‘Beauty Highway’ rededication honors former road chief

PUBLIC SERVANTS like Bernie Kelleher don’t come along every day.

Mr. Kelleher, who ran the Columbia County Highway Department from 1956 until his retirement in 1977, had a way with people, addressing their financial needs while also appealing to their sense of community pride through the county’s network of roads.

“We agonize over the need to step on people’s land to do our work,” said the county’s current public works commissioner, David Robinson. “We often need easements and deed transfers, and nowadays that can take years. Bernie Kelleher had a certain savvy and talked to people about their needs in a way that didn’t require a lawyer or spending the county’s money,” Mr. Robinson said.

In light of what he called “the sincere contributions” Mr. Kelleher made to the county highway system” Mr. Robinson felt the time had come to recognize Kelleher in a meaningful way. To do that, county officials recently rededicated the scenic 4.8-mile stretch of County Routes 11/11A between East Taghkanic and Craryville as the Bernard J. Kelleher Memorial Highway. Last fall, Mr. Robinson helped steer the proposed name change through the county’s Public Works and Finance committees and ultimately gained the approval of the full Board of Supervisors in December. The new signs went up in January. But thanks to Mr. Kelleher’s work both in building the road and in seeking a national honor in 1969, the road is still known locally as the “Beauty Highway.”

Taghkanic Supervisor Betty Young supported the rededication in Mr. Kelleher’s memory, terming it “very appropriate.” She said the road is important for the town and remains well kept. “The people who live along it take great care of their land, and the road is aptly named,” said Mrs. Young.

Mr. Kelleher, who died a decade ago, worked throughout the 1960s to stitch together different parcels and pieces of old, unpaved roads through rolling hills and open meadows and past barns, silos, 19th-century homes and a former one-room schoolhouse between County Route 27 and State Route 23 to create the Beauty Highway. He was a professional engineer as well as a licensed land surveyor, and he used those skills to plot the road’s course and to champion its recognition as a National Beauty Award winner.

Last fall Commissioner Robinson saw an opportunity to honor Mr. Kelleher’s contributions to this road and to the county’s road system. Pulling out an agreement from September 1965 with former Taghkanic resident Margaret Anderson, Mr. Robinson noted how the terms called for a county highway crew to take down some maple trees, leave the pieces in 18-inch lengths for firewood, and install a 210-foot-long picket fence in exchange for a deed transfer that allowed the county to build a segment of the Beauty Highway.

“This is just one example of the thoroughness of his work,” said Dean Knox, director of engineering for the county Department of Public Works. “He made sure it was right, and he was involved in every aspect of every job that went on in this office,” Mr. Knox added.

Mr. Kelleher’s son, also named Bernard, is now director of highways for the county, essentially the same position his late father once occupied. The younger Kelleher said Mr. Robinson “took it upon himself to do something” and in the process uncovered more than he had known about his father’s role in building the road and receiving the national honor on behalf of Columbia County.

Mr. Kelleher said his father designed the road to follow the area’s natural land formations. “You try to make the [road] realignments flow rather than just cut through the hills,” he said. The road’s broad curves and rolling hills fulfill the goal for the route that his father apparently wrote in an unsigned history of the road: to give travelers “maximum safety, beauty, utility, economy, enhancement of manmade facilities and preservation of the natural environment,” including spectacular views of woodlands, fields, and the Berkshire Mountains to the east.

The elder Mr. Kelleher was also president of the New York State County Highway Superintendents Association in 1967 and it may be in that role that he heard about the federal Bureau of Public Roads contest recognizing scenic highways around the country. Once crews completed the road in the fall of 1968, Mr. Kelleher prepared the county’s application for the national honor. He waited until May of 1969–not long before the July 1 deadline–to make the photographs to accompany the application, because he wanted the judges to see the lush foliage and greenery along the route.

The wait paid off, but it took the proverbial “act of Congress” before Kelleher and Columbia County shared the honor. At that time communications flowed only between the federal and state transportation departments. As a result it was the state DOT, not the county, that first received the honors from the national judges who had selected County Routes 11/11A from among more than 150 entries across 44 states for “The Most Outstanding Highway in a Rural Setting and Environment.” Undeterred, Kelleher asked then-Congressman Hamilton Fish, Jr., for help, arguing that the road was part of the county system and that his office had planned and designed the entire route. Rep. Fish responded two weeks later, assuring Mr. Kelleher that he and the county “would receive full recognition, from both the Federal and State bureaus” for their work in planning and designing the Beauty Highway.

The younger Kelleher said he is sure his father “was proud of how the project turned out,” but declined to speculate on how he would feel about the renaming. “My father was not one to crow about his achievements,” said Mr. Kelleher. “But if I was to guess, I think he would be happy just to call it the Beauty Highway and advertise that it won a national award.”

 

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