Health and Living

The origin of snow removal for all New Yorkers, rich and poor

For more information on New York City’s history with snow removal, listen to our 2019 show on the history of the city’s Department of Sanitation.

For some of New York City’s history, snowstorms have been completely paralyzing, and most residents had to clear their own streets, an impossibility in areas of a more rural character.  

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.

A snow plow at Union Square, circa 1901-1905 (LOC)

Snowed Under

There was no simple method for clearing thoroughfares.  

The task was heavily labor intensive, with dozens of men shoveling down roads obscured with newly fallen snow. As a result, only the most important streets were cleared — mostly around City Hall, Wall Street and Fifth Avenue — leaving the rest of the city to fend for itself.  

Later on, snow plows were attached to horses, piercing through the snow-covered streets, while wagons would follow along to collect the snow.

The arduous task of clearing the streets with only horses, shovels and carts, 1867 (NYPL)

The Mechanics of Removal

Civic snow removal was initially a responsibility of the police department up until 1881, when the Department of Street Cleaning became its own separate entity.  

New York street-cleaners manned a broom during the spring and a shovel in the winter, working with horse-drawn carts in “piling and loading gangs” to clear gutters and intersections.  

Most of the time, snow clearing was not even begun until it was believed the snowstorm was over. As a result, mountainous piles were even more difficult to tackle.

Obviously, this was slow going and highly prone to the corruption of the era. (Need snow removed from your street, business owner? )  And due to the erratic nature of snowfall, there were hardly enough men on hand at any given moment.

A grim discovery in the snow during the Blizzard of 1888:

Waring to the Rescue

The Blizzard of 1888 changed everything in New York City.  The storm was so devastating that certain streets were blocked for days.  

More horrifying still, due to the hurricane-force winds, many people had been knocked unconscious and were subsequently buried in the snow.  Not to mention the hundreds of dead animals also found underneath the massive snow drifts.

New York’s entire system of street cleaning — in sun or snow — radically changed when the Civil War veteran George E. Waring Jr. (pictured below) became commissioner of the Department of Street Cleaning in 1894.  

The brilliant and reform-minded engineer had guided healthy sewage and draining maintenance throughout the country, from the design of Central Park to the streets of Memphis, Tennessee.

Snow Patrol

Waring transformed his men into a small military unit, garbed in all-white uniforms who occasionally marched in parades with Commissioner Waring out front, on horseback.  

This military mindset was a boon for New York; Waring referred to his employees as “soldiers of the public.”

Street cleaning was no longer a luxury, but a necessity.

Clearing snow in the Waring era, 1896, photos by Alice Austen (she was riding around in her bike in this weather?) Courtesy NYPL

Waring was part of a large progressive movement in the 1890s, one that would finally, with zeal, tackle the numerous health and livelihood issues associated with the city’s overcrowded tenement districts.

A ‘Moral Obligatiion’

In the spring of 1897, the commissioner produced a lengthy treatise for Mayor William Strong on the thorny subject of clearing snow.  Its opening paragraph lays out the scope of Waring’s staunch, progressive vision:

“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.” [source]

Before Waring, never was it considered necessary to remove snow from the entire city, but only from “leading thoroughfares”.  

However, thanks to the rise of sophisticated urban planning and progressive socialism, it soon became a “moral” responsibility on behalf of the health of the city and its citizens.

From the report:  “[A] delay in the removal of the almost knee deep snow and befouled slush is at the cost of much sickness and, probably, lives each winter.”

By the late 1890s, Waring hired private contractors specifically for snow clearance, leaving his regular crew of street cleaners to focus on their regular responsibilities.  

With the 20th century came motorized plows and more sophisticated street-cleaning rules to better facilitate the headache of a bad winter.

But after Waring, it would no longer be acceptable in the public’s eye to pick and choose which neighborhoods receive the city’s attention. (Both our former and current mayors have certainly learned this lesson!)

Below: Pictures Valentine’s Day Blizzard of 1914. The bottom picture is of Union Square, with snow covering the construction site of the new subway station. (Courtesy Library of Congress)

10 replies on “The origin of snow removal for all New Yorkers, rich and poor”

What surprised me was how powerful these snow storms were and how they were able to knock people down. What I didn’t really understand was how the street were’t cleaned up and only the important areas were shoveled. This can connect to the video we watched in class of how dirty New York City was, because during this time, snow as lying everywhere and no one was there to clean it up so this just added to the unsanitary environments the city already had. Sources used were photographs, excerpts from a letter and illustrations. How did new Yorkers react to streets that were not shoveled?

I learned what actually lead up to the system of snow removal and I did not know how much work had to be put in to fix this issue. I never knew snow storms could cause so much chaos for cities even back then. It seems like such a simple task, but I learned how much really has to be put in. This topic doesn’t directly connect to a time period we studied in class, but it reminds me of the filthy cities video in class about the men in white clothing clearing up NYC trash. The sources used were photographs from earlier one in history to other time periods. Also, a letter from Waring to the Mayor and a cartoon sketch of a man stuck in the snow. Questions that popped up were what was the worse snow storm to hit NYC? Who invented new technology like plows on trucks to remove snow? And the salt system?

I learned that the organizations that exists today, once had different duties that needed to be fulfilled. For example, the police officers were once needed to shovel snow, where as today police officers do not interact with snow affairs. What also surprised me was the intensity of the snow in the late 1800s. For example, they claimed that people and animals were buried under the snow, which is quite shocking. This is also a few years before the creation of the Model T, which showed how simple tasks such as shoveling snow had been accomplished. Many sources such as old photographs and newspapers that were obtained from the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress had been used as evidence. A few questions that occured to me while reading this passage was: Where did the animals go? Did some stay inside in the cold? Did people still throw their trash outside onto the streets? I also wonder if people simply had “snow days,” where everyone stayed off the streets to protect themselves from the violent blizzard snow.

What i learned in this article is that citizen were not always responsible to shovel snow. I never knew that snow were this severed in the past, but I would have thought that people would be selfless enough to shovel snow so that they make their community safer, i do not get why people don’t do it.I also learned that the police department were once in charge of shoveling snow, which would be a huge burden since the police force is definitely a small number compare to citizen if they were to shovel snow. This is during the time period of the late 1800s and early 1900s where the era was corrupt, business corruption. photos, a letter to the mayor, and biography of important people. The question on my mind is why wasn’t salt used back then, salt should be a common sense that it can melt snow, and how did the police who were in charge of shoveling snow felt when it snow.

Another liberal who conflates “society” with “socialism” because they both begin with the prefix “soc-“. How many times did this author use the term “progresive”? I doubt George Waring would have considered himself a “socialist”, but instead a “civic enhancer”, or perhaps “civic engineer” or “civic visionary”. An interesting history lesson degraded by liberal hyperbole.

I can’t tell if this is a negative “wow”, a positive “wow” or if you’re the author of the piece. Care to illuminate?

Time was that civic government had little to do with civic maintenance. The acceptance as an increased governmental roles that city-sponsored snow clearance would have been considered socialism. As society progresses, more is expected from a democratically elected government. That explains the word that describes people who advocate a greater social role on the part of a government: “progressive”!

By the way, when you spell progressive with one “s,” are you making a commentary or are you merely careless about the niceties of proof-reading screeds that bear your name?

Dearest Bowery Boys,
Thank you for years of fascinating history. I look forward to reading your wonderful commentaries (& of course, listening to the podcasts later on). Especially now, I cherish your erudition and sweetness, so I was disgusted by that nasty little remark by one Scott Smith, who should keep his ignorance and rudeness to himself, or limit them to the websites he probably visits.