Every adult Canadian acknowledges, with a sympathetic groan and a knowing nod of the head, the truth behind the joke “Canada has two seasons: Winter and Construction”. It's a fact we resignedly accept as we gnash our teeth stuck in traffic waiting for paving crews to fill the countless potholes that have appeared in the spring or huff, puff and sweat clearing the snow off our driveways, walkways, sidewalks and, sometimes, roofs.
As strenuous as it may be at times to clear one's property, it's nothing compared to the efforts required in keeping a railway operational during the winter months.
MacKay and Perry, p. 149: «…blizzards were known to strand whole trains. “I've seen drifts twelve, fourteen feet deep,” recalled Frank Fagan [engineer]. …In the winter of 1949-50 forty snow slides west of Kamloops held up service for three weeks.»
McDonnell, p. 74: «Winter railroading in the Southern Ontario snowbelt, where lake-effect snows bring annual accumulations of over 100 inches and high winds pile hard-packed drifts 10 to 12 feet deep, is the stuff of legends. Seasoned veterans tell of plows flipping end over end; of snow smashing cab and cupola windows and burying crews inside; of trains stranded for days and even weeks; and of harrying [sic: harrowing] trips and wild rides that could fill a book on their own.»
Wilson, p. 97: «The snow and cold of Alaskan and Yukon winters posed massive
challenges for the construction and maintenance of the railway [W.P.&Y.R.]. Moisture-laden winds from the
Gulf of Alaska mixed with the dry cold of the interior causing blizzards of epic proportions. Avalanches ripped
down the mountainsides and tracks could be buried under tons of snow and ice within
Maintaining the railway was more challenging than anticipated. At the White Pass summit, twenty-foot drifts were not uncommon, and storms could hit suddenly and last for days on end. In the railway's early days, one answer to these arctic conditions was the large workforce available in Skagway. Hundreds of men were hired for the back-breaking work of shoveling snow from the tracks.»
Legget, p. 15: «There were those who, in the early days of Canadian railroading, said that some lines would have to close down during the winter but this has never been necessary. Snow-fighting and snow-clearing have been developed to a most efficient degree on all Canadian railways, but the fact that such conditions do have to be faced will explain the unusually ‘heavy’ appearance of railroad rolling stock.»
In this article, we take a look at typical snow-clearing equipment used in those early days. There are many photographed scenes preserved by Canadian archives and the literature abounds with various descriptions of the rolling stock and the experiences of crews using them.
The earliest mechanized efforts at snow clearing on main lines consisted of mounting prow-shaped blade plows (UK spelling: ploughs) to the front of locomotives:
Buck, p. 47 [caption for the above r-h-s image]: «A Consolidation fitted with a large plough, c1887. While sufficient for removing small accumulations of snow, these ploughs were woefully inadequate for contending with large drifts and avalanches.»
The late 1860s saw the Grand Trunk Railway using quite large plows:
MacKay and Perry, p. 13 [caption for the above image]: «A snowplow train pauses at St. Agapit, Quebec, on the Grand Trunk line connecting Lévis and the line between Montreal and Portland at Richmond, Quebec. The locomotive is a 4-4-0 American type, a wood-burner with a diamond stack. The plow is constructed largely of wood.»
More substantial plows, pushed by multiple locomotives, were inevitably required to clear taller and deeper accumulations:
Ellis, p. 181: «The primeval snow-plow, whether mounted on the front of a locomotive or running as a separate heavy vehicle, was prow-shaped, and it is a useful thing to this day on routine snow patrol, though old style snow-bucking can be a hair-raising experience of charging headlong into the drifts with three locomotives behind the plow.»
But taller plows came at the cost of obscuring the view of the railroaders in the lead engine. Consequently, as shown in the r-h-s illustration by the Marquess of Lorne (Governor-General of Canada, 1878-1883), someone had the unenviable and dangerous task of leaning out of the cab in order to control operations.
