The Perils Of Colorado Winter Driving From Decades Past

Five men attempt to free a 1930s car stuck in the snow in Boulder, Colorado
Five men attempting to