Nfld. & Labrador

Complaining about snow clearing: A 169-year-old tradition in St. John's

When you think of historical things in St. John's, you may think of the Regatta or the Basilica — or grumbling about snowplows.

Think you've seen snow? Not like the old days, says archivist Larry Dohey

People navigate the snowy streets of Military Road, with Colonial Building peeking out over the snowbanks in the background, around 1910. (The Rooms)

When historians ponder the great pastimes of Newfoundland's largest city, things like rowing in the St. John's Royal Regatta or hiking Signal Hill come to mind.

But Larry Dohey, director of programming and public engagement at The Rooms, has come across another historic part of our heritage — grumbling about the city's snowplows.

"It's been well documented for at least 169 years," he told CBC News. "The citizens of St. John's have just not been happy about their access to the streets or their access to sidewalks. It's just been constant."

CBC reporter Carolyn Stokes speaks with archivist Larry Dohey outside The Rooms. (CBC)

One of the earliest mentions comes from a newspaper article in which people aired their grievances about horses impeding their footpaths on the narrow, snowy streets.

While the complaints back then were similar back to those today, the mode of transportation posed a much different problem.

"The pedestrians didn't have a chance because they couldn't hear the horses behind them. So then the city said, 'Well, you're going to have a horse? You're going to have bells and whistles on that horse.'"

St. John's snowbanks tower above people in photos supplied by archivist Larry Dohey. (The Rooms)

Dohey said the city focused more of its snow-clearing solutions on pedestrians in those days, before cars dominated the roads.

We live in a unique place, he laughed, where people are so incensed and fascinated by weather that there have been several books authored on the topic.

Complaints and general bewilderment about snow have been documented countless times over the years, but Dohey says photographs from the 19th century show absurd snowfall amounts.

People climb a snowbank to reach rooftops along Merrymeeting Road. (The Rooms)

"This is not a snowstorm," he said of the recent weather. "You haven't lived through the 1880s and the 1890s.… The snowbanks are huge. They're more like tunnels. We have photos of women actually standing on roofs of the homes on Merrymeeting Road. These are two- and three-storey buildings."

As for why snow clearing has been such a popular area of vocal criticism, Dohey said he thinks people found it therapeutic to complain.

Clearing snow downtown was an even bigger hassle before large city plows roamed the streets. People gathered to shovel each other out instead — and likely complain together, Dohey chuckled.

"Misery loves company."

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