How We Plowed Before Snow Plows Were Invented

A short history of snow removal in America's cities.

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Courtesy: Historic National Weather Service Collection

America's first settlers were not so well-equipped to deal with the New World's snowy winters. During the 1717 storm (four feet of snow dumped, with drifts of up to 25 feet in some places), only a solitary postman was able to make the trip from Boston to New York. His trick? Abandoning his horse for a pair of snow shoes.

Back then, plowing wasn't in the picture. Instead, residents affixed ski-like runners to their carts to move through the icy streets.

But urban development brought with it streets, and people who needed to get through them. Residents depended on regular deliveries of food and fire wood. When snow made transport impossible, they would dig themselves out in de-facto teams to allow sleigh traffic to pass through. Though ordinances in many cities required homeowners to clear snow off their sidewalks, snow removal was not yet practiced on a citywide basis.

That changed in the 1840s, when the first snow plow patent was issued. According to a wonderfully comprehensive history by the  National Snow and Ice Data Center, the first snow plow was deployed in Milwaukee in 1862. They write that the plow "was attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through the snow-clogged streets."

Over the next several years, other cities adopted the horse-drawn plow, along with a sense that snow removal was a city's problem. As the Data Center notes "the invention of the snow plow initiated widespread snow removal efforts in cities and also created a basis for municipal responsibility in snow removal."

Of course, with great plowing comes great responsibility. Cities were able to clear main streets, but side streets and sidewalks often ended up blocked off by huge mounds of snow. Again, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, businessmen and townsfolk "complained and even brought lawsuits against the plowing companies … [claiming] their storefronts were completely blocked with mounds of plowed snow, making them inaccessible to their customers."

New York handled this by hiring horse-drawn carts and teams of shovelers to work in conjunction with the plows.

However, these advances were no match for the Blizzard of 1888, which paralyzed cities. Some areas saw as much and four feet of snow, trapping people in their homes (or in one tragic case, in a train bound for New York City) for days on end. But the storm had an upside - it led cities to develop more comprehensive snow plans. Cities began plowing when storms started, rather than waiting until the end of the storm. Officials divided cities into sections and assigned different areas to different plow drivers.

Some cities even tried equipping their electric trolleys with plows, which didn't work so well.

The west's burgeoning metropolises (like Denver, Salt Lake City and Seattle) also acquired snow removal equipment, but they were often able to rely on mild weather to melt snows.

In the early 20th century, the automobile entered the picture, creating new problems and new possibilities for snow plowing. In 1913, New York unveiled the first motorized dump truck (complete with tractor tires), abandoning the traditional horse-drawn cart. In the 1920s, Chicago unveiled the snowloader, an "ingenious contraption" that "was equipped with a giant scoop and a conveyor belt. As the snow was plowed, it was forced up the scoop, caught by the conveyor belt which carried it up and away from the street into a chute at the top where it was dropped into a dump truck parked underneath."

The last major innovation to snow removal came mid-century. In 1959, space technology entered the snow removal effort. Satellites allowed for more accurate storm forecasting and quicker preparation.

All photos courtesy of the Historic National Weather Service Collection

About the Author

  • Amanda Erickson is a former senior associate editor at CityLab.