Be Happy When Stuck Behind A Modern Snow Plow – Your Ancestors Would Have Been

By Peter Betz

In an article surveying travel conditions when a heavy gale blanketed the Mohawk Valley on February 14th, 1923, the Gloversville Morning Herald described the storm’s aftermath. “In Gloversville, the Street Department got out its snow-fighting apparatus early and the streets were kept open. The new tractor helped mightily in clearing the streets.” Transportation beyond the city, however, was worse off. “It was reported two trolleys were stalled near Fern Dale Cemetery and a number of automobiles stalled on North Perry Street. A taxi man drove his car into a driveway, drew the water off, and left the car for the night.” It was several additional days before mail delivery was re-established in Stratford, Bleecker and Oppenheim. There would probably have been no fire protection available there either.

Each year during the 1920’s more Americans purchased automobiles, major motivations being their increased reliability, more gas stations, and access to ever-longer stretches of paved roads, but when freezing temperatures arrived, many motorists weren’t content to drain their car’s radiator – anti-freeze wasn’t available yet – and ‘put up’ their car till spring, in favor of using trolleys and taxis. They preferred attaching snow chains to their car’s driving wheels, as chains effectively forced autos forward through snow-covered highways. Elected officials also began making more serious efforts at keeping highways open. After all, motorists voted.

The December 3rd, 1925 Morning Herald praised Supervisor’s attempts to keep highways open while painting idealistic pictures of effortless winter travel, declaring, “No more will one have to stay at home because roads are banked high with snow. No more will one have to forgo a shopping trip, a business venture, a jot to the movies. The Board of Supervisors has voted an appropriation of $27,500 to remove snow from the roads and highways of the county.” This editorial unfortunately didn’t mention just how the snow would be removed or what types of motorized equipment would clear it, but the program must have been reasonably effective as it became a permanent part of the annual budget. Even the Fort Plain Standard commented, “FuIton County has been doing excellent work in managing roadside ploughing this winter.”

In Highway Superintendent Burt Kasson’s January 3rd, 1931 annual report, for example, he stated, “The snow removal program ordered by your Board of Supervisors for the year 1929-1930 totaled 157 miles and was completed at a cost of $15,704.24.” Kasson noted this figure also included “snow fence purchased, erected and removed,” an annual event still occurring where heavy drifts are known to frequently overrun the roads.

During the 1930’s and 40’s, newspaper editors and letters to the editors often complimented snow-clearing work performed by town and county highway departments, but they also often expressed dissatisfaction with state road crews. Justified or not, there must be others besides myself who remember that as late as the mid 1950s, the old two-lane state route 30 north of Amsterdam where Target, Walmart and other businesses prosper today, was often completely ‘socked in’ for up to several days following a good blizzard. Some readers may even recall one occasion circa 1952 when a state plow, attempting to ram an opening through route 30 – then called the ‘Amsterdam-Perth Road’ – crashed right into the rear of an automobile left abandoned and completely obscured by heavy drifts.

Today our highly-effective, super-heavy diesel-powered snowplows clear and sand roads simultaneously: our technologically-enabled autos carry us over snow in either front, all-wheel, or four-wheel drive modes. Motorists under forty likely haven’t experienced using tire chains, or struggling to fasten these slippery metal devils over one’s tires on cold, wet mornings, a frequent cause for profanity. Chains are still used on logging vehicles, but the familiar sound of their ‘clank-clank’ on public highways is no more. Although some of us because of jobs must still endure hazardous driving conditions, we’re far safer and more mobile than even thirty years ago, when some of our rural town dwellers still considered being stranded at home for a couple of days after winter storms nothing unusual.

Ancient snow roller for packing snow down on roads for sleighs. By Jon Platek, CC BY-SA 3.0,

You may ask who cleared city and country roads in earlier times. In our pre-revolutionary era districts and later, in our 19th century county towns, some appointed ‘snow wardens’ had authority to call out able bodied men, but their goal wasn’t always snow removal. While the earliest horse-drawn wooden street plows are first mentioned in 1860’s newspapers, Fort Johnson archaeologist-historian Wayne Lenig explained to me that, with 18th and 19th century country-dwellers replacing wagon and carriage wheels with sleigh runners, “the problem became not removal of snow but how to keep it packed ON roads, so sleighs had smooth travel; they maintained roads by shoveling snow onto them, so they wouldn’t get rutted and muddy.” Gloversville City Historian James Morrison who has read more colonial documents than almost anyone observed, “I don’t recall noting anything beyond the use of sleighs and sleds on roads, ice skates on rivers, snowshoes for traveling, and no mention of clearing roads or streets.”

As town councilman, I sometimes ride with our Perth Highway Department personnel as they plow our town roads. While sitting high above snow-covered roads in the comfortable cab in the dark of night, one wonders how much harder this important job was using earlier, less comfortable, less powerful trucks. Next time you’re stuck behind one, be patient and be glad it’s there making your trip safe.

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An earlier version of this article appeared in the Leader-Herald.

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