Before there were cars, people traveled in a horse-drawn carriage, sometimes over cobble-stone covered roads.

Back in those days, was anything done to keep the traveled roads free from ice or snow? Were accidents due to ice or snow relatively uncommon?

  • 1
    I retagged this because I think of the 19th century as being the golden age of horse-and-carriage. We don't really have a good tag for "Era of Wheeled Vehicles." Hope you don't mind.
    – two sheds
    Feb 17, 2015 at 19:15
  • The origin of the Zamboni used to resurface ice-rinks lies in the deliberate icing of roads in the horse-and-buggy era to ease sleigh traffic. Feb 17, 2015 at 23:23
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    Googling snow shoes for horses demonstrates some alternatives. Feb 18, 2015 at 11:08

3 Answers 3


Snow removal takes a lot of effort. It was easier to switch out wheeled carriages for sleighs. Sleighs work better with more snow, so that according to this article:

in the 18th and 19th centuries, "snow was never a threat" to road travel, "but rather it was an asset."

The more densely packed snow became, the better. Some municipalities even had special "snow rollers" to compress the snow:

enter image description here

Some inventors did try out horse-drawn plows, but these were intended for pedestrian alleys, not thoroughfares. In the U.S., these were most popular in the "snow belt," with Milwaukee being the first major city to use one in 1862. However, horse-drawn snowplows are not able to handle blizzards, as the Blizzard of 1888 (which dropped 50 inches of snow on the East Coast) made clear:

The plow-pulling horses, like everyone else, had no choice but to stay inside and wait for the snow to melt. Cities in the region learned a valuable lesson about preparation, and the following year many implemented measures like hiring more plows and giving them assigned routes, and sending the plows out to start clearing the roads in the early stages of the storm.

It was the introduction of automobiles that required cities to take snow removal seriously:

As automobiles replaced horses and carriages on the roads of the U.S., the snow problem got flipped on its head. It wouldn't be enough to clear the alleys and pack down the snow on the main roads anymore. Cars required dry, safe streets. Motorized salt spreaders were introduced, but they often didn't do enough, and urban sprawl meant most cities were just too big for horse-drawn plows to clean all the streets. In the early 1920s, Norwegian brothers Hans and Even Overaasen and New Yorker Carl Frink independently came up with designs for car-mounted snow plows. These were, apparenty the perfect solution to the modern snow problem, and the company Frink started is still producing plows today.

  • this deals with moderate snow, but what about snow falls over say 2 feet when your in the 3-5 feet snow range. say people living in colonial canada, or early settlers to Minnesota. (i think this is great answer, but if you could find anything about this larger snow fall it would add to it)
    – Himarm
    Feb 17, 2015 at 19:03
  • @Himarm: Updated. In blizzards, your options were basically to stay home or to plow early and often.
    – two sheds
    Feb 17, 2015 at 19:12
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    Indeed, ice was an asset- another example - to move the logs using horse-drawn, and later steam-powered, sleds: "There they were loaded onto sleighs and hauled over ice roads to river banks where they were stored until spring. The ice roads were also primarily a Michigan innovation. The unique roads were made by running a sprinkler over a logging road during frigid nights. By morning, the normally rutted and rough trails were turned into sheets of ice. During the day heavy sleighs loaded with logs could rapidly move over them." nps.gov/piro/historyculture/upload/Logging2010.pdf
    – michaelok
    Feb 17, 2015 at 23:47
  • How do they stay sitting up top that giant cylinder? Feb 19, 2015 at 10:30
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    @Imray: If you look closely, they are sitting on a wooden bench connected to a metal frame. Fortunately, they are not directly on the cylinder.
    – two sheds
    Feb 19, 2015 at 12:56

@twoshedas answer, currently the accepted one, mentions just one approach but there were others. For example, in Montreal, Canada, large shafts that lead from the street level down to the sewers were used by city workers to push snow off the street and out of sight.

From UnderMontreal

A 19th century snow-dump shaft at the beginning stages of the Cote St. Paul collector. Snow Shaft

In addition, an exhibit from the McCord Museum of Montreal, assembled a collection of snow-removal photographs from that era. Here's one, but be sure to check more out via the link.

This photograph shows a Montreal street (rue Notre-Dame) in winter. The street is full of snow and a crowd of people is busy clearing it. We can see that some people are using shovels and even pickaxes to transfer the snow into sorts of sleds pulled by horses. We can also see that Notre-Dame was also a very busy street since quite a few people are walking along it. The snow is trampled and dirty and piled up to the right.

Horses haul snow away from Montreal streets

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    +1 for an interesting answer. I wonder how many other cities had these snow-dump shafts. May 22, 2021 at 11:09

I am a regular stackexchange user but never in the history boards before. This post caught my eye.

My Great Grandmother lived as a pioneer homesteader/farmer in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Her father died when she was very young, and her older brother badly injured his knee on a nail that worked itself loose on a horse drawn sleigh. He moved into the city to work because he could no longer work the farm because of his leg becoming inflexible and weak. My Great Grandmother took over the farm work at age 13. She was a tough old bird I tell you. They had a team of two Clydesdale horses which she would harness by herself while standing on a stool and go and do the work about the farm. I remember very well her telling me about working the horses in the snow and using studded medal shoes, and a type of snow shoe for deeper snow if necessary. Sleighs were a huge advantage actually, as much greater weights could be moved than on a wheeled wagon. Hauling firewood, for example, was much faster when the snows came, because nearly twice the weights could be easily moved on the sleighs.

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    This site isn't really about your family history, so it would probably be better to summarize this in about two lines, one about snow horse shoes and one about sleighs.
    – Jasper
    Feb 19, 2015 at 10:29
  • Sorry, Jasper. I will try harder next time I post to make it more concise. I guess I wrote it the way I like it. History in its context.
    – skribe
    Feb 19, 2015 at 15:02
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    there is an edit button, so there really isn't anything that forces you to wait for the next answer. I do also like some context, but there should always be more content than context, and here about 85% is context, which is too much
    – Jasper
    Feb 19, 2015 at 15:50

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