Navigation Menu+


A machine operating like a plow, but on a larger scale, for clearing away the snow from roads, railways, or the like. — Webster, 1882

Conductor Nash with his snow plow and nearly a hundred men pulled up to De Smet Sunday evening from the snow banks east. – Kingsbury County New, February 24, 1881

The 1880-1881 wedge snowplow of The Long Winter was similar to a breaking plow used on sod, but much larger and heavier. The snowplow’s massive angled blade attached to the front of an engine and cut through the snow, pushing it to the side of the track.

The parts of a snowplow corresponded to the plowshare and mouldboard of an ordinary plow and were mounted on running gear similar to that used for freight caras. Small snowplows were attached to the cow catchers of locomotives and regularly carried through the winter. The number of different types of snowplows was great.

The wedge plow was fine for removing a small amount of snow and ice, but even a snowplow weighing over forty thousand pounds and backed up by the power of two to six locomotives could easily be defeated by a snow-choked cut during the Hard Winter. The plow was unable to make headway when there were deep drifts and packed snow on all sides, plus they were incapable of lifting the snow over deep drifts of hard-packed snow and ice. Great numbers of men forming shovel gangs had to manually dig, lift, and toss snow from the tracks. Sometimes, large blocks of snow and ice would be cut and roped to a locomotive, which dragged it away to the nearest bank, where it would be untied and tipped off.

Laura Ingalls Wilder took some liberties with her descriptions of where and what the snowplows were working in The Long Winter. Action near what continuously referred to as the “big cut near Tracy” often occurred elsewhere on the line, usually nearer to Sleepy Eye than to Tracy. Any train unable to make it through Sleepy Eye was of course unable to get to Tracy and on to De Smet. The story of the railroad superintendent and the snowplow that resulted in the railroad abandoning their efforts to get the trains running from The Long Winter (see Chapter 21, “The Hard Winter”) doesn’t appear in Pioneer Girl (where the months of January, February, and March 1881 are covered in a couple of sentences) or Wilder’s Hard Winter manuscripts, but the story of the plow and engine charging or “bucking” at a snow bank, only to get stuck, happened multiple times. I adapted the drawing here from one in Matthais Forney’s The Car Builders Dictionary (New York: The Railroad Gazette, 1888), Fig.81.

OPENING THE ROADS. The First Train Through From Marshall. On Saturday night the snow blockade was raised between Marshall and Winona and the first train out of Marshall for a week came through with passengers and mails, reaching Winona shortly after midnight. The superintendent was among the passengers. He has been fighting snow-banks, or ice-banks, rather, for the past week, and says he never saw the equal of the present blockade. It if was ordinary snow that filled the cuts the road would have been opened with little difficulty, but when the snow came it was soft as it fell. The wind drifted the cuts full and the intense cold weather that followed formed a solid mass of ice the nature of which is forcibly shown by an incident which occurred on Friday. After loosening up the ice considerably with picks and axes, the snow plow took a run into the drift, but the ice was so hard that the nose of the plow was turned under and the locomotive ran over it upon the icy fill, which was so hard that it did not yield under the heavy weight of the thirty-ton engine which stood ten feet above the track and was finally lowered to the rails by means of jack screws. This cut was about a thousand feet long, and the ice had to be removed by the single shovelfull, which will give an idea of the task which the railroad companies have had to face. – October 25, 1880, Winona Daily Republican.

THE STORM. SNOW THREE FEET ON THE LEVEL. The snow plow, four engines and a large force of men reached this place from the west about 11 a.m. yesterday, and he departed for the drifts east of us soon after. The snow plow, which is a very large one, is propelled by three engines and does excellent work. The first snow east of here was encountered in the Redstone cut where it was about five feet deep, but the plow and engines went through it nobly, and on the third run they went through Courtland into the long cut one and a half miles east of Courtland. This cut is from eight to ten feet deep and in trying to back out of it after the second run one of the engines on the plow was disabled and had to be sent back to Sleepy Eye to be repaired. The force working from St. Peter west got five miles yesterday, which at dusk left the two crews about 15 miles apart. – February 9, 1881, New Ulm Weekly Review.

On Sunday morning, the [locomotive] set out to assist in clearing the track west of town. Near the outlet of the West lake the snorting charger slipped on the ice and flew the track. After running 50 to 100 feet, trying to recover his balance, he fell over into the ditch and plowed up the earth for some feet with his nose. He is still lying there in a helpless condition and will have to wait for the wrecking car before he can get on duty again. Crowds of people called during Sunday to inquire as to his condition and extend their sympathy to the magnificent fellow in his mishap. He was not much injured and is good yet for any number of trips. – March 31, 1881. Worthington Advance.

RAISING THE BLOCKADE. RAILROAD TRAFFIC RESUMED TO MARSHALL. The people of Marshall were rejoiced on Monday evening by the sight of the cars after the long siege of the Winter blockade. The superintendent, who has been giving his personal attention to pushing the work of opening the road, arrived home this morning looking as though he had been through a hard siege. He described the work as having been unusually severe for men, snow plows and locomotive, and the progress is necessarily slow. As illustrating the unexpected difficulties which they met he related an incident which occurred on Monday evening in the last remaining drift that obstructed the track to Marshall. The men had been shoveling in the drift for some distance and found the snow perfectly dry. Finally the superintendent decided to push the plow through it, and the engine went back and took a run for the drift. Imagine the surprise of all hands when the plow, plunging into the drift, struck a pond of water concealed beneath the snow, and a flood deluged the track; putting out the fire of the locomotive and rushing in such a torrent down the track that all hands fled in dismay. The pond soon exhausted itself, however, and the work was completed in a short time. – April 20, 1881, Winona Daily Republican.

The efforts to clear the railroad tracks were fairly consistent all along the line all winter long. In The Long Winter, the superintendent tackles a single big cut west of Tracy, where snow and ice lay “100 feet deep and tapering a quarter mile” away from the tracks. It takes men with picks and shovels a couple of hours to move “a couple of feet” of snow, but it’s unclear if this is depth of snow or distance of the entire depth. The men work in this fashion for two days, and on the third day, the superintendent decides they should make a 40 miles-per-hour run at the snow with the snowplow backed up by two engines, but the engineer refuses and the superintendent decides to take the throttle himself. I’ll leave it to you to remember (or re-read) Laura’s story.



Coming into general use after the Hard Winter, the rotary snowplow first came through De Smet in January 1897, and people crowded near the cut through Fred Dow’s farm (Surveyors’ House originally stood on his claim) to watch it work. The newspaper reported that in front of three engines, the plow had a wheel about ten feet in diameter that revolved with the speed of a buzz saw. Knives on the front of the plow cut the snow and the wheel threw it in a steady stream to one side, over the telegraph wire and away from the tracks. To see an old rotary plow in action, check out THIS VIDEO.


snow plow / snowplow (TLW 14, 16, 18, 21, 31; PG)