Snowy Labor: Clearing the Roads in the Nation’s Capital

As we approach the end of the winter season here in Washington, D.C. — and the threat of snow that comes with it — we thought it would be fitting to recognize the efforts of those who have helped keep our local roads safe during and after storms.

Consider the crews shown in the two images below, from the first decades of the twentieth century. It’s impressive enough that these workers are out in the cold tackling the snow while many other Washington, D.C. residents are likely hunkering down indoors. It’s even more impressive that they are doing so with no more than shovels and horse-drawn wagons.

Snow removal; wagons with snow and men with shovels on snow covered street, Washington, D.C., 1925. Photo by Harris & Ewing. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.44747

Snow removal; wagons with snow and men with shovels on snow covered street, Washington, D.C., 1925. Photo by Harris & Ewing. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.44747

News articles from the period mention the city had difficulties convincing people to sign up for the undoubtedly difficult street clearing work. A December 27, 1909 article from the Washington Evening Star observes that in an effort to remedy the problem Superintendent Wood of the street cleaning department “got the snow wagon drivers’ pay advanced from $1.75 a day to $2 a day this morning,” hoping “a rush of men looking for the jobs” would result. Perhaps signaling doubt that the strategy would work, the author of the article added, “other cities pay snow wagon drivers even higher prices than $2 a day.” (p. 3)

Those horses deserve credit here too — I wonder how much those wagons weighed when full, and where the horses and crew members dumped the snow when the wagons filled up?

Men loading snow onto wagon, after snow storm, in Washington, D.C.(?), between 1909 and 1920. Photo by National Photo Company. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c09360

Men loading snow onto wagon, after snow storm, in Washington, D.C.(?), between 1909 and 1920. Photo by National Photo Company. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c09360

A number of Washington newspaper accounts also point to the costs to the local economy when snow wasn’t cleared in a timely manner, and street cars and newly ubiquitous motor vehicles — such as the one below — were unable to navigate the roads as a result. The “Motors and Motoring” section of the Evening Star notably saw its fair share of discussions about the negative effects of snowstorms.

Snow, Washington, D.C., 1922. Photo by Harris & Ewing. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.41914

In Washington, roads aren’t the only large surfaces that need clearing. Monuments and government buildings such as the U.S. Capitol also need to be made accessible. In the photo below, from a snowstorm in early 1939, a crew clears the Capitol steps of snow and ice.

National Capitol digs out of snow. Washington, D.C., Jan. 14. Nearly five inches of snow blanketed the city yesterday, followed by sleet. Icy steps made the going to and from the Capitol difficult until workmen arrived this morning and scraped away the menace, 1939. Photo by Harris & Ewing. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.25831

National Capitol digs out of snow. Washington, D.C., Jan. 14. Nearly five inches of snow blanketed the city yesterday, followed by sleet. Icy steps made the going to and from the Capitol difficult until workmen arrived this morning and scraped away the menace, 1939. Photo by Harris & Ewing. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/hec.25831

In the first decades of the twentieth century Washington started incorporating mechanical snow plows and other machinery into its snow clearing practices. An article in the February 17, 1922 Evening Star states that “at the present time the street cleaning department has only four of these motor plows and twelve horse-drawn plows. This latter antiquated equipment will be done away with when eight additional plows are acquired.” (p. 1)

Although technology has improved over the last century, I have no doubt that street clearing work is still extremely demanding. Each time I hear the sound of a snow plow scraping past my house during and after a storm I, for one, am grateful for those able and willing to perform this difficult work.

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