Snow in the CitiesSnow in the Cities
by Blake McKelvey

This has been a very suitable week to be reading this book. The temperatures have been in the single digits, wind chills below zero, and the snow has been piling up day by day. Yesterday, Brian paid for a snowplow driver to clear out my driveway, because tackling it with a shovel in my hands was getting to be a bit more than I can handle even with Brian’s help. This morning, we had a power outage for about three hours.  Now that the computer is up and working again, it seems like a good time to say something about this book.

Reading about how people handled snow in decades and centuries past has put this week’s weather into perspective, as history always does in any case. The author describes several different responses in different eras. In the “pedestrian cities” of the 1600’s and 1700’s, the things people worried about had less to do with clearing the roads for vehicles and more to do with keeping warm in their houses. Making sure a good supply of firewood was near at hand was a concern, as was preventing the attendant house fires that often resulted. Travel between towns was often managed on horseback, breaking open a way through the drifts. Within the town, people moved short distances on foot, plowing through snow to the neighbor’s house, the barn, or the church.

By 1800, cities had grown larger, and wagons linked the city to supplies that came from the farms and from other cities. The mail, passengers, newspapers, foodstuffs, wood, all had to be hauled in. The rutted, muddy dirt roads were difficult enough without being buried in snow. The solution was an ingenious one: Instead of making an enemy of the snow, why not turn it to advantage? Replacing wheels with runners turned a wagon into a sleigh or sledge. Teams of men with horses and sledges broke open the roads and packed down the snow into a smooth hard surface which made it a delight to fly over quickly and without the usual bumps. “Good sleighing” became a common response to a snowfall.

We don’t think much nowadays about water travel as a necessity. But as folks nowadays regard a blizzard which grounds planes, so did people in the past regard a lengthy cold spell which froze ships into the harbor. For cities that depended on shipping as a lifeline, breaking open a lane in the ice to make a channel free for a ship to pass was an urgent undertaking. On the other hand, inland cities on rivers could turn an iced-over river to advantage by using it as a smooth highway, sending sleighs, horse teams, and pedestrians longer distances with more ease than they’d find struggling to break a road in heavy snow.

With the arrival of railroads and urban horsecars and trolleys in the later half of the 1800’s, came the need to remove snow from the tracks. The smooth packed snow that had always meant “good sleighing” in the past now meant clogged rails and stranded cars. The first snowplows, as we know them today, came along to clean the tracks, and with the snowplows came a battle for control of the city streets. As the streetcar companies removed the snow from their tracks, they pushed it to the side, mounding it up in what had been a smooth sleighing road. The drivers of the sleighs and sledges, defending their right to use the public roads, objected strenuously, sometimes shovelling the snow back onto the tracks. City governments often passed ordinances requiring the streetcar companies to haul away the snow to be dumped elsewhere, an expense the streetcar companies resented.

It’s interesting that most of the public effort to handle snow, up until this point, had been unconcerted work performed by the citizens. Nobody was going to come out with city-owned plows and city-employed crews to take the snow in hand. Gangs of men and boys brought out their own horses and sledges to drive through the drifts and pack them down, because everybody wanted to see the roads smooth and easy to travel. But now, in the age of mechanization of the city, it became clear that the issues were becoming too much for the random neighborhood gang to deal with. If snow had to be hauled away and dumped, people would have to be employed to do it. Similarly, large semi-public enterprises like streetcar companies would have to put up the money to protect infrastructure that the city had come to depend on.

Telephone and telegraph wires, electrical wires, and cable car wires brought down by heavy snow could stop a city in its tracks. Though privately owned, these things were a form of public utility as well, and the public had an interest in seeing service restored quickly. More and more, people looked to municipal government to take charge of the situation. More and more, we began to see the world out side the window this snowy morning in 2015. As the automobile replaced the sleigh and the streetcar, the need for snow removal became more insistent. Innovations in snowplowing trucks, use of salt and other chemicals, teams of city-employed workers, all sprang up as the 20th century passed, turning snow management into an art and a science.

My sister has been involved for years in city departments which had snow removal as a peripheral but necessary part of their function. When the city has a snow emergency, that means the Parks Department has to plow out the parks, while Environmental Services must clear the streets for traffic. Maybe having heard her talk now and then about being called out on snowstorm duties has made me pay more attention than I otherwise would, so that I am more aware of and appreciative of the magnificent efforts which make it possible for me to drive to work on a snowy day. Or which put the electricity back on, so I can post this book review.