The idea of relocating this foreman atop the plow, ensconced within a cupola for protection and a better field of view, likely inspired the genesis of the wedge plow.
In 1914, E. Protheroe described a wedge plow used by the North Eastern Railway, U.K., as follows:
Protheroe, p. 148: «A snow-plough is built for utility and not for looks. The one illustrated is 26-ft. long, 9-ft. wide, and weights 27 tons. The horizontal under-lip cuts through the obstruction at about 6-in. above the rails, and the wedge formation of the whole front turns the snow right and left and banks it up on each side of the track. With five engines pushing this steel nose ahead, one might imagine it capable of burrowing through solid earth, yet upon occasion such a snow-plough has embedded itself in a deep cutting and had to remain there for a day and a half.»
Buck, p. 44 [caption for the above l-h-s image]: «A typical wedge plow used to remove large drifts, 1893. The damp snow did not co-operate with this type of plough, and frequently the plough succeeded only in compacting the drifts, which then required teams of workers with shovels to remove them.»
Buck, p. 45 [caption for the image]: «The snow removal team at Rogers Pass station, c.1887, which accompanied the wedge ploughs. Most of these men were recent immigrants from Finland.»
Wedge plows were commonly equipped with large side panels, called Russell Wings, that could be flared out. Early versions could widen the right of way up to 16-17 feet., p. 214 Such plows are at times referred to as Russell Plows or Russell Wedges.
Bohi and Kozma, p. 22: «While wooden plows were typical, the C.P.R. was the first North American railway to use all-steel wedge plows.»
MacKay and Perry, p. 151: «“Snowplows, that was something again, ” said Joe Cernak of Calgary, who once fired the locomotive of a plow for twenty hours straight. “Because of the heat in the cab, water from the snow would be running through all the holes and cracks. It would be twenty-five below outside, but we'd be sweating in oilskins and trying to shovel coal. We'd be soaked, and men outside would have to serve us for coal and water because we couldn't go outside where we'd freeze to death. So this water would be flying down on us. What a mess. You'd run into cold snow and would have to back up and ram at it and force your way through, back up, and finally break a hole through it and keep on going.”»
Pole, pp. 62-63: «The Big Hill and the flats east of Field are sometimes swept
by a fierce northeast winter wind, known to locals as a “Yoho Blow”. In the late 1800s and early
1900s snowfalls were more substantial than in recent decades. (Annual snowfalls in Kicking Horse Pass were 8.35m
at the turn of the century. The 22-year average, ending in 1992, was 4.81 m.) The high winds of a Yoho Blow
piled immense drifts on the Big Hill, often taller than a locomotive's smoke stack.
The track was cleared with rotary plows and a massive, 5-metre-wide wedge plow. One day, a wedge plow was on the front of a train, eastbound from Field. When the train emerged from the Lower Spiral Tunnel, the engineer noticed that something was wrong. The 41-tonne plow was gone, and so was its crew!
In disbelief, the engineer backed his train down the hill to the telegraph office at Field, where spotters piled aboard. The train started back up the hill. At the Lower Spiral Tunnel, they found the plowman cursing his way to trackside through the snowy depths. He informed the engineer that the plow and cab now rested at the river's edge, a 100 m below, and the miraculously uninjured crew would be most happy if someone would come and dig them out!»
Glenbow Museum, Remarks: «Six men killed when west-bound snow plow crashed into the rear of a yard locomotive. Force of collision telescoped the cab over boiler head.»
Finally. we note in passing the following two interesting variants, namely, a Niagara, St. Catharines & Toronto Railway double-ended plow and a Canadian National Railways short-body version:
Wikipedia: «The rotary was invented in Toronto, Canada, by dentist J.W. Elliot in 1869. He never built a working model or prototype, although he wanted to. Orange Jull of Orangeville, Ontario, expanded on Elliot's design, building working models he tested with sand. During the winter of 1883-1884, Jull contracted with the Leslie Brothers of Toronto to build a full-size prototype that proved successful. Jull later sold his design rights to Leslie Brothers, who formed the Rotary Steam Shovel Manufacturing Company in Paterson, New Jersey. Leslie Brothers contracted with Cooke Locomotive & Machine Works in Paterson to do the actual construction.»
