Hey Snow! It’s Not You, It’s Us

People walk along rows of cars stuck in many feet of snow.

During winter in Upstate New York, all conversations eventually turn to the topic of snow. In a time of national contention, almost everybody here seems to agree that snow is bad. I feel like an annoying contrarian when I assert to the bundled-up mobs that I like the snow. I’m sorry, but I enjoy that a soft substance falls from the sky and transforms the post-fall landscape into a magical scene from Narnia. When else in the year are landscapes so dramatically altered so quickly? So snow, I’m writing this to let the readers know: it’s not you, it’s us. Snow is not the problem. The problem is how people have decided to deal with it.

Cars drive through dirty slush on a city street

Slippery, toxic street slush poses risks for commuters and waterways. Photo by the author, 2019.

I do understand the complaints. The winter can be a disruptive time. Large snow storms cause property damage and pose significant risks for members of vulnerable populations like the homeless and elderly. Snow storms can cause business, transportation, and commerce to freeze up. It makes commuting by automobile and by foot dangerous and cumbersome. For example, I walk to work every day in “gorges” Ithaca, NY, and that means walking up and down hills. After snowstorms my 20-minute commute becomes a slippery 35-minute slog. Driveways need to be shoveled, and cars can be plowed-in or stuck in the snow.

Street slush—the brownish-gray toxic matrix of ice crystals, water, road salt, dirt, gas, and oil—covers roads and sidewalks. Although slush isn’t frozen enough to walk on safely, it is wet enough to soak through the clothes of pedestrians and bikers, and it is often slipperier than dry snow. When salt and slush run off roadways, chlorides damage plants and aquatic ecosystems and contaminate drinking water. And then there’s the burning pain of the cold.

Chilly temperatures aside, many of these winter problems are caused by the desire to remove or destroy nonhuman nature rather than coexist with it. Municipalities plow, blow, move, or melt the snow so people can continue to live and work as if it weren’t winter. Some modern snow-removal methods, such as snow melting machines or the use of loaders and dump trucks, are resource intensive. In the past, northern communities worked with the snow and ice, adapting themselves to it, and were often better off because of this cooperation.

Snowy Transportation

As a recent book by historian Thomas M. Wickman has shown, until the late 18th century, winter was a deadly impediment to European colonists. Once settlers adjusted to the climate by adopting the Native American technology of snowshoes, winters started to become an asset. Settler-colonists eventually learned that snow could help them solve an important problem. A great impediment to commerce was friction, as wooden wheels struggled to roll over rough terrain. Moving heavy goods and loads of people across uneven land routes could be prohibitively expensive or impossible. In the winter, however, snow and ice reduced friction and covered ruts in roads. When lakes and rivers froze they became flat, obstacle-free highways.

Horses pull three sleighs filled with people over the snow.

People in horse-drawn sleighs make the most of a snowy day in Queen’s Park, Toronto, Canada, 1906. Image from Wikimedia.

Rather than impeding traffic, icy roads and frozen rivers eased transportation woes and improved commerce. Heavy commodities like wood and stone were taken to mills and build-sites during the winter. When the Hudson and Delaware rivers froze they were used for toting winter heating fuel to towns and cities and for moving supplies into the hinterland. Reflecting popular sentiment, Upstate New York Farmer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur wrote in 1782 that “[t]he constancy of this serenely cold weather is one of the greatest blessings which seldom fails us.” According to the podcast Outside/in, ice boats and toboggans were perhaps some of the fastest piloted vehicles in the preindustrial world!

In the past, northern communities adapted to the winter.

By the early 19th century, Americans had come up with a number of ways to work with the snow. In rural communities people drew weighted rollers over roads to compact the snow into slick surfaces. Rolled roads didn’t create large snow banks and were wider than plowed roads. In forested areas the snow was protected from sunlight and was less vulnerable to periodic melting and refreezing. Continuous tracks of white snow roads reflected sunlight rather than absorbing it, which helped to maintain the frozen thoroughfares in warmer weather. Snow fences were erected to keep drifts of snow from obstructing roads.

