Dear Sun Spots: A friend and I were having a discussion about snow removal. We were wondering how snow was removed before the invention of motor vehicles and the snowplow. I am very interested in history and would love to know the answer to this. Thank you. – Sue, Auburn.

Answer: Welcome to winter, Sue! And what a great question.

According to, snowstorms have historically plagued many states, notoriously those in the Northeast and Midwest. Winter storms occur all over the country, but the “Snowbelt,” stretching across the Great Lakes from Minnesota to Maine, receives the brunt of winter storms.

Early East Coast settlements received their share of blustery storms and were battered by a series of harsh winters. Not only was the snowfall deep, but the weather was extremely cold, often freezing the bay around Boston and rivers to south as well. However, most travel was by foot, so many early storm fatalities occurred when coastal ships were caught in winter gales. Perhaps the most pressing problems for new settlers entailed shortages of wood and coal for heating homes.

Although severe weather hindered commerce, residents learned from their experiences. City residents began stockpiling firewood and other supplies in advance of winter disasters. For those who couldn’t afford enough wood or coal to warm their homes through the winters, several charities came to their aid. To improve travel, horse carts and coaches were installed with skilike runners in wintertime, which were better able to handle snowy conditions than wheels. Of course, parties of revelers often took advantage of the snowy roads and ice-covered rivers, which proved excellent for sleigh rides.

As populations grew and commerce needs expanded, blizzards began to present more critical problems to city dwellers who relied on frequent deliveries of food and supplies. In severe winters, intercity roads and railways were often blocked for weeks at a time. Ice-jammed waterways prohibited coastal shipments, as well.

Early attempts at snow control simply involved citizens going into the streets to level the drifts for sleigh traffic. In order for residents to travel by carriage, or for merchants to receive goods (and customers), they were responsible for clearing their own streets. Snow shovelers were frequently hired to do this for them. As a result, wintertime travel in the early 1800s was still mostly by foot.

As the 1800s progressed, new buildings and new technologies were put to the test by severe winter storms. Enterprising inventors were issued the first patents for snow plows in the 1840s, but several years passed before the plow designs were put to use. One of the first mentions of snowplow use comes from Milwaukee in 1862. The plow was attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through the snow-clogged streets. Over the next several years, horse-drawn plows gained popularity and came into use in many other Northeastern cities. Intercity steam trains, having made their appearance several years earlier, now puffed and whistled their way through heavy drifts with giant plows attached to their front ends.

Steam trains were fairly effective at clearing their own tracks when equipped with plows. However, for shorter inner-city transport, cities tried electric trolleys with plows, which proved to be unsuccessful. Several northeastern cities had long toyed with the idea of underground railways, but in the wake of the blizzard, it was an idea whose time had come. Boston installed the first stretch of subway tracks in 1899. New York followed with its own subway five years later, and both cities extended their lines significantly over time.

Motorization swept the country with amazing speed in the early 20th century, leading to motorized dump trucks and plows as early as 1913. Many cities rushed to motorize their snow removal fleets, abandoning most of their horse-drawn carts. In conjunction with the new trucks, cities began to use Caterpillar tractors equipped with plow blades. To haul the snow away, they used steam shovels, cranes, and railway flatcars to get the snow off the streets and dumped into the rivers. In spite of the technological advances, manual shovelers also continued to be hired as part of the winter work force.

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