Powering Through South Dakota Snowstorms

Last Updated by Heather Benson on

Winter months in South Dakota mean moving snow…sometimes a little, sometimes a lot.  And while the fact of snow removal remains the same, the way which we go about it has change a lot over the last 128 years of statehood.

Making way for mass transport has always been first priority for snow removal and in the late 1800s, that meant clearing the railroad tracks.  Rail plows typically came in one of two forms: Massive wedge plow affixed to the front of the engine or rotary plows featuring giant, circular blades.

Chicago and Northwestern RR Snow Plow Train Herrick.jpgA wedge plow on the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad near HerrickSD State Archives

DeSmet CNW Rotary Snow Plow 1896.jpgRotary plow on the Chicago Northwestern Rail near De Smet in 1896.SD State Archives

Wedge plows had to be weighted heavily in order to move the large drifts that were common on rail lines in the prairies of South Dakota.  In addition, they had to be operated at high speeds of well over 50 miles per hour to blast through the packed drifts.  While dramatic to watch, the speed used and sheer weight of wedge plows meant they often derailed the trains behind them.

Train Plowing Snow Haakon County.jpgWedge plow in Haakon County.SD State Archives

Rotary plows were first developed in the 1850s but didn’t see widespread adoption until the early 1880s.  They worked somewhat like modern-day snowblowers: A large set of fans sucked in the snow and deposited it out of a chute located above.  Rotary plows could handle both large snowfall totals and were able to operate at much lower speeds, making them safer for the crew aboard as well as the towns through which they traveled.

Cresbard Train Snow Removal 1932.jpgRotary train at work near Cresbard in 1932.SD State Archives

1897 Redfield Train Plow.jpgThe distinctive plume of snow coming off a train near Redfield in 1897.SD State Archives

Early snow removal on city streets meant an investment in man and horse power.  Pre-motor vehicles, roadway drifts were often simply smoothed over to make way for sleigh traffic.  Some cities, but not many, invested in horsedrawn plows which sometimes involved using multiple teams of horses to move a single blade down the street. Business owners might shovel their walkways free of snow but widespread snow shoveling didn’t come into vogue until decades later.

Horse Drawn Snow Plow Ft Pierre.jpgHorse drawn plow in Ft. Pierre.SD State Archives

Fort Meade 1897 Horse Plow.jpgA horse drawn plow helps dig Fort Meade out of the 1897 blizzard.SD State Archives

As cars became the prevalent form of transportation, snow removal equipment had to catch up.  In early years, all manner of motor vehicles had make-shift plows attached to them. 

1937 Onida US 83.jpgAn early snow plow tackling US Highway 83 near Onida in 1937.SD State Archives

Snow plow on motor grader Highway 12 1937.jpgSnow plow attached to a road grader working on Highway 12 in 1937.SD State Archives

Caterpillar was one of the first companies to create a snow-specific piece of equipment-A large tractor on tracks that slowly pushed the snow out of the way. Many others followed.

Tractor with Blade snow.jpgA Caterpillar tractor with blade plowing snow.SD State Archives

Diesel D7 Caterpillar Tractor with bulldozer Pierre.jpgDiesel D7 Caterpillar tractor with bulldozer moving snow in Pierre.SD State Archives

International Snow Plow in Black Hills.jpgInternational snow plow with tracks working in the Black Hills.SD State Archives

An increase in automobile traffic on highways and city streets created the need for more efficient means of removing snow. Snow machines with added horsepower and larger blades were the first steps, and later the addition of motorized snowblowers made snow removal speedier.

Le Tourneau Plow Pierre 1952.jpgLe Tourneau plow moving snow in Pierre in 1952.SD State Archives

1960 Summit Caterpillar Snow Plow.jpgA Caterpillar snow plow working near Summit in 1960.SD State Archives

Snow Plow Bucking Drifts Pierre.jpgA double bladed plow bucking drifts Pierre.SD State Archives

1962 Oshkosh Brand Plow Pierre 1962.jpgAn Oshkosh brand snowblower moving snow in Pierre in 1962.SD State Archives

The evolution of snow removal continues to change into the 21st century with the additions of technologies like snowgates and sophisticated de-icing formulas.  The snow never stops in South Dakota and neither do we!

Credit for all photos to the South Dakota Digital Archives held by the South Dakota Historical Society.  Do your own search of SD's history here: https://sddigitalarchives.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/photos