Steam Powered Snowplows – Throwing Snow

On Saturday, December 10th, 2011, in Engineering, Railroading, Steam Locomotives, Tourism, by Al Gengler
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Although the White Pass & Yukon Railroad rotary snowplows are not locomotives, they still fall into the category of railroad steam engines. Operations on the WP&YR have always been hampered by extremely low temperatures and snow falls, especially in the vicinity of  the White Pass summit, where several feet of snow accumulate throughout the winter and snow drifts are a common occurence.

During the construction of the railroad, wedge  snowplows pushed by locomotives were used to clear the track, but soon they were found to be inadequate. So in 1898, the WP&YR bought steam rotary snowplow #1 from the Cooke Locomotive Works. The rotary plow was able to work in up to ten feet of snow. Its self contained boiler provided the steam to spin the front rotary. Steam rotary engines are not autonomous and have to be pushed by several locomotives, often as many as  three or more  through heavy snow.

After a thirty year retirement rotary snowplow #1 was renovated in 1996 and is now again operational.  In the spring of 2011 at Ptarmigan Point, just north of Fraser, British Columbia, rotary snowplow #1 was used to open the line. Pushed by  consolidation locomotive  #40,  it constituted a 100% steam powered snow removal train.  It continues to be used to clear the line in early spring for the opening of the tourist season.



The first rotary plow was concieved in 1869 by a Toronto, Canada dentist Dr. J.W. Elliot. His perimative design, resembling a a fan mounted on freight car trucks, was never built.

Several other plow ideas also died a similar death. Some were built in prototype form and scrapped, others never were built. These included the Hawley plow, the Marshall plow, the Blake Machine Plow and the Kryger steam snow shovel.

The first successful rotary plow was designed by Canadian Orange
Jull. Jull had a prototype built by the Leslie Brothers, owners of a machine shop
in Ontario Canada.

Edward Leslie With A Model Of the Jull Rotary Snowplow

The rotery was tested during the winter of 1883-84. Edward Leslie was so impressed by the performance of Jull’s  Rotary design  that he convinced his brother John to purchased the
manufacturing rights to the plow and the two went into business of building Leslie
type steam rotaries.

This is the type of plow most people think of when you say rotary. The new rotary was a wheel with two rows of tilting blades which chopped up the snow and drew it into a second rotating fan which in turn threw the snowclear of the right-of-way through an overhead chute. The wheel and fan were driven by a pair of steam cylinders recieving steam from a boiler mounted in the same car body. The plow required a one or more locomotives to push it through the snow.

Between 1885 and 1903 the Leslie Company built 64 plows which including two for exportat several different locomotive works. They then sold the rights to the Rotery Plow to ALCo. From 1905 to 1937 ALCo built 67 plows for use on Americna railroads and another four for export.

Two homebuilt, 42 inch gauge Leslie plows were built by Reid Newfoundland Company. Lima-Hamilton built the last four commercially produced steam rotaries, the last commercial Leslie types, in 1950, under license from ALCo.

Michigan Central Rotary

Northern Pacific Rotary

Cumbres & Toltec Rotary

LIRR Rotary

LIRR Rotary


Oregon Short-line Rotary


Canadian National Rotary

Alaskan Rotary

French Dual Rotor Rotary


Five additional home-built Leslie type rotaries, four diesel and one electric were built between 1950 and 1971 the last Leslie type roteries built.

BNSF Diesel Rotary

Over the years Leslie rotary plows were built in US Standard Gauge, 3 foot gauge, narrow 42inch gauge, and several other gauges for export. Of the Leslie type plows, there are 44 left.  Several steam powered rotaries continue  in operation on scenic tourist  railroads but most of the remaining plow  are attractions at various railroad museums. The company founded by the Leslie brothers remains in business to this day.


Riley’s Railhouse invites you to spend a relaxing, but fun weekend at their bed and breakfast: 1914 New York Central Freight Station, situated on Norfolk & Southern’s double main line. Located in the heart of downtown Chesterton Indiana, you will experience some of the best rail-fan activity in the Midwest. After decades of accumulating railroad antiques, art, and memorabilia; and over two years of extensive restoration and renovation; in 2010 they’ve completed the transformation of Chesterton’s old freight station into a venue for their collection. Website:

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One Response to Steam Powered Snowplows – Throwing Snow

  1. Hi – I’m researching and writing an article about the Rotary Snowplow for the North American Railway Hall of Fame, St Thomas, Ontario, Canada. You include material on the Rotary Plow that, as far as I can tell, is unique on the web.

    For instance, I had never seen a photograph of the Edward Leslie until I visited your page. The fact that a model of the Rotary Plow is featured in the image makes it remarkable.

    Do you have any more info on the Leslie Brothers, Cooke Locomotive & Machine Works or other material on the plow?

    Robert W
    Historical Interpreter
    North American Hall of Fame
    750 Talbot Street East
    St Thomas, ON, Canada
    N5P 1E2

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