Pole, p. 64: «The world's first rotary snow plough was a Canadian solution to a very Canadian problem. Originally patented in 1869 by a Toronto dentist, the first prototype was built in Orangeville, Ontario, in 1883. Cooke Locomotive and Machine Works of New Jersey then developed rotary ploughs used on two US railroads in the winters of 1885-1886 and 1886-1887. Learning from this experience, in 1888, the CPR built eight rotary ploughs in cooperation with Poison Iron Works of Toronto. Each plough weighed 125,000 pounds, and had a cutting fan that was nine feet, 10.5 inches in diameter, The angle of the cutters was reversible, so an engineer could direct snow to either side of the track.»
Ellis, p. 181: «The Leslie power-driven rotary plow, with a vast hooded, feathering screw, appeared in the United States very early in the 'nineties, and its use rapidly spread to most of the colder parts of the world. … In the steam form, a high speed geared engine was made to drive the rotor, supplied by an ordinary locomotive-type boiler inside the all-over cab, with a small tender in the rear.»
Protheroe, pp. 694 & 696: «The wedge type of snow-plough as used on British railways has been described on page 148, but such an apparatus is quite useless to cope with a blizzard deposit. It was on the Union Pacific, about 1887, that the first rotary snow-plough was put into operation, and speedily it demonstrated its superiority over the wedge type. It effectively cleared away snowdrifts that had baffled all efforts to clear them for weeks before the new apparatus got into operation; during one month it ran over 3000 miles at a cost of only 16½ cents per mile, this including the working expenses of the plough and a pusher engine and the pay of the crews operating them. … The American Locomotive Company has improved upon the first rather crude designs, and provides a machine that represents practical perfection. Briefly, the plough consists of a wheel revolving transversely to the track at the head of a substantially built car, the operating machinery being a pair of horizontal cylinders receiving steam from a loco.-type boiler. The wheel is composed of ten hollow cone-shaped scoops with sharp knife edges, which cut the compacted snow and ice, and it is enclosed within a drum with a square face, the whole capable of being raised or lowered to suit varying conditions.»
Buck, p. 45: «Success was finally achieved in 1888 with the Canadian invention, the rotary snowplough, consisting of a large-diameter steel wheel nine to eleven feet across, containing several radially arranged pivoting steel plates. Chambers behind the plates caught the snow and ejected it through centrifugal force. The entire assembly was held in a circular houising mounted on a frame, and a two-cylinder steam engine and a system of gears rotated the wheel in either direction at speeds up to four hundred r.p.m. These ploughs were not self-propelled, and had to be pushed by one or more locomotives. Unless rocks or trees were anticipated, which could break the cutters or the drive shaft, the rotary ploughs were usually pushed through snow at speeds of eight to ten miles per hour.»
Buck, p. 46 [caption for the above r-h-s image]: «One of the first tests of a rotary snowplough, Rogers Pass, 1888. Note the wooden covers on the tenders of the plough and locomotive to protect the fuel from snow.»
Bohi and Kozma, p. 22 [description of the image]: «…Rotary No. 4248 and companion Ten-wheeler No. 592 (Class D9b, Schenectady 8-1903) awaited orders in front of the Lethbridge depot, about 1909. No. 592 was built as a compound. The peculiar octagonal cylinder which these engines had on the larger, low-pressure cylinder is clearly visible in the photograph. It was simpled in October 1909. The rotary snowplow was originally built as Rotary E at the CPR's Farnham Shops in December 1888 for $10,073.28 and was subsequently renumbered to No. 4248 in 1907, and No. 300803 in 1907, and No. 400803 in 1913. It was scrapped at Winnipeg in 1942. This rotary plow was presumably used to clear the lines west of Lethbridge through Crowsnest Pass, and may have seen service on other CPR branches in southern Alberta.»
