In the early days of the Railway, snow was a huge problem. Most of the snow falls on Pikes Peak in the spring, and the Railway cannot open until the line is cleared. Removal was a lengthy and exhausting task involving little other than muscle power. A steam engine would ram a flat car outfitted with a wedge on its nose into the massive banks of snow that had been loosened by charges of dynamite. The section crew would shovel as much additional snow as possible onto the flat car which would then back down to the nearest available opening. The "gandy dancers" would shovel off the snow, and the whole process would be repeated.
From timberline to Windy Point, drifts up to 15 feet are normal, and the job was slow and time consuming. For many years, the line was not fully open until June (for the opening season of 1891, it was not open until June 30th). Even today, it is not uncommon to have an overnight storm completely cover the deep cuts below Windy Point with a new blanket of snow.
In 1953, rotary snowplow No. 21 was constructed in the Railway shops in an attempt to open the line earlier. This early plow, however, met with only limited success. The unit was plagued by mechanical difficulties and subject to easy dislodgment from the rack rail. Much of the time the old wedge plow, powered by diesel locomotive No. 9 or No.11, would be responsible for the lion’s share of the work in opening the line.
Among the issues with #21 was the use of a chain drive (whose chain snapped frequently) to turn the rotary. Most troublesome was the tendency to jump out of the rack rail. In many years, the Railway would break out old steam engine #4 and the wedge plow to clear the line due to the unreliability of Rotary Plow #21.
General Manager Martin Frick (whose contributions to the Railway cannot be overstated), had initiated the installation of a hydraulic bed and point on the wedge plow in 1968, but these methods all proved to be unable to cope with the common spring snow storms.
The spring of 1973 was one of the worst in the Railway’s history. Snowstorm after snowstorm pummeled Pikes Peak, and the line was open for only two days in May. Even on days of sunshine, winds would blow the huge drifts above timberline and fill in the cuts overnight. The next morning, returning workers would arrive back at timberline to find the previous day’s gains wiped out. Railway management decided that a new plow, using thoroughly modern technology, was needed. The next winter was spent constructing No. 22, the current snowplow. This massive unit, powered by a 500 horse-power, 12-cylinder Cummins diesel engine, today enables the Railway to open after all storms and stay open through the big snowstorms of April, May and early June (April and early May are usually the snowiest months).
See more on current plowing here.
All photos and drawings (except Gornergratbahn, Zebulon Pike) are property of The M&PPRY.