Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Rotary Snow Plow: A Canadian Invention

So it turns out that the rotary snowplow was invented by a Canadian. Who knew?

I didn't.

It goes back to 1870 when a Toronto dentist name J.W. Elliot patented a plan to make "An Improvement on a Machine for Removing Snow from Railway Tracks," or a spinning snow shovel.(Patent number 3991871.)

Unfortunately, Elliot couldn't find anyone interested in actually manufacturing his new type of plow, so he went back to being a dentist (and inventing new dentist tools).

One of Orange Jull's early designs.

That's when Orange Jull of Orangeville, Ontario, enters the picture, prompting the eternal question: Who names their kid "Orange?"

Jull expanded on Elliot's design, building working models he tested with sand. He 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.

The first railway to buy and use one was the Chicago Northwestern, in the winter of 1883-84 in Iowa.

The rest, as they say, is history. In 2001, the Rotary Snowplow was inducted into the North America Railway Hall of Fame. It was inducted into the Canadian Railway Hall of Fame in 2002.

The CPR bought its first rotary snow plows in 1888 for use in B.C.'s Selkirk Mountains.

By the winter of 1889 it had a fleet of them throughout  the Prairies, in northern Ontario, and elsewhere in eastern Canada. They were replaced by other ways of clearing snow in the 1950s.

The only railway that still uses rotary snow plows, as far as I can tell, is the Union Pacific, in California's Donner Pass. Click here to watch a video that shows them in action. (Thanks to Greg who posted a comment below that BNSF still has a few in the midwest.)

Now that I think of it, it makes perfect sense that a Canadian invented the rotary snow plow--this is, after all, the land of ice and snow.

For more information, visit Library and Archives Canada here and here.

Top photo by Jim Cunningham from Northeast Rails, which has a good selection of photos of various rotary snow plows. 


  1. As a note: BNSF still has a small collection of rotaries working the upper Midwest, that came from BN and earlier predecessors.

  2. The White Pass and Yukon uses their steam powered rotary to clear their line in the spring before the summer tourist season

  3. Really nice post..,it is very informative and thank you for the explication about Snow Removal

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