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"Rotary Snow Plows
The Leslie Brothers Had a Better Idea"

This page was last updated on February 5, 2014.

(Return to UP Snow Plow Index Page)

(Taken from Union Pacific INFO magazine, Volume 4, Number 1, December 1971)

Editor's Note-: In parts of the Union Pacific west, winter means blizzards, and to Union Pacific blizzards mean snow plows-rotary and otherwise. This article is the first of a timely two-part series on rotary snow plows. This issue we will take a quick look at plows of the past. Next month we'll take you on a tour of Union Pacific's newest dieselelectric powered answers to winter's old scourge-the blizzard. INFO would like to thank Harold Rees, general mechanical engineer, for his help in the preparation of this article. Union Pacific is widely recognized for having some of the foremost experts in both snow plow design and operation-few, if any, are more expert than Rees.

[photo caption] In the early days when drifts were big and engines were small, the wedge plows dwarfed the locomotives on which they were installed.

Since the late 1880's, steam powered rotary snow plows have been one of the most spectacular pieces of railroad maintenance equipment. During mild winters they are seldom used-but when winters are severe they are a "must". Blizzards are a rotary's best friend-testing them in a manner which cannot be simulated on the test stand-revealing any short-comings in a glaring manner.

The severe blizzards which occurred in the 1880's were responsible for the development of the rotary snow plow. Wedge plows could handle ordinary snow fairly well but were unable to handle snow that was drifted deep and hard by western blizzards.

The first successful rotary snow plow was purchased by Union Pacific in 1887 after it had successfully demonstrated its capability between Granger, Wyoming and Huntington, Oregon. This successful rotary plow was based on a pate.nt granted inventor Orange Jull and assigned to John S. and Edward Leslie. It was constructed for the Leslie Brothers by the Cooke Locomotive and Machine Works at Paterson, New Jersey. This first rotary was so successful that three more were immediately ordered by Union Pacific for delivery before the next winter. The next three rotary plows built by Cooke Locomotive and Machine Works for the Leslie Brothers were delivered to Union Pacific by December 1887. Other railroads followed suit and by 1903 a total of 64 rotaries had been sold by Leslie Brothers, mostly to western railroads. All of these were constructed by Cooke Locomotive and Machine Works. A total of 5 had been purchased by the Union Pacific.

The Leslie rotary snow plow consisted essentially of a conventional steam locomotive boiler mounted on an underframe supported by two 4-wheel trucks. Attached to the front end of the underframe was a rotary wheel enclosed in a wheel housing. The rotary wheel was driven by an ingenious mechanical arrangement which combined the conventional steam locomotive cylinders, pistons, main rods and main drivers with a gear box attached to the rotary wheel shaft. The plow engineer's cab was located directly behind the rotary wheel housing and ahead of the smoke stack. Originally the plow engineer's "controls" consisted of a whistle and emergency brake valve. The throttle and reverse lever for the rotary were located along side the fire box and were operated by another engineman. The pusher locomotive was operated by still another engineman. Both plow and pusher enginemen tried to operate in response to whistle signals from the man in the forward cab. Poor communication made operation very difficult-if the plow was pushed into the snow faster than the rotary wheel could "digest" the snow and cast it out, then the wheel would stick and it would be necessary to thaw it out with steam from the boiler. This thawing operation was laborious and time consuming.

During the years 1887 to 1922 Union Pacific and lines which later became part of the Union Pacific system, acquired a total of 17 rotary plows constructed along lines described above.

[photo caption] There had to be a better way of removing packed, drifted snow, and the Leslie brothers found it. In this shot from the UP archives an unidentified early rotary plow is at work. At least two locomotives are pushing the plow.

[photo caption] This is the business end of one of the first five Leslie plows. It is identical to the first successful rotary plow.

[photo caption] The date is August 24, 1968 and the last of the Leslie plows pauses in Medicine Bow on its last trip to Cheyenne. Wh·en the picture was taken, the plow was over eighty years old.

[photo caption] In later years a more modern, but nonetheless steam powered, rotary plow is seen at work. Few pieces of railroad maintenance equipment can match one of these machines when it comes to drama and spectacular action.

[photo caption] The rotary has been by, but strong arm work still needs to be done. Though the big plows move a lot of snow, they still can't replace good men armed with shovels.

Through the years the basic design did not change-it was eminently successful. Since rotaries were only used when winters were severe, their total operational time was short, hence they were exceptionally long lived.

Of the first five rotaries built in 1887 and 1888 for Union Pacific or its later acquired lines, none were officially retired until 1958. In that year two were retired and two were stored unassigned. They were later scrapped.

The fifth plow (it was actually the third constructed) was stationed at Rawlins until 1969. Though seldom used because rotaries built at a much later date stationed at Green River and Cheyenne were used in preference, Leslie Brothers No. 3 (also known as UP 900072) served as standby protection-SO years after it was constructed. Finally retired, the plow was scrapped in November of this year. - To be continued.