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By The Numbers

A brief history of snow removal

Marc Sollinger Feb 14, 2014

This winter has been one of the coldest, snowiest, and most expensive in recent history. Last month the airlines cancelled 39,000 flights, the most since Hurricane Sandy. The weather likely factored into the reasons the January jobs report was so weak.  States are turning to beet juice and cheese brine to combat dwindling supplies of rock salt. Perhaps most tellingly, snowed-in Northeasterners demanded that Netflix release ‘House of Cards’ a day early so they could stay inside and binge watch.

But as snow plows navigate the roads of weather-weary Northeast, it’s important to remember that winter wasn’t always this easy. That’s right, before the introduction of modern snow plows, people had to use horse drawn plows, train snow blowers, and shovels to move the snow away from where they wanted to go. 

Before the mid-1800s, there wasn’t really any effort to get snow off roads. Just imagine no snow removal during the “The Great Snow of 1717,” when New England was left with four feet of snow, and drifts of up to 25 feet high. Or “The Washington and Jefferson Snowstorm” of 1772 that trapped both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson in their homes, with snow up to three feet thick.

No, before 1862, people didn’t use snow plows, they used snow rollers. The way people travelled through snow was by attaching skis to their horse-drawn carts and carriages. Snow rollers were huge, horse-drawn wheels that would flatten out the snow, making it easier for the carts with skis to move through the winter roads.

But by the mid-19th century, as cities were rapidly growing in population, city streets needed to be entirely clear of snow for the business of the city to continue. And with this, came snow plows. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, they were first used by the city of Milwaukee in 1862. Early snow plows were horse-drawn, and would deposit the compacted snow in huge piles on the city’s streets and sidewalks. Not all cities used plows though. Some just used shovels. In New York, clearing the snow was the responsibility of the Police Department, so on winter days, you might have seen policeman excavating thoroughfares.

At least until 1881, when it was made the charge of the Department of Street Cleaning.

Finally, during the Blizzard of 1888, cities got serious about snow removal. The blizzard covered the Northeast in four feet of snow. Carts were abandoned in the middle of the street, people were trapped in their homes for up to a week, and over 400 people died. However, this massive blizzard did force cities to change their tactics regarding snow removal. Cities increased the numbers of plows they had, and divided the cities into sections so they could more easily be tackled. And where before cities had waited until the storm was over to clear the roads, they now removed snow throughout the storm.


As horses gave way to cars and trains, so too did snow removal start to get mechanized. In Chicago, trams were affixed with plows, though most snow removal still had to be done with shovels and horse-drawn cart. (Being Chicago, this did lead to a 1907 scandal where workers, who were paid by the cart-full of snow they dumped into the lake, would only dump part of their load, thereby having to make more trips and get paid more money.) And a Canadian dentist named J.W. Elliot invented the snow blower to toss snow away from train tracks.

But the main development was in the motorized snow plow and the motorized salt spreader. As more and more cars came on the road in the early 20th Century, drivers demanded that roads be entirely free of snow. People had objected to the use of salt before (it damaged shoes and clothing), but now cities used it by the ton.

And car mounted snow plows, invented in the 1920s, started to become widely used, leading to snow removal we would recognize today. True, a huge snow plow might be less romantic than a snow roller clearing the way for horse-drawn carriages, but it (usually) enables most people to get to work on time.

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