Pedestrians could replace their shoes and boots with snowshoes, their wagon wheels with sleigh runners, and normal horse shoes with special calk shoes that increased horses’ grip. Snowball hammers removed accumulated ice and snow from horseshoes. City omnibuses and cable cars were retrofitted with runners after big snowstorms. In 1853 when the Susquehanna River froze, the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad laid track on the ice to facilitate the movement of goods, and they transported people across via sleighs.

Laboring in Snow

Winter weather changed not only transportation but the very nature of work. Northeasterners switched occupations from farming to extracting and moving commodities like stone, lumber, firewood, or ice. One method of splitting stone without explosives involved using the power of the cold. The holes or cracks in a large boulder were filled with water and the pressure of the liquid expanding into ice would split stone. The cold kept workers and animals cool during rigorous labor and alleviated the problem of mosquitoes and other bugs. It also reduced the risk that machines would cause forest fires.

A two-horse drawn wagon piled with squares of ice from the frozen river.

Workers harvest ice from a frozen river in Toronto, Canada, in the 1890s. Image from Wikimedia.

Over time, the economy in Maine grew to depend on the snow. Surveyor Moses Greenleaf wrote of Maine in 1829, “the steady cold of the winters of the interior of the State furnished, in relation to the lumber business, means of subsistence and wealth to its citizens, which are denied to those from regions which boast a milder climate.” During the unusually light snow season of 1915, the Bangor Daily News reported that there were “large numbers” of idle workers who were, during normal winter weather, employed by the logging industry.1

In Maine and elsewhere, lumberjacks were remarkably creative in their use of the cold. Snow reduced friction and made heavy awkward logs easier to move, but loggers learned that ice was even better. Starting in the 1870s, they built “sprinkler” wagons full of water that they drew across roads in the cold of the night creating layers of ice several inches thick. This technology spread across the country. Ultra-slick ice roads allowed two horses to move immense loads. Sprinkling extended the hauling season into March or even April. Snow and ice roads preserved the integrity of forest soil and was often less damaging to forest ecology than tractor and truck logging. These roads were cost effective, and many lumbermen in the Northeast were hesitant to transition to expensive tractors or power skidders when these technologies became widely available. After all, the snow and cold were free. Even as the snow began to melt, lumbermen made use of it. They stored it in dammed ponds and lakes and would use the power it created to push their logs down river to mills. This practice continued into the 1970s in parts of the country.

Working With—Not Against—Winter

Snow can aid business and travel, but only if people are willing to work to make conditions beneficial. Large amounts of snow can create a collective action problem. Everyone could benefit from working together to solve it but there is a lack of direct incentive to do so. For example, rolled snow roads facilitated efficient transportation that benefited everyone in the 19th-century rural communities that utilized them, but no one person got all the benefits from doing the work to make them. People who often had their hands full with other employment and responsibilities had to be willing to be work together toward this shared goal. When cooperative road maintenance agreements could be arranged, snow was a benefit.

Two boys stand by a snow roller drawn by two small cows and a pony.

Two boys pose by a snow roller, a smaller version of those used to make village roads passable, in 1926. Image from the Parsonfield-Porter Historical Society.

By the 20th century, states, cities, and towns were using taxes to solve the collective action problem. New car-centered urban planning, the advent of powerful snow-removal machines, and the widespread availability of chemicals like road salt meant that these tax funds were being used more often for removing snow rather than adjusting to it. In the 1930s and 1940s, as car ownership increased, chemicals were seen as the best way to remove snow. By 1955 Syracuse, New York, one of the snowiest cities in the country, was using up to 9,000 tons of salt a year. Salt was a quick chemical fix, but it damaged cars, infrastructure, and ecosystems. Around this time, Americans were inundating environments with another chemical, DDT—a similarly quick, yet ecologically costly, fix for pest problems. DDT use has been curbed, but today America still uses 22 million tons of salt on its roads per year, 137 pounds per person.

