road, the convoys of 3″ dense grade resumed Thursday, and by Friday
morning these had given way to inch-and-a-half topdressing, and the narrow-spanned dozer-roller pairing to the broader swathes of the grader. Some patches further back got dressed up to 6-8″ high, smoothed-out to
crisp edges at the sidewalls. And though screened at inch-and-a-half, somehow the makeup of this was
different than the 3″ dense grade. Almost like a matcha powder of crushed stone fill padding throughout the
interlithial margins. A crunch and sink rather than just a crunch in the feel of walking on top of them.
The grading made it all the way to the bridge interval on Friday, and resumed again Monday morning,
carrying on throughout the heavy rains of the day up to Mason. Tuesday saw the last gradings, extending at
the front end to East Orange Road, and the north back end up to the Woodchuck Hollow intersection, giving
all .61 miles of the road a fresh surface and ditch-defined edges.


By Wednesday, Elwin and Owen were off to the tour of spot work that will occupy them, and Mike once he
returns, for the next few weeks. The grading of the Williamstown Road around and up above the Wishing
Well bridge is lined up first, followed by work on a dozen or so other roadways after that. Plumb Road needs
restoring back to a two-vehicle width span, and should see the crew either at the end of this week, or at the
latest, next week.

On Scales Hill, there are two sites–one a four-foot side washout marked off by cones below
the Taylor Farm; the other a culvert junction failure at the White Hill Road intersection. Both of these will
likely see the crew after FEMA site inspections next Monday.

The north end of Pray Road will figure in this tour as well, which has been impassable since July, and then a dozen or so other roads that were repaired earlier after the storm, but still need topdressing and grading. Some ditching work and trucking to get
stockpiles ready for winter will follow, and then, weather permitting, the plan is still to turn to Stellar Road,
and with dozer and roller back, to ascend up that steep ledgey meandering road, that the headwaters of the
White overran up high, crevassing and chasming out as it plunged down below. Details on the preparations
for that work will form a good deal of the next report, aided by the arrival, hopefully, of the hydraulic report
on its failures and future requirings that should come in sometime in the next few weeks.


As always, you can send any questions about roads, FEMA, ogee curves, basal glacier movement at odds with
NW to SE trends, or photographs of favorite stones and erratics to me at ben.washingtonroads@gmail.com.

  1. I’ve heard somewhere that there’s a place, if one goes up on 110 to the topographic peak of Washington Heights, that a
    little ways off the road there you can see before you two streams headed apart from each other one either side of a kind
    of state-dividing drainage line: one headed out northwest to the Winooski; the other south (and east?) to the First
    Branch of the White River. If someone knows exactly where this site is and whose permission I’d need to view it, I’d be
    grateful to know and to head my truck up there to take a look.