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The Evolution of Snow Removal in Chicago

Snow Removal and the Windy City

Snow removal, a vital urban challenge during winter months, has a rich history in cities like Chicago.  This article delves into the evolution of snow removal practices in the Windy City, highlighting the innovations, challenges, and strategies that have shaped its snowy landscapes. From horse-drawn plows to modern salt spreaders, the journey of snow removal in Chicago is a testament to human ingenuity and adaptability.

Early Days: The Horse-Drawn Era

Chicago began its days as an important crossroads for traders, explorers, and the military.  Roads were a rough affair, seldom maintained well or regularly.  Most people were focused on security or livelihood.  As the area grew in population the roadways did not improve, becoming an increasing issue.  It wasn’t until the 1850s that any kind of organized effort was made to ease the plight of transportation.

Around the time of these efforts, however, there was a parallel movement to improve sanitation in Chicago.  The city sat at about the same level as Lake Michigan.  This made it difficult for the sewer system to move water and sewage away from the ever-growing number of homes in the area.  Sewer backups and standing water became an increasing problem.  This led to struggles with diseases such as typhoid and cholera.  Additionally, the streets of Chicago would remain thick with mud after heavy rainstorms or melting snow.

To combat these issues, Chicago began a campaign to raise the street level from between four to fourteen feet.  The practical effect of this can be seen throughout the city with buildings that have entrances below street level.  These houses will also have a walkway connecting what was once the second floor to the street.  There were also many buildings that were mechanically raised to be at street level.  Many of these efforts were erased by the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.  Nevertheless, the elevation of the streets to accommodate the new sewer systems helped to prepare them for the work of keeping them cleared in the winter.

Early Snow Removal Tools

In the early 19th century, Chicagoans battled snowstorms using rudimentary tools like shovels, snow rollers, and horse-drawn plows. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that the city implemented more organized snow removal efforts.  A group of men would go out with the rollers drawn by teams of horses.  Most of the men would go out ahead of the roller and shovel out drifts that were to big to crush down.  The work would be supervised by a “snow warden” who would approve the work and pay the men.  The work was strenuous and would be broken up into sections to give the men and horses a rest.  Sometimes horses would be swapped out due to how hard it was for them to pull the roller through the snow with 1-2 men sitting on it.

The horse-drawn plows were more effective but labor-intensive, also requiring teams of horses and workers to clear the streets. The limited technology of this era posed challenges in efficiently addressing heavy snowfall, and snow removal primarily remained manual labor.

Rusty vintage railway snowplow
Rusty vintage railway snowplow parked on an unused rail siding with a blue cloudy sky in the background.

The Dawn of Mechanical Snow Removal

The 20th century brought significant advancements to snow removal technology in Chicago. Steam-powered snowplows emerged in the early 1900s, offering increased efficiency and speed.  They were inspired by the railroad steam-powered snow movers.  Those behemoths were attached to the front of the steam locomotives and removed snow using rotary blades to push the snow through a side chute.  These machines could clear larger swathes of snow and were pivotal in keeping vital transportation routes open during winter months.

By mid-century, the introduction of gasoline-powered trucks equipped with snowplows revolutionized the snow removal landscape, minimizing the city’s downtime during snowstorms.  Early snow plows were heavy and cumbersome, permanently affixed to the front of the truck.  The weight of them was hard on the suspension and front axle.  The improvement in snow removal was undeniable, though.

The Salt Revolution

One of the most significant breakthroughs in snow removal history was the adoption of road salt. This innovation gained traction in Chicago during the mid-20th century, providing an effective means of melting ice and snow on roadways. The use of salt drastically improved road conditions, enabling vehicles to navigate through inclement weather with greater ease.

This transition to chemical snow removal agents marked a turning point in ensuring the city’s functionality during the winter season.  As the number of motor vehicles increased on the roadways, this became more important to the economic health of the city.

Challenges of Urbanization and Efficiency

As Chicago continued to grow, urbanization presented new challenges for snow removal efforts. Narrower streets and increased traffic congestion necessitated more precise and efficient snow removal strategies. The city invested in modern snowplow designs, allowing for greater maneuverability in tight spaces.

Additionally, the development of GPS technology enabled more accurate route planning, optimizing snow removal operations and minimizing disruptions.  The city could now use these resources more effectively.

Rise of the Commercial  Snow Removal Services

joe brancato
Joe Brancato

As the city became more modernized a new commercial service came into being.  Snow removal as a community effort served its purpose, but often the business sector was the last to dig out from the storms.  This meant unsafe parking lots and sidewalks for some.  For others, it meant being out of business for days or even weeks.  People like Joe Brancato rose up to meet that need. 

Commercial and residential services provided a growing need for business owners and residents alike. As our society became more mobile and more reliant on our roadways and parking areas for business, necessities, and entertainment, the services became increasingly essential.

Environmental Concerns and Sustainability

In recent decades, the environmental impact of traditional snow removal methods has prompted Chicago to explore more sustainable alternatives. While road salt remains effective, concerns about its impact on water quality and ecosystems have led to the consideration of alternative de-icing agents.

Innovations like beet juice brine and potassium-based compounds have emerged as eco-friendly options that effectively tackle ice while reducing harm to the environment.  As our understanding of the environment and deicing material improves we will become more efficient in our ice management.

Community Engagement and Future Solutions

Snow removal efforts are not limited to machinery alone; effective communication with the public is crucial. Chicago has embraced technology to enhance transparency and engagement during snow events. Dedicated websites, mobile apps, and social media platforms provide real-time updates on snow removal operations, parking restrictions, and safety tips.  This approach fosters a sense of community involvement and helps residents navigate the challenges posed by winter weather.

Looking ahead, the future of snow removal in Chicago holds exciting prospects. Automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence are being integrated into snow removal equipment, allowing for more efficient and precise operations. Smart sensors can monitor road conditions in real-time, enabling timely responses to changing weather patterns. Predictive analytics will play a vital role, helping the city proactively allocate resources and optimize snow removal strategies.

The history of snow removal in Chicago is a tale of constant adaptation and innovation. From the horse-drawn plows of the past to the cutting-edge technologies of today, the Windy City’s journey through winter challenges reflects the resilience and determination of its residents. As Chicago continues to evolve, so too will its snow removal practices, ensuring that the city can overcome even the harshest of winter storms with efficiency, sustainability, and community engagement.

Choose Brancato With No Regrets

Brancato Trucks

Brancato Snow Removal started with just a small crew and a truck with a snowplow attached. We were family then and we are a much more extended family now. All of us have a laser focus on one thing: consistent professionalism. We keep our equipment in the best shape, train our crew in the latest tech and methods, and plan ahead. All of that to give you the best service on the market.

CONTACT BRACATO TODAY and put our team to work for you. Whether you own a business in Chicago, New York City, Newark-Elizabethtown, or Buffalo, we are here to keep you moving!