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A Brief History of Snow Removal

Snow season. It’ll soon be here. Any morning now, we could wake to find a delightful dusting of snow coating everything in sight, looking as though the entire world were transformed into a sugarcoated confection.

But on other mornings, we might wake to a world that doesn’t look quite so sweet. On those mornings, we might wake to a massive, crushing snowfall that has the power to stop a city dead in its tracks; a snowfall that has the power to collapse buildings, snap power lines, and throw the world of commerce and commuters into utter chaos.


It’s kind of strange, when you think about it: a civilization that has achieved spaceflight, that has harnessed the power of the atom, and that routinely erects towering buildings that reach to the sky – stopped dead in its tracks by a simple snowfall.

But that’s certainly nothing new…

The Great Snow

In 1717, a colossal snowstorm struck the eastern seaboard. The storm dumped about four feet of snow in just a matter of hours. In some places, drifts soared nearly to the height of a three-story building. Roads were impassable, and communications between cities and towns were severed for several days.

Known as “The Great Snow,” the 1717 storm foretold the problems that many American cities would wrangle with in the coming centuries.

The first attempts at organized snow removal were very simple: volunteer citizens armed with snow shovels would pour into the streets following a snowfall. Their goal was simply to attempt to level the snowdrifts enough to permit passage of horse-drawn sleighs.

But soon, municipal governments became involved. Building codes were instituted that mandated buildings and bridges be able to withstand heavy snowfalls.

And in the mid-1800s, a new tool became available for the removal of snow from city streets: the snowplow.

Push It, Haul It, Dump It

A snowplow was first put to use in clearing city streets in Milwaukee in 1862. The snowplow was attached to a cart, and pulled through the streets by a team of horses. Soon, horse-drawn plows were routinely used to clear streets in many American cities.

Snowplows were also used to keep commerce and commuters flowing between cities by mounting massive plows to the front of steam-driven locomotives, clearing the railroads of drifted snow.

Snowplows were effective at clearing snow off of a street or railroad, but they had one major fault: they didn’t remove the snow, they just moved it around. And that led to some new problems.

Sidewalks became impassable as a result of the huge mounds of crusty, compacted snow dumped upon them by snowplows. Merchants complained that the barrier-like deposits left on streetsides by the snowplows blocked access to their stores. Some even sued the companies that were contracted to provide the snowplowing services. And horse-drawn sleigh drivers howled about the rough ruts and ridges that were left in the wake of a snowplow.

So cities like New York soon began a two-step operation whenever the city was faced with a heavy snowfall: snow plowing and snow removal. Teams of men with snow shovels would follow the plows, and shovel the snow into horse-drawn carts. The snow would be hauled to rivers and sewers where it would be dumped and left to melt.

An Ongoing Battle…

Snowplows are motorized these days; horses are no longer required. And modern-day equipment such as snow loaders help to make the job of snow removal more efficient than in the early days.

But heavy snowfalls still have the power to cripple cities. In 1996, a massive snowstorm along the eastern seaboard shut down cities, highways and airports for several days. More than 100 people were killed.

In spite of mankind’s technological progress, Mother Nature still holds the upper hand. And sometimes she delivers a fearsome reminder.

This entry was posted on Friday, December 6th, 2013 at 4:13 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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