This new fixation on removing snow with plows and chemicals created the toxic slush that modern Americans complain about, not the winter itself. Toxic street slush is unique to the era of the automobile—a symbol of the lengths to which Americans will go to remove the snow. This seasonal-inflexibility also creates the need to shovel driveways as well as unbury and push plowed-in or stuck automobiles.

Livable Winter Cities

When it comes to dealing with snow, policy makers might benefit from looking to the past. Imagine if snow was compacted and maintained in parts of American cities and suburbs. Imagine if city authorities created deep natural snow bases, increased evergreen tree cover to prevent melting, and catered to forms of transportation other than cars whenever possible. Salt use could be minimized and toxic slush would become less prevalent.

Snow is not the problem. The problem is how people have decided to deal with it.

This would make for a whiter winter landscape. Cross country skis or snowshoes would allow for efficient, fast, and enjoyable winter travel. City cyclers could switch to mountain or fat-tire bicycles. Adaptive winter recreation programs, which help people with disabilities find equipment and learn methods for cold weather sports, demonstrate ways that snow could increase the mobility of those who need assistance moving around. Snowmobiling, a predominantly rural form of transportation and recreation, could be brought into cities. Winter adjustments would be costly, specifically for those who already can’t afford winter clothing, but perhaps these expenses could be subsidized by municipal authorities who would be spending less money on salt and snow removal. In 2015, Vox reported that the U.S. spends $2.3 billion a year on snow removal. Damage from salt costs an additional $5 billion. There will always be a need for some plowed and salted roads and sidewalks, but these could become exceptions rather than the norm.

A bicycle stands beside a snowman, next to an icy lake.

A fat-tire bicycle offers one way to get around wintry streets. Photo from Flickr, 2011.

Calls for renewed efforts to work with the snow are not new. In 1978 Minneapolis and St. Paul hosted an international conference called The Livable Winter City during which these types of adaptive strategies were discussed. Four years later the Livable Winter Cities Association was formed to advocate for working with the snow. Later it was reorganized into the Winter Cities Institute which continues this advocacy work.2

These types of snowy cityscapes might be a pipe dream but collective seasonal inflexibility is real and is the cause of much of the annual snow complaining. My winter commute is a good example. In parts of New York, property owners, not municipal services, are responsible for removing snow from residential sidewalks. Some owners do not or physically cannot clear the sidewalks—hence my commute troubles. But instead of joining the choir of snow-complainers, I took a hint from history. I adapted to the season and bought some cheap crampons that give me grip on slippery hills. My solution wouldn’t work for everyone. Most people don’t commute on foot, after all. But looking to the past reveals alternatives for getting around a snowy city.

My advice to snow-complainers is to consider adapting to the snow as much as you can and try to enjoy the winter. If more people embraced snow perhaps the collective desire to remove it would melt away. Grab some skis, snowshoes, and a scarf and get outside! Snow, you are beautiful, and you are not a problem.

Featured image: Snowdrifts strand cars on the road after a winter storm. Photo by Edward Stojakovic, 2011.

Jason L. Newton is a visiting assistant professor of history at Cornell University. He researches the history of capitalism and the environment in the 19th and 20th centuries. His current book manuscript, “The Rise of Industrial Capitalism in the Northern Forest, 1850-1950,” is a history of capitalism in the forests of the American Northeast. His work can be found here. Twitter. Contact

  1. “Snow at Last, Loggers Rejoice: Heavy Fall Up North Calls Back Discharged Woodsmen a Freak Winter,” Bangor Daily News (Bangor, ME), January, 26, 1915. 

  2. Bernard Mergen, Snow in America, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997), 75-76; Blake McKelvey, Snow in The Cities, (University Rochester Press, 1995), 182.