Winter Gritting Experts

Snow Removal Through The Ages

July 22, 2019

Modern technology and equipment has given us a tremendous ability to deal with snow removal, but this hasn't always been the case. Whilst there are no specific records of apparatus and methods used to control snow and ice in the middle ages, snow, ice and temperature were much larger problems yesterday than they are today.

The mini ice age 1600-1800

History is clear about the advent of a 'mini ice age' that began in the 1600s and ended in the early 1800s. In The Netherlands and the UK, canals and rivers were frequently frozen deeply enough to support ice skating and winter festivals during that age; the first River Thames frost fair was in 1608 and the last was held in 1814.

In the USA, the bitter cold and snowfall rendered roads impassable, with snowdrifts up to 25 feet. The journey from New York to Boston was almost impossible; traditional post runners abandoned horseback for snowshoes and horse carts and coaches were adapted with ski-like runners. 

As populations grew and cities became larger in the 1800s, winter blizzards began to present problems to city dwellers who had to rely on frequent deliveries of food and supplies. During severe winters, roads and railways were often blocked for weeks at a time and ice-jammed waterways prohibited coastal shipments as well.

Fire hazards became problem, due not only to increased congestion of stoves and fireplaces, but also due sometimes to the extremely low temperatures that froze water in the tanks and hoses of the firefighting equipment.

Snow clearance innovation in the 1800s

By the early 1800s, snow control involved citizens going into the streets with shovels or brooms to level the drifts for sleigh traffic. Snow removal was not practiced on a citywide basis, but instead snow shovelers and snow wardens were hired to do this for individual shopkeepers or wealthy members of society. As a result, wintertime travel in the early 1800s was still mostly by foot.

However, the 19th century was a period of great industrial innovation; horse-drawn wedge-plows made of wood were gradually used during those first decades, and patents were created for different snow ploughs in the 1840s.

The first city use of snow ploughs was in the 1860s, attached to a cart pulled by a team of horses through snow-filled streets; of a design very similar to those that persisted in Sweden in the early part of the 20th Century.


early snow plough

First Wedge Ploughs

Ploughs enabled winter transportation in cities to recover more rapidly from storms than in previous years but they were also accompanied by a new round of problems, some of which remain with us today. Ploughing clears streets for traffic, but by pushing it to the side, also blocks pavements with large mounds of compacted snow.

Businessmen and townsfolk initially hailed the success of the plow, but later complained and even brought lawsuits against the snow clearance and snow ploughing companies. Salt to melt the ice was used in a few cities, but was strongly protested because it ruined the streets for sleighing and damaged the shoes and clothing of pedestrians.

Urban centres throughout the world affected by snow responded in several ways. They hired horse-drawn carts and more snow shovelers to work in conjunction with the snow ploughs, hauling away the snow and dumping it into rivers.

This not only cleared the mounds of snow, but many temporary jobs throughout the winter season. In a further effort to curtail the use of salt, which many still protested, streets and icy bridges were coated with sand instead.

20th Century gritting

The advent of cars and mechanization were game changers for snow clearance. The first motorized ploughs were developed in 1913, based on truck and tractor bodies: mechanization of the snow clearing process reduced the manpower required for snow removal and radically increased the speed and efficiency.

Caterpillar tracks were fitted to tractors equipped with plow blades, and to take the snow away, steam shovels, cranes, and railway flatcars were used. 

1920s snow plough

However, with the increase in motor traffic, it was found snow and ice needed more complete removal, leading to the development of gritting vehicles, which used salt to accelerate the melting of the snow.

Early attempts at gritting were resisted, as the salt used encouraged rusting, causing damage to the metal structures of bridges and the shoes of pedestrians. As motorcars took to the streets in ever increasing numbers, public safety demanded snow removal efforts even for snowfalls less than four inches.

Due to increased dependence on the automobile, not only main thoroughfares needed clearing, but residential streets as well. However, as the number of motoring accidents increased, protests subsided and by the end of the 1920s snow-affected urban centres worldwide used salt and sand to clear the roads and increase road safety.

Motorized salt spreaders have since become the primary tool in fighting snowy roads, and businesses and private citizens as well use various types of gritting salt to keep car parks and  footpaths clear of ice and snow.

Technology progress in the 1960s

In the 1950s and 1960s when car use had become widespread, retail, business and industry realized the
need for private snow removal equipment of their own to clear parking lots for their employees and customers.

This created a marketplace for smaller, customized equipment. Smaller snow ploughs and snow blowers were developed for customers to escape the rigors of the old-fashioned snow shovel.

In 1959, space technology came to the rescue of the snow removal effort, and satellites observed and relayed climate and weather conditions, allowing for far more accurate storm forecasting.

Cities were able to prepare themselves in advance for severe winter weather and prepare for snow removal efforts, and the advance of mass media such as radio and television helped keep the public aware of impeding hazardous situations. 

Mother nature vs. man

Yet Mother Nature continues to best our human endeavors.

The winter of 1977 proved especially harsh worldwide. In Buffalo, New York, snow drifts were so compacted by wind that plow blades broke trying to clear them, and halfway across the world in Japan, record heavy snows collapsed over 200 roofs.

During 2018's Beast From The East, there were 16 weather-related deaths in the UK. The Met Office issued a red snow warning, meaning a potential risk to life.




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