The curious painted “pavement runes” appeared on Gilmore Avenue in May. The multicolored squiggles and numbers are American Public Works Association lingo. Yellow for gas, green for sewer and storm drains, blue for potable water. They indicate what’s below the surface. A backhoe operator needs to anticipate what his bucket might encounter below the surface.
The Great Barrington Fire District Water Department, it turned out, was replacing the water main on our end of Gilmore Avenue, where we’ve lived since 1979.
The underground would soon be revealed.
If there was ever urban archaeology delivered to my door, this was it.
The neighborhood was once part of Benjamin Gilmore’s farm, purchased from his estate by Harvey F. Shufelt, of Housatonic, in 1905. Shufelt immediately sold a chunk of the land off to the town of Great Barrington for a new elementary school (named for Judge Justin Dewey). The building is now the District Court. Shufelt promised he would create a new Gilmore Avenue south from State Road, as reported in newspapers at the time.
Stonemason Gaetano Arienti bought two lots from Shufelt in 1914, eventually helping his sons build Sears Roebuck kit bungalows for their families. Our house, where Joseph and Mary Arienti raised a daughter, Violet, went up first, in 1927. Next door, where Charles and Dorothy Arienti reared their two boys, Tom and Paul, was built two years later.
My investigation of infrastructure began randomly. Sidewalks? The Fire District put gravel walkways on Gilmore and Anderson Streets in 1909, according to district annual reports. They were upgraded to concrete in 1926. (Sidewalks are now the Great Barrington Highway Department’s responsibility.)
Storm drains? The entire neighborhood is a wet meadow, water streaming underground from Bung Hill. Our homes have basement water issues. The town in 1930 installed storm drains on Gilmore Avenue, according to town reports. The storm runoff pipes run alongside, not beneath, the street.
Workers reached our house in July. They took a lunch break on our front lawn one day. I retrieved a big map from my attic archive and unrolled it on the lawn to show them. Joseph W. Curtiss had drawn the map for the Fire District in 1911. I acquired through eBay a few years ago. The Water Department office has a 1903 version hanging on its office wall on East Street.
I pointed out a water supply served Gilmore Avenue, a line coming roundaboutly from East Mountain Reservoir. There followed several questions back and forth. It was the first of several occasional conversations with Water Department superintendent Peter H. Marks, senior water system operator Daniel Niewinski, Joe Wilkinson & Son Excavating trackhoe operator Kevin Wilkinson and others.
I never went into the trench in front of our house, but I peered over the edge a few times. Each worker had a specialty, but they were interchangeable as needed. They trucked away chunks of asphalt, including a dark layer saturated with Tarvia 9, an oil-based material used initially to “pave” the street, and replaced it with clean fill. Unless a neighboring property owner wanted to adopt one, large boulders were trucked away.
The existing water main was on the east side of the street. The new main on the west side was woven beneath and over sewer and natural gas pipes and house service lines. The men cut off our sewer service for an hour to take out sections of old VC (vitrified clay) sectional pipe in order to place the new eight-inch water main. They unearthed a piece of the old galvanized three-quarter-inch service pipe — our original line, replaced years ago by copper. (The corroded old pipe is now archived in our chicken shed.)
Electricity? A 1927 photograph shows our house and a neighbor’s with a utility pole out front. So there was telephone and electricity by then.
Natural gas? Berkshire Gas ran its PVC main line along Gilmore Avenue in 1965, taking a shortcut to Main Street.
Fire hydrants? The workers replaced our existing hydrant with a new one that, with the eight-inch line, would have more pressure, Marks said.
With the new main covered over, the workers started over. They dug in front of each house to make connections to the new Ductile pipe. This work often required hand-shovel work. One neighbor and her grandson watched from lawn chairs. Another neighbor provided cold drinks on a very hot day. Rain discouraged labor on several days.
Newinski once found an 1803 coin in a trench on Main Street, he told me. He gave me a clear glass bottle that for some reason was buried two feet down near our service line. American Grocery “refined oil,” it said.
When they reached our house, they took out the newspaper box. How is the delivery driver going to find me tomorrow? I whined. They knew me by now. I wasn’t really worried. (And the paper was there the next morning, in a plastic bag.)
Watching the hard work that went into installing a third of a mile of water main and a dozen and a half house hookups, I appreciated why it might cost $31 million to replace Housatonic’s tired water system.