August 28 marked a unique anniversary for Craig Mosher, president of Mosher Excavating Inc. — the tempest that caused his worst nightmare and, perhaps, his finest hour.
Mosher, who has built many a road over the last 33 years throughout the mountains and backwoods of Vermont, was one of the first to act a year ago when Hurricane Irene wiped many of them out, along with parts of major highways Route 4 and Route 9, Route 100, 100A and others.
Mosher Excavating, along with The Casella Brothers, Belden Company, Markowski Excavating, Wilk Paving, Albon Construction and Ray Harvey, among others, took matters into their own hands, pulling their heavy machinery out of the muck, mud and mire and clearing concrete rubble for days straight, until the highways and many connecting roads were passable again.
His singular efforts helped trapped guests in Killington get home, from what had become a kind of mountain island, surrounded by walls of water. No one in the state had ever seen anything like it.
Praised by the Governor
Mosher Excavating and fellow emergency contractors were lauded earlier this year in Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin’s State of the State Address.
“With Route 4 shut down, and community after community [becoming] isolated islands where roads and bridges once served, brothers John and Doug Casella had an idea. Doug said, ‘Governor, you get the Department of Motor Vehicles to lift the ban on hauling heavy equipment across what’s left of our roads and get us permission to retrieve some of the rock and gravel that Irene washed from our roads into our streams, and we’ll partner with other private contractors like Belden Company, Markowski Excavating, Mosher Excavating, Wilk Paving, the Agency of Transportation and the National Guard.
We can have Route 4 open in three weeks.’”
“As soon as I got high enough in the chopper to actually have cell service in Vermont, I called Secretary Searles, Secretary Markowitz and Commissioner Ide, and within hours, our team applied Doug’s request, not just to Rutland, but to the whole state of Vermont. And guess what? Nine days later, Route 9 from Brattleboro to Wilmington to Bennington: Open. 18 days later, Route 4 from Woodstock to Rutland: Open. And today, all the roads destroyed by Irene: Open!
“Team Casella, Belden, Wilk, Mosher, Markowski are here today, and I would ask you to please stand. You represent the many Vermont construction companies who, along with A.O.T., the Vermont National Guard and Guard troops from around the country rebuilt us Vermont Strong, and Vermont honors you today,” said Gov. Shumlin.
Dangerous Ski Trail Work
Since 1979, Mosher Excavating Inc. has built and rebuilt in and around Killington. Clearing stone, lumber and dirt in the tricky mountains of Vermont is nothing new to Mosher. He got his start building steep ski trails all over New England, from Maine to New York.
“We did everything from clearing, cutting trees to agricultural, the entire construction of the trail,” said Mosher.
Killington, Vt., is a resort town, known for ski lodges and winter fun.
“I got into building ski trails when it was a boom. Timing is everything,” added Mosher. “But, when the economy goes bad, resort areas are the first to feel it because of second homes and recreational spending. We are also the last ones to come around when the recovery starts.”
He turned to community building in 1997, developing sites, installing sewer and water systems, building homes, retaining walls, access roads. In the process, the Vermont community got to know Mosher and his team of eight as contractors you could really count on.
Unlike most builders who have three decades of work under their tool belts, Mosher did not learn at the knee of his grandfather or father.
“My family is not in the excavation business,” he laughed. “Summers, when I was going to school, I worked for the local towns, on their machinery. I found a niche and liked the work.
“In the early 70s, I worked for a local contractor, Jim Felton, a great guy who has passed away,” said Mosher. “Then, a local ski instructor came into some money and he wanted to get into the excavating business. I joined in on a job, and it set.”
Mosher built a solid reputation while doing ski area work, having little fear of heights and the treacherous dangers of heavily wooded mountains.
“We were known for doing the ski work, the steep work, out of winches, dropped in by helicopters,” he added of tight pinches in those winches. “You couldn’t drive to those sites. You were in a cable box, tethered off. You climbed up a lot on foot. You’d drive Flex trucks up hill.
“You’d get hay, grade the land, hay it down. It was like putting in a lawn. You’d stump it [remove stumps] and grade it over, seed and mulch it. If you could use a minimum amount of snow to cover a trail, you were a big hero,” added Mosher. “It cost money to make snow.”
Amazingly, suspended in the thin air over brutal terrain, no one working with Mosher was ever hurt.
“We were fortunate,” he said. “We never had an accident. We’d have an anchor tractor on top to pull you up. You had to use a lot of common sense.”
At the time, Mosher added, there were only two contractors in New England doing this kind of work.