Pole, p. 64: «At Rogers Pass, the CPR coupled rotary ploughs on either end of work locomotives in case, as often happened, a slide came down behind the train. When an avalanche deposit contained rock, ice, and timber, crews first used dynamite to break up the obstruction, a tactic that sometimes damaged the buried track. In 1911, the Montreal Locomotive Works delivered two monster rotary ploughs to the CPR. These each weighed 260,000 pounds and had an eleven-foot-diameter cutting fan. The CPR began retiring its rotary ploughs in 1940. By 1955, all were gone, replaced by wing ploughs and bulldozers.»
Due to the frequent avalanches in Rogers Pass, living and working there was always hazardous as witnessed by this deadly scene recorded by the eminent photographer Byron Harmon in 1910:
The Jordan spreader was patented in 1890 by Oswald F. Jordan and Robert Potts. The former was “… a Canadian road master who worked in the Niagara, Ontario area on the Canada Southern Railway…”.
Wikipedia: «A spreader is a type of maintenance equipment designed to
spread or shape ballast profiles. The spreader spreads gravel along the railroad ties. The various ploughs, wings
and blades of specific spreaders allow them to remove snow, build banks, clean and dig ditches, evenly distribute
gravel, as well as trim embankments of brush along the side of the track. Spreaders quickly proved themselves as
an extremely economical tool for maintaining trackside drainage ditches and spreading fill dumped beside the
The operation of the wings was once performed by compressed air, and later hydraulics.»
Spreaders doing right-of-way maintenance did not require a front plow. So, when co-opted for snow clearing duty, they would often be coupled to wedge plows:
Hatcher and Schwarzkopf, p. 23: «While power shortages caused most of the service problems during the first winter that the Edmonton Radial Railway operated , snow also played its part in tieing up services from time to time. Each of the cars carried flanger devices fixed to the leading truck frame just ahead of the wheels. Small amounts of snow posed no problem for these scrapers, but severe drifting and heavy snowfalls called for a more substantial means of snow removal. The city ordered a large double-truck sweeper from McGuire-Cummings, a Chicago car builder. Large, stiff, rattan brooms, driven by a powerful electric motor, cleared the snow off the tracks very effectively.»
Here's a view of Sweeper #1 of the Ottawa Electric Street Railway and of it clearing the way for a passenger car during a blizzard in the early 1890s:
In later years, a common addition on sweepers were side flangers, akin to Russell Wings on wedge plows:
McDonnell, p. 74: «With the abandonment of hundreds of miles of trackage in the lee of Lake Huron, snowbelt railroaders have become a vanishing breed. Indeed, the Goderich-Exeter crews working GEXR's former CN Stratford-Goderich and Clinton Jct.-Centralia lines are among the last. However, as long as steel rails cross the squall lines and streamers that blow inland from Lake Huron each winter; as long as railroaders are up to the challenge of battling blinding snowstorms and headlight-high drifts—and brave enough to climb aboard ancient wedge plows for nerve-wracking, adrenalin-pumping, bone-rattling rides—the legend will remain alive.»
- Archives of Ontario
- British Columbia Archives
- City of Edmonton Archives
- City of Regina Archives
- City of Vancouver Archives
- Dawson City Museum
- Ex Glenbow Archives
- Library and Archives Canada
- McCord Museum
- Provincial Archives of Alberta
- Saskatchewan Archival Information Network — MemorySask
- Simon Fraser University Digitized Collections
- Toronto Public Library
- University of Alberta - Peel Library - Prairie Provinces
- Vancouver Public Library
- Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies
- Winnipeg Public Library — PastForward
- Wish You Where Here - Saskatchewan Postcard Collections
- Yukon Archives
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