As dusk falls over Stowe village, workers from Dale E. Percy Inc. switch on massive lamps to light their work.
People gather to peer people over the edge of the 4-foot-deep trench dug across Main Street, making the construction work feel like a carnival and turning those work lights into spotlights.
“This happens every night,” said Stowe police officer Matt Andrews, who works nights and weekends and often watches over the night shift work.
The work is being done at night to minimize the impact on traffic and businesses.
“People are posted up” every night, Andrews said, pointing. People holding ice cream cones and snacks settled on park benches by 8 p.m. Margo and Don Hall, part-time Stowe residents for 50 years, cautiously edged closer and closer to the trench, near where the crosswalk connecting School and Main streets will be.
“It’s been great,” Andrews says of the nightly show. “The townspeople have been inquisitive. They’ve asked a few questions, and overall, I think the sense has been that they’ll be happy when the night construction is over, but they’re also realizing that it’s happening very quickly.”
“It’s just fascinating,” Margo Hall said with a big smile. The couple had just finished dinner at Cork Wine Bar and wanted a closer peek. “I’m glad I got a chance to see what’s going on.”
She didn’t know what conduit was until Monday night; for a lot of people, the construction job is a learning experience.
On Monday night, workers were putting down tubes through which the utility lines that currently festoon Main Street will be threaded come next spring, relocating them underground and rendering them invisible.
The conduit work is being done at the same time as the reconstruction of about 15,000 feet of sidewalks in Stowe village and on Mountain Road.
Five utility lines use the poles on Main Street, though under the intersection of Main and School streets, only four will pass through, since Consolidated Communications, the telecom company formerly known as FairPoint, has had a duct bank under that intersection for 40 years.
It’s “an integral part of this whole plan,” says assistant town engineer Chris Jolly, one of the town employees on hand Monday night to supervise the night work.
Voters have batted around the idea of burying the unsightly utility wires since the 1970s, and town officials have been working on a conceptual plan for almost 10 years, Jolly said.
Stowe public works director Harry Shepard pulled a lot of late nights working out the details after voters approved $6.6 million in November to bury the utility lines and reconstruct the sidewalks.
Work began in May, and since then, a work pit has migrated all over Stowe village — next to Green Mountain Inn, in front of TD Bank, in front of Café on Main and, Monday night, bisecting Main Street.
“There’s a hole here tonight, there’s a hole there tomorrow night, there’s a hole up the street somewhere else, so it’s changing every night, so people are having to adapt a little more than they’re comfortable with,” said Andrews, the cop, after waving a few cars away.
Traffic is being detoured around the village on West Hill Road, but “there’s an occurrence or two a night” of drivers who proceed anyway, Andrews said.
Most people are polite, but “the ones that we see are not,” Jolly said. “If they get here, they’ve gone through a lot of signs and flaggers and cops, and they don’t want to hear it. You saw that person just pull up. Where the heck (is she) going to go?”
Jolly is referring to a driver who pulled right up to the trench, and when Andrews told her she had to turn around, she replied that there weren’t enough warning signs.
Andrews remains patient; he knows it can be confusing to find ways around a town that’s not home, or frustrating to wait when you’re already late.
“All anybody’s got to do is ask us,” he said. “We’ll help them find their way around.”
Jolly and other town employees — including Abby Earle, outreach coordinator for the project and Town Manager Charles Safford’s executive assistant; Dick Grogan, Stowe’s water superintendent; and Shepard himself — are on site most of the time while night work is taking place.
“Someone’s got to be here from the town, because you find stuff. Stuff pops up, and it’s nice to have someone here seeing. … One part is just inspection, to make sure that they’re aware of what they need to do and are doing it according to our planning and specifications. The other part is, when you’re digging in an old town like this, you find stuff,” Jolly said.
For instance, Sunday night, he found an old fire hydrant that had been buried beneath layers of concrete.
It’s been disposed of, but Jolly says if things are unearthed without a town employee to sign off on what’s being done with them, confusion could result.
Jolly enjoys watching the night work.
“They all work around each other doing this a lot. The guys in the trench have a pretty darn good idea of what his next move is going to be,” he said, pointing to a man operating an excavator. “They know where to stand, where to not stand, and the guy in the excavator knows that they know where to stand and where to not stand, for the most part. He’s always looking for surprises, but they just know how to move around each other. It’s what they do,” Jolly said.
There’s a camaraderie that comes from working the 11-hour night shift, evident in the way the men treat each other — joking, laughing, playful banter, but always with an undertone of respect that runs deeper than the trench they’re digging.
“It’s hard. Night work is hard. It sucks. There’s definitely a little bit of camaraderie, where everybody’s in it together,” Jolly said. “Everybody knows it sucks. Nobody really wants to do it, but you can just kind of make the best of it, and you’ve got to do your best to have fun.”