How Were Roads Cleared Before Snowplows?

iStock / iStock

Though we're nearing the beginning of spring, this week has left much of the northeastern United States dealing with the aftermath of a serious bout of snowfall. We take for granted that our roads will be plowed in a timely manner, but it took a long time for us to get to that place.

Let’s throw it back to the 1700s, when towns in the northeastern United States were just beginning to develop. As they grew, so too did the networks that connected them—which, of course, then mandated a postal service. As CityLab noted, during the Great Snow of 1717, the fastest way for mail carriers to travel the snowy roads between Boston and New York was to trade in their horses for a pair of snow shoes and make the trek on foot. Oof.

But year after year of heavy snowfall taught settlers to prepare for the weather. This meant stockpiling goods, founding organizations to aid those who needed coal and firewood, and inventing ski-like runners to attach to carts, which allowed for a sleigh-like method of transport. However, while these devices helped people to travel in inclement weather, it didn’t solve the issue of actually clearing the roads of snow.

This takes us to the 1840s, when the first patents for snowplows were issued (though there's no record of one being used until around 1862). According to the National Snow & Ice Data Center, "The plow was attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through the snow-clogged streets." Though implemented in Wisconsin, the plows quickly grew to be popular in the Northeast. This innovation spread to trains, which affixed plows to their front ends and could now continue to travel between cities, even in snowy weather.

Plows cleared the way for easier travel, but also brought about a new set of issues, like the tall mounds of snow that piled up on the sides of the roads (something we still deal with today). This was especially problematic for merchants, whose stores were blocked by the walls of snow. Meanwhile, uneven roads proved a challenge for sleigh travel.

One way of combating this was to hire shovelers to clear the roads. However, that still left one major issue: What to do with all the snow? In the late 1880s, cities began utilizing shovelers in conjunction with plows to effectively clear roads. The teams worked together to transport snow out of the trafficked city streets and into nearby rivers. Not only did this pave the way for easier transport in the snow, it created jobs in the winter. Additionally, steam railways were elevated to avoid being affected by snow drifts.

New York City’s Department of Street Cleaning was founded in 1881, which underscored how valuable properly plowed streets were to its residents. According to Untapped Cities, corrupt government officials would accept money and favors in exchange for clearing snow in front of certain businesses. (In 1929, the Department of Street Cleaning became the New York City Department of Sanitation.)

The Blizzard of 1888 brought as much as four feet of snow to the Northeast, halting traffic and taking more than 400 lives. Cities learned from the experience, and started becoming more strategic with their plowing methods. This meant dividing cities into different sections to be plowed and working proactively, clearing roads as snow fell and not waiting until after the storm. One of the biggest innovations that resulted from the storm was underground travel, something both New Yorkers and Bostonians know well.

With the development of motorized transportation came advances in snowplows. They became attached to cars and, in 1920, a snow loader was successfully deployed in Chicago—leading several other cities to purchase their own. The conveyor made snow removal easier than ever before—and paved the way to clearing roads the way we're still doing it today.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at