“It was tough work. There was more money to be made putting sewer lines and condos in Ludlow and Killington,” said Mosher. “But we had a niche and it worked for us through 1997.”
Job after job followed for the next 15 years, until Hurricane Irene hit. Mosher said he was in the right place at the right time, to help. “Like anything else, it was ‘location,’ ” he added.
On Aug. 28, 12 in. of rain from the Hurricane filled the main rivers in the area to overflowing — the Ottauquechee, the Black and White Rivers — and pieces of towns like Woodstock, Quechee, Rochester, Killington and many more in their path, were literally washed downstream. Wooden bridges, concrete structures, asphalt roads, were crushed and ripped apart.
“I was talking to the Town Manager of Woodstock. Things seemed normal, but with all the rainfall uphill, it became a wall of water and it took towns like that by surprise when it came upstream,” said Mosher.
When the Casella brothers got the state to allow private contractors in the area to act immediately, they did.
“We’re a small contractor, trying to do the right thing,” said Mosher. “I began working on my own, as a good neighbor ought to. I saw the forecast, not knowing it was going to be that tragic. It started raining and I started helping.”
His own business and work yard was under three inches of water. He and his men (many of whom trudged on foot from their homes to get to the heavy machinery) revved up their excavators and backhoes and earth movers and began, well, moving.
“I saw trees, 24 inches in diameter, tipped over,” he said.
His own pasture — a local tourist attraction with livestock, including sheep and donkeys, sometimes called the Gateway to Killington — was washed out.
“The Ottauquechee took five acres from my pasture, from this little hobby of mine,” said Mosher.
Their first stop on the road that awful day was to a next-door neighbor’s ski shop.
“I tried to save that. I got a call, ‘Craig, we need your help.’ After that, the phones cut out,” Mosher said.
On Monday morning, Mosher and crew jumped into a bucket loader and headed out in all directions. They had to open a lane clogged by gravel berms at Calvert Crossing in order to head south.
He then headed east on Route 4, a major artery out of Killington, where people were trapped by the flooding. At Bridgewater Corner, some 5 to 6 mi. out, he managed to get another lane open.
The work never ended. A mile south on Route 100, the road also was washed out. Parts of Route 4, Main Street and the southwest corridor also were gone.
Digging for several days straight and removing concrete rubble that had once been highway, Mosher was able to open closed roads and get resort guests out of Killington. Mosher and fellow contractors got traffic going in a week by moving their heavy machinery wherever they were called, site to site, job to job, from 10 to 30 mi. out.
He recalled a state official, deferring to his experience, telling him, “Craig, you know what to do, get to work.”
Even Changing the River
Beyond clearing rubble and opening roads and highways, Mosher Excavating was called to change the track of the very river itself.
“We got down into the riverbed and put it into its course,” said Mosher. “About 4,500 yards, back on course. Then, we put the roads back together.”
The state came in and the joint effort had Route 4 open within 36 hours. His work, along with some other contractors, made national news.
“The [Boston] Globe wrote about it. You know, Killington is a resort. People vacation in Killington. It got out that the guy who was running the job was Mosher, so we got this ink,” he said, “But we’re not heroes. It was part-time work. We were just trying to do the right thing. We were paid for our efforts. The real tragedies are with those who lost their homes.”
He is still shaken by the tragedy of Hurricane Irene — the loss of four lives and the many, many neighbors who lost everything.
“It was tragic. The lost homes,” said Mosher. “I pulled into this driveway and asked this man, ‘Can I help you?’ Half of his house went down the river and the other half was hanging over the riverbank. Three days had passed since the storm and he said, ‘I found my dog’s dish.’ I almost broke down.”
He again cited the Cassella Brothers, Markowski, and the others lauded by the Governor, as well as Albon Construction and Ray Harvey in Rochester.
“Working in the river wears things out and it raises hell with iron,” said Mosher. Still, he is eternally grateful.
Beyond the praise and the tragedy, Mosher cited a great good that came from the storm in the form of 10 weeks of continuous clean up and rebuilding work for virtually every heavy iron operating contractor in and around the state.
“You talk about a stimulus package for two-and-a-half months,” laughed Mosher. “Contractors were on banana peels, on the edge of the industry, about to sell out. This allowed them to stay in business.”
There was another good that resulted from the storm. The Natural Resources Conservation Services, a branch of the federal government’s Department of Agriculture, shared its grant with local families, farmers, and land and home owners, showing them how to protect their property from similar storms, going forward.
“River scientists for years have been trying to control the Mississippi,” said Mosher. “In 1973, that was the last flooding around here, but it wasn’t anything close to Irene. That tough storm taught everyone a lot up here.”
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