Snow Roads in Quebec’s Eastern Townships: Impressions and Traces

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This is the fourth post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.

Historical descriptions of snow roads are rare, but the rural Quebec paintings of Cornelius Krieghoff, Clarence Gagnon, A.Y. Jackson, and Frederick Simpson Coburn, among others, have left a lasting romantic imprint. The romantic image is also nicely captured in an unsigned article that appeared in the first issue of the rural magazine Ontario Farmer in January 1869:

Among the many advantages possessed by this country, let us not forget the Snow Road. It is worth more to us than all the metal roads we have, not excepting the metal track on which the iron horse travels. It extends to the remotest settlement, giving an outlet for the produce of the farthest away backwoods farm. […] When worn into smoothness, prodigious loads can be taken over it with comparative ease. The course of vehicles on it is the very poetry of motion. We do not journey along the road, but glide over it. There is no jar to the nerves, and no jolt to the muscles. It is emphatically the people’s road, constructed by the All-Father for His great family, so that the poorest member of it can ride more luxuriously than the rich and great do in their crimson-cushioned carriages.[1]

Winter life in rural Canada was obviously much harsher than such depictions convey, but the fact remains that snow roads, which are now largely built to serve northern First Nations communities, were once also an essential means of winter communication and transportation in southern Canada. Rather than following the straight lines and sharp angles of the survey grid pattern, they meandered across farm fields as well as frozen rivers, swamps, and lakes, providing farmers with shortcuts to neighbours’ houses, the local sawmill, and the nearest village. They also avoided hills in order to escape blowing winds and drifting snow. In short, they are an example of how rural communities accommodated themselves to the natural environment during the cold and inhospitable winter months. Because snow roads melted away in the spring, leaving little permanent trace on the landscape, and did not require the effort or investment of surveyed all-season roads, they have left few traces for historians to follow.

Frederick Simpson Coburn, Red Carriole (1942). Courtesy of Bishop’s University Art Collection, item no. 2022_013.

The first mention of them in the official record for Lower Canada is in the road bill of 1796 which stipulated that it was the duty of the road overseer for each local division within a parish or township to trace the annual winter roads between October 1 and November 15, but only after receiving advice from those interested.[2] Little appears to have changed by 1854 when a Stanstead Township by-law stated that in marking out the winter roads wherever they deviated from the summer roads, each overseer was to “consult the wishes and convenience of the tax-payers as far as may be practicable, and assign to each their suitable proportion of labor as near as may be in proportion of their several liabilities according to law.”[3]

The term “winter road” was also applied to regular surveyed roads that were opened for winter traffic. Thus, one clause of the 1860 Act to Amend the Lower Canada Municipal and Road Act was aimed at preventing drifting snow from blocking the road. It decreed that on or before the first day of December each year, every land occupant or owner must take down roadside fences to within twenty-four inches from the ground, leaving only the vertical fence posts. The same applied to fences running perpendicular to the road, to a distance of twenty-five feet. No fence taken down was to be replaced until the first day of April.[4] Wire fences would render this legislation moot in most places by the early twentieth century, but cedar rail fences had a long life.[5] As late as 1912, the Ascot Township council decreed that the province’s fence removal article would be enforced, with proprietors who did not comply being required to pay the extra cost of keeping the roads open.[6]

As for snow roads, the 1860 act decreed that they were to be “laid out in such places as the inspectors shall from time to time determine.” Included were “any field or any inclosed [sic] ground, except such as are used as orchards, gardens or yards, or are fenced with quick hedges or with fences which cannot, without great difficulty or expense, be removed or replaced.” A council might also order that a “winter” (i.e. snow) road be made double for two-way traffic, and all such roads were to be “marked by balises of spruce, cedar, hemlock, pine or other wood, of at least eight feet in length, fixed at a distance of not more than thirty-six feet one from the other, on each side of the road, if the road be single, and in the middle of the road, if it be double.”[7]

On single snow roads (the most common type), the sound of approaching sleigh bells warned a slower sleigh to pull into a siding or turnout and wait for the other one to pass by in order to avoid tip-overs. The sound of sleigh bells played a role in the otherwise silent, snow-muffled landscape, for they not only signalled an approaching sleigh but also its size and speed. Cutters or small sleighs had straps of small bells attached to the shafts, while draft horses pulling a heavy sleigh could have either a set of “rumbler” bells fitted to the horse’s hip harness or a large open bell tied to the bottom of the horse’s collar.[8]

Horse-drawn snow roller, probably in Maine or New Hampshire, c.1910s-1930s. Photo by George French. Maine State Archives, G547-342271-A57618.

The technique for opening a snow road was not mentioned in Lower Canada’s mid-nineteenth-century legislation, but large wooden snow rollers began to be recorded in neighbouring Vermont in the 1880s.[9] Generally consisting of two drums or barrels made from oak staves bolted to metal wheels, the most common ones were four to five feet in diameter and twelve feet wide.[10] Snow rollers were in regular use in the Eastern Townships by the first decade of the twentieth century, on surveyed winter roads as well as snow roads.

Winter roads were reported to be a contentious issue in St Joachim de Shefford in 1905, but the council resolved to levy a tax of 3 mills on the dollar for their them, and 5 mills for summer roads, with ratepayers having the option of paying the latter with statute labour.[11] The previous year, Stanstead’s municipal council had authorized the mayor to procure as many snow rollers as needed for the winter roads, and specified that the work would be done by hired labour rather than statute labour. The payment for two men and four horses was 50 cents an hour, and council endeavoured to reduce the amount of labour required “by erecting storm fences were [sic] needed, laying out winter roads and assisting ratepayers to replace rail and board fences along the highways by wire fences, thus preventing drifts.”[12] The following year, Eaton Township council had twenty rollers made for the local road districts, and Stanstead council voted to add six to its supply of nineteen.[13] Finding it impossible to find someone to take on the responsibility for its winter roads, Compton’s council reverted to statute labour.[14] In 1908, Brome reported that the tax for winter roads was 4 mills on the dollar, but that they were still kept open by statute labour and either rolled or plowed, though horse-drawn plows were incapable of moving large drifts and were generally used only to smooth out the large bumps left by the rollers.[15]

Sitting on top of a roller exposed to freezing temperatures and blowing snow was bitterly cold work, sometimes done at night with lanterns in order to keep ahead of growing drifts during a snowstorm. Furthermore, pulling rollers through snow drifts was hard on the horses, but rollers were still in use in the Eastern Townships during the early automobile era. In 1917, for example, Stanstead council increased the payment for rolling roads to 80 cents an hour for two men with four horses, 70 cents for one man with four horses, and 40 cents for one man with two horses.[16]

Map of winter roads in the eastern and southern quadrants of Inverness Township, 1950s, with snow roads identified by broken lines. Compiled by Eric Robinson from local interviews.

The manufacture of heavy trucks equipped to push steel snow plows spelled the gradual end of the snow roads and the snow rollers that maintained them. Snow rollers ceased to be relied upon in northern New England in the 1930s.[17] However, they were still in use on snow roads as late as the 1950s in my home township of Inverness, at the northern edge of the Eastern Townships. The hilly landscape and declining population made it impossible for the municipality to have most of the surveyed roads plowed during the winter. One of my fondest memories as a child on the Belsher Range in the early 1950s is of riding my toboggan behind the big wooden roller pulled by our two draft horses. Not only did my family use the snow road for the single-horse drawn cutter that was our means of winter transportation, but I rode to the village school each day in an over-crowded twelve-passenger Bombardier B-12 snowmobile that sped at 25-30 miles per hour between the tops of fence posts protruding from the snow.[18]

Bombardier B-12 snowmobile owned by Inverness Protestant School Commission. Source: Eric Robinson collection.

One advantage of snow roads was that farmers did not have to wait for a plow or blower to open the surveyed roads after a heavy snow storm. Furthermore, in a region where the farmsteads were generally set back some distance from the surveyed road, the snow road passed close to the houses. This not only saved farmers from having to keep their long driveways open during the winter, it also contributed to sociability, as recounted by Eric Robinson, whose family homestead was on the township’s Dublin range:

I recall in the 70s when my Dad broke his hip I was mowing the grass around the house and l asked him why the grass grew so much faster out in front of the porch than on the other side of the house. He told me that when my Grandfather got too old to do winter bush work, on a nice winter day he would get dressed in his coonskin coat and hat, fill his pipe and hang out in the dooryard and have a conversation with anyone that would oblige him by stopping. In the spring when the snow melted they had to haul away the horse shit that had accumulated during these stopovers.[19]

Once iconic but now largely forgotten, southern Canada’s snow roads left a small ecological imprint as well as forging a close tie with the natural landscape. They became an anachronism, albeit gradually, in the automobile era when speed and convenience became year-round economic and social imperatives.

[1] Ontario Farmer, vol. 1, no. 1 (Jan 1869), 24-5.

[2] The overseers were elected for two-year terms by the division’s ratepayers, subject to approval by the colony’s chief road commissioner, known since the French Regime as the grand voyer. Lower Canada Statutes, 36 Geo. III, c. 9, sect. 1, 19, 20, 22, 25, 26.

[3] Stanstead Journal, 2 Feb 1854.

[4] Local councils could, nevertheless, pass by-laws that fixed their own dates, or even dispense with the removal of all or some such fences within the municipality. Statutes of the Province of Canada, 1860, cap. 61, sect. 42, pp. 246-8.

[5] See, for example, J.E.M., “Disk Harrow for Winter Roads,” Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine, 41, no. 740 (29 Nov 1906), 1858.

[6] Sherbrooke Daily Record, 2 Dec 1912, 6.

[7] Statutes of the Province of Canada, 1860, cap. 61, sect. 42, pp. 246-8.

[8] Gladys Mackey Beattie, “The Sound and Magic of Bells,” Townships Sun, Feb 2007, 1, 8-9.

[9] Jane Alper, “History Space: The Snow Rollers of Peacham,” Burlington Free Press, 17 Jan 2018. Viewed 10 Jan 2024.

[10] Sherbrooke Record, 8 Feb 1979, 4; Phil Franklin, “White Mountain Snow Rollers,” Viewed 10 Jan 2024.

[11] Sherbrooke Daily Record, 10 May 1905, 6.

[12] Sherbrooke Daily Record, 8 Sept 1904, 5.

[13] Sherbrooke Daily Record, 5 Oct 1905, 1.

[14] Sherbrooke Daily Record, 23 Oct 1905, 1.

[15] Sherbrooke Daily Record, 13 May 1908, 1.

[16] Taylor McClure, “Rolling Through the Townships,” The Record, 6 Feb 2020, 4. 6.

[17] Franklin, “White Mountain Snow Rollers.”

[18] The Inverness Protestant School Commission purchased the B-12 in 1951. Prior to then, students were driven to school in a horse-drawn van equipped with a small wood stove. Email from Eric Robinson, 8 Jan 2024. For the Bombardier brochure, see

[19] Eric Robinson, email to author, 7 Jan 2024.

Feature Image: Snow roller in Effingham, New Hampshire, c.1910s-1930s. Photo by George French. Maine State Archives, G547-342271-A57625.
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Jack (J.I.) Little, with Eric Robinson

Jack Little is a professor emeritus in the History Department of Simon Fraser University. He writes, primarily, on Canada's rural history. Eric Robinson is a retired sales manager for the Production Equipment Division of Ingersoll-Rand Canada. He lives in Chateauguay, Quebec.

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