History of Snow Removal Blizzard of 1888

The snow storms on the northeastern seacoast of America were major events causing untold misery and death to the early settlers. As the settlements grew, difficulties in delivering wood and coal for fuel and other supplies during snow storms became an issue of great concern in the towns.

Hand shoveling of snow was the only means of dealing with the massive amounts of snow deposited each winter. Businesses hired men to shovel snow and towns enacted ordinances forcing homeowners to keep sidewalks and pathways in front of their properties clear of snow. In the early 1800s most travel during snow storms was done by foot.

Although horse drawn sleighs were common in many areas, the road had to be relatively smooth for the sleighs to travel. Large cities had to deal with the issue of snow removal and disposal. Men were hired to shovel snow and horse drawn carts followed them to dispose of the snow. Snow was often dumped in rivers for disposal.

In the early 1820s weather watchers in cities, towns, villages and farms began sending information on storms and temperature to the Smithsonian to be analyzed. Newspapers and telegraphs aided in gathering data to assist in getting through severe weather incidents.

The first patents for snow plows were issued in the 1840s but did not become popular until the 1860s. The snow plow was attached to a horse drawn cart and pulled through streets pushing the snow into snow banks on either side of the plowed roadway.

At first this method was greeted with cheers but soon problems sprang up. Residents complained about the difficulties of climbing over the mounds of snow. Commercial enterprises complained about the issue of carrying on business behind piles of snow. Horse drawn sleighs complained about the unevenness of the plowed streets.

To answer the concerns of residents and business cities hired snow shovelers and horse drawn carts to follow the plows and smooth and remove the piles of snow. 

By the 1880s New York City began building elevated steam railways along all the major thoroughfares. These were built high enough to not be affected by the drifting snow.

The “Blizzard of 1888” dropped four and a half feet of snow over much of the northeast. Over 400 people died as a result of this storm. Some cities had been discussing building subway systems and Boston followed through with the first subway in 1899. New York followed a few years later.

Snow removal in the sparsely populated west relied on horse drawn plows and allowed the sun to melt the piles of snow. Railways used giant rotary plows attached to their steam engines to plow through and blow away the snow.

By the 1920s cities had abandoned their horse drawn plows for motorized snow removal equipment. Snow fences were widely used by ranchers, railways and others to keep snow off specific areas.

The advent of the automobile for personal use caused a whole new set of problems for snow removal crews. Roads needed to be kept clear from the beginning of the storm. Vehicles stuck in snow drifts or slipping off the road on ice patches became new impediments for the workers.

Weather reporting utilizing satellite information and greater understanding of the dynamics of snow storms allow residents of the Snow Belt greater freedom. They can plan trips and prepare themselves for storms guided by news reports. Snow removal crews are in place as the storm begins and are guided through the storm by information from severe weather centers across the nation.

Check out the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) from Boulder, Colorado for more information. www.nsidc.org