Snow certainly looks pretty when it is falling, or when it covers the landscape and glistens in the sun or moonlight. Unfortunately, as many are aware right now, snow can also be a major problem. Snow is not new in the human experience, and the people of the 19th century had to deal with it just as we do.
Snow removal and management has come a long way. Cities didn’t salt their roads until Detroit in 1940. The first horsedrawn plows were put into use starting in the 1840s and 1850s, but the roads were still brick or cobblestone and conditions had to good enough that horses could travel the roads in the first place.
Railroads had to deal with snow and were early leaders in snow removal. In the early 1840s, chains of locomotives with wedge or Bucker plows on the front were used to clear track of snow. In order to get the necessary speed to move the snow, as many as fourteen engines could be used at once. Wedge plows are still used by railroad today for routine snow removal.
Very deep snow was too much even for the horsepower they were throwing at it. In 1869, the rotary plow was invented, although it was not actually built and used until 1883. Today, rotary plows are still used when snow is too deep for wedge plows.
The 19th Century also revolutionized communication. Early telegraph experiments started by 1804 with the Morse system being developed in the late 1830s. News that had formerly taken days or weeks to arrive by horse or ship could suddenly arrive in minutes or hours. In 1876, the telephone arrived. By 1880, there were 49,000 phones in service and news could now arrive instantly. The world became smaller and major cities were the hubs for all that information.
The blizzard started on March 11 and lasted 3 days. When it was done, 20-60 inches of snow had buried New Jersey, New York, and New England. 45 mile-per-hour winds had former 50 foot snowbanks. Telephone poles snapped, wires fell, and all that information was gone. Electricity went out. Carriages and trains could not move. People were trapped in their homes. The entire city simply stopped.
The burial of New York City’s wires can be traced to this storm, as can Boston’s decision a few years later to build a subway instead of a surface light rail system. After the storm, New York also established a corps of snow removers, who worked in brilliant white uniforms.
As the north Atlantic states deal with this year’s first Nor’easter, it is worthwhile to take give a thought to how much we still have in common with our Steam era predecessors. Many people of the 19th century hated the snow just like a lot of us do. But many thought snow was pretty too; the snow globe was invented in the 1800s and received its first patent in 1900.