Horses, sleighs part of Yooper snow removal in the past

ISHPEMING – Dealing with fierce Upper Peninsula winters hasn’t always been as easy as deploying a fleet of trucks equipped with heated cabins, brilliant halogen headlights and enormous plow blades.

As recently as 150 years ago, navigating U.P. winters required a team of horses and a sleigh. In an edition of the Evening Copper Journal dated Monday Feb. 12, 1917, O.W. Robinson recalls “the very mild and snowless winter of 1876 and 1877.” In that year, Robinson said, the main means of transportation between L’Anse and Hancock was by ship, but when Lake Superior froze, “the stage route” was “equipped and started on sleighs, there being sufficient snow to make good sleighing.”

WLUC TV6 meteorologist and local historian Karl Bohnak said while doing research for his book, “So Cold a Sky,” he found an edition of The Mining Journal from November 1875 in which an Ishpeming correspondent said there was already enough to snow for “splendid” sleighing. Another winter issue from December 1877 called sleighing “a decided failure” when weather warmed and mud reappeared late in the month.

This long ago, the creation of snow roads required “snow rollers,” enormous cylinders pulled by horses to “compact and flatten the snow,” according to Bohnak.

By the early 1900s, much of transportation was conducted by railroad, which often had to close down during severe storms – despite the use of “switch engines” and “pushers” to help passenger trains make it up steep inclines and through snow drifts. An issue of Negaunee’s Iron Herald dated March 4, 1904 recounts how a passenger train bound for Chicago from Ishpeming got “stuck hard and fast in the solidly-packed drifts. Once stalled, the snow continued to pile in and about the train until its case was helpless.” Many passengers walked two miles back to Negaunee, while others holed up in the dining car, which was “well stocked and nobody was forced to suffer from hunger,” until “the big plows reached the snowbound train” and cleared the tracks.

U.P. cities faced similar challenges for their streetcars. In the same edition of the Iron Herald, the writer said “the trolley cars were helpless against a storm which taxed the utmost resources of the steam roads. The entire route of the street car line will have to be plowed out, but the management is hopeful that it can soon have its cars in operation again.”

A Feb. 24, 1922 edition of The Iron Herald describes a blizzard that “sure did tie up traffic and halt business in a more effective manner than Jack Frost and his hoary hordes have been able to accomplish in a dozen or more years.” The Herald also describes something which still closes U.P. schools and businesses today: blowing and drifting snow. As part of what the article calls “the usual program,” winter winds “will make mountains and valleys of the snow areas and pack exposed places in a manner that will tax the capacity of modern railroad and highway plows.” It tells how, in Negaunee, a “new 5-ton caterpillar tractor” was put to use to drag “the big highway plow.” The plow was able to “wallow its way through the drafts … but unfortunately the gale spet the snow before the plowing crew was out of sight.” The sidewalk plow, drawn by four horses, had similar problems, and “effort toward keeping open either roads or walks had to be abandoned until the fury of the storm was spent.”

Much of snow management back then was done the way it’s still done today – with sweat and hard work. After the 1922 storm, The Iron Herald reported that “considerably more than a hundred men, armed with shovels and eager for work,” showed up at Negaunee City Hall at 7 a.m. the morning after the storm.

Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401.