It Wasn’t Always the City’s Job to Remove Snow

Even if everybody isn’t happy with the quality of snow removal, they should be pleased it’s not their responsibility

Brooklyn 1888
Park Place, Brooklyn after the 1888 blizzard. NOAA Photo Library

As the Northeastern United States continues to see steady snow, cities across the country are having to deal with removing it. Just a few inches incapacitated Atlanta, and some New Yorkers accused like their new mayor of neglecting the Upper East Side. But it wasn’t always the city’s job to remove snow from the streets.  

The Bowery Boys point out that “The notion that it was actually the city's responsibility to remove snow is a product of the early-to-mid 19th century.  The notion that all residents -- not just the wealthiest -- should benefit from this difficult civic task is newer still.”

Until 1881, snow removal was up to the police department in New York City. Of course, people also didn’t always have snow plows to do the majority of the shoveling for them. The early days of snow removal were full of teams of men shoveling by hand. And they often didn’t even start shoveling until they were pretty sure the whole storm had passed. It was cold, dangerous and slow. Which meant that only the most important roads were cleared. (Or the roads to businesses who paid the right people.) The rest of the city had to shovel its own way out. 

In 1888, the Northeast was hit with a huge blizzard. Streets were blocked for days, and the storm had been so strong that it had knocked many people (and animals) unconscious while walking — left to be buried in the snow and only discovered when dug or melted out. Over four hundred people across the country died. A few years later a man named George E. Waring Jr. became the commissioner of the Department of Street Cleaning. Waring was the first person who suggested that the city should clear more than just the most important roads, and who went so far as to say it was the city’s moral responsibility to help its residents get unstuck. In 1897 he wrote a treatise on snow removal that began:

"The question of snow removal has always been one of the most vexatious problems confronting the various administrations.  The removal of 'new fallen snow from leading thoroughfares and such other streets and avenues as may be found practicable' is a duty made obligatory upon the Commissioner by law, and with each year, the moral obligation to the vast traffic interests of congested Manhattan Island becomes more insistent." 

But coordinating a city wide snow removal effort is hard even now, not to mention before motorized snowplows. Plus, not everybody was a fan of socialized snow removal. But eventually, the city took over responsibility for making the streets navigable. Marc Sollinger at Marketplace explains the next few technological steps:

As horses gave way to cars and trains, so too did snow removal start to get mechanized. In Chicago, trams were affixed with plows, though most snow removal still had to be done with shovels and horse-drawn cart. (Being Chicago, this did lead to a 1907 scandal where workers, who were paid by the cart-full of snow they dumped into the lake, would only dump part of their load, thereby having to make more trips and get paid more money.) And a Canadian dentist named J.W. Elliot invented the snow blower to toss snow away from train tracks.

This kind of unification of civic services isn’t unique to snow plowing. The same kind of thing happened in cities with garbage removal and street repairs. In fact, even today, some cities dislike the idea of “socialized” services. But this winter, even if everybody isn’t happy with their city’s snow removal services, they’re all probably pleased to not be responsible for shoveling the streets themselves. 

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