I have wondered this before: how did people clear roads and streets without modern snowplows? Of course, we can reconsider this every so often when an eastern or southern state encounters snow and doesn’t have the equipment to deal with it all but I’m talking about the days before snow plows even existed. Here is some insight:
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.”…
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.”
Industrialization and technological change brought with it new forms of snow plowing plus expectations that cities would clear the streets. It would probably be fascinating to hear more about these expectations; did they arise because streets are city property? Did cities balk at having to devote resources to clearing snow as opposed to pursuing other goals? What were the outcomes of these lawsuits between business owners and municipalities? It sounds like the expectations about snow removal arrived at roughly the same time (late 1800s) that cities started providing other services to everyone including sewers, water, and police and fire coverage. There could be an interesting story here.
If many communities are facing budget shortfalls, is there any community willing to consider privatizing snow removal? In many places, it isn’t exactly a full-time task.
Another thought: how much more difficult does suburbia make snow plowing and removal? With the variety of streets that subdivisions add to the mix including cul-de-sacs and arterial roads, can snow plows be more efficient in cities?