Scenes From the History of Snow Removal
University of Vermont Libraries Center for Digital Initiatives
In some areas, the weather outside is pretty frightful. And since you've no place to go but outside to shovel, get cozy and read about snow removal in the good old days.
On A Roll
For a good stretch of American history, getting rid of snow was of no great concern. In fact, people actually wanted it around. While this might blow the minds of modern Northeasterners and Midwesterners, keep in mind that these were the days of the horse-drawn vehicle, not the Prius. To improve travel in winter conditions, horse carts and coaches traded their wheels in for ski-like runners. With those things on, the more packed snow on the roads, the better! Historian and weather geek Eric Sloane wrote that, in the 18th and 19th centuries, "snow was never a threat" to road travel, "but rather it was an asset."
To keep roads in optimal snowy condition, many municipalities employed a "snow warden" to pack and flatten the snow with a crude vehicle called a snow roller—essentially a giant, wide wheel weighed down with rocks and pulled by oxen or horses. A far cry from the winter road work we see today, it was more like maintaining a ski slope or smoothing out an ice rink. Stranger still, snow wardens actually had to install snow on the pathways of covered bridges so that travel would not be interrupted.
Plow About That
Photo Courtesy Schwartz Boiler Shop
By the mid 1800s, several different inventors had patented their own versions of a horse-drawn snow plow meant for clearing alleys and residential streets that saw more foot traffic than carriages. In 1862, Milwaukee became the first major municipality to try one out, and it was a hit. Over the next few years, the plows hit the streets in cities throughout the Snow Belt.
But horse-drawn plows didn't stand a chance against the Blizzard of 1888, which bludgeoned the East Coast from the Chesapeake Bay up to Maine. After three days, some places were buried in up to 50 inches of snow, and high winds caused drifts up to 40 feet tall to form. The plow-pulling horses, like everyone else, had no choice but to stay inside and wait for the snow to melt. Cities in the region learned a valuable lesson about preparation, and the following year many implemented measures like hiring more plows and giving them assigned routes, and sending the plows out to start clearing the roads in the early stages of the storm.
The Jull Centrifugal Snow Plough. Photo Courtesy of Made In Canada
Around the same time, on the other side of the country, the rotary snowplow—or as we know it, the snow blower—was getting its start in an unlikely place far removed from the suburban driveways where they're now normally seen. In the Canadian West, railroad men were having a hard time keeping their tracks clear of snow. The railroad snowplows used back east and on the prairies were the wedge-shaped cow-catcher type that pushed the snow to the sides of the track, and they just didn't work in the deep, heavy snow of the western mountains.
J.W. Elliott, a Toronto dentist, had been tinkering with a plow design he thought might work well on a train. His plow had a rotary engine that drove a wheel rimmed with flat blades. As the plow went down the track, snow collected in a housing on the plow and then got funneled up to the blades, which tossed the snow out through an opening at the top of the housing. The railroads passed on it, but Elliot persisted. He hooked up with inventor Orange Jull to improve the design and commission a full-scale working model. The next winter, they convinced the Canadian Pacific Railroad to road-test the new plow on its line near Toronto. The plow cleared the track easily, tossing snow as far as 200 feet out of the way, and the railroad managers were impressed enough to buy eight plows and put them to work. Over the few decades, snowblowers got cheaper, smaller, and easier to use, with truck-mounted models and, eventually, human-powered ones for home use hitting the market.
Photo Courtesy of the National Archives of Norway
As automobiles replaced horses and carriages on the roads of the U.S., the snow problem got flipped on its head. It wouldn't be enough to clear the alleys and pack down the snow on the main roads anymore. Cars required dry, safe streets. Motorized salt spreaders were introduced, but they often didn't do enough, and urban sprawl meant most cities were just too big for horse-drawn plows to clean all the streets. In the early 1920s, Norwegian brothers Hans and Even Overaasen and New Yorker Carl Frink independently came up with designs for car-mounted snow plows. These were, apparenty the perfect solution to the modern snow problem, and the company Frink started is still producing plows today.
As for the snow removal tool the average Joe is most familiar with, 100-plus patents have been granted for snow shovel designs since the 1870s. One of the first designs that hit upon the "scrape and scoop" combo was invented in 1889 by—get this—a woman named Lydia Fairweather.
This post originally appeared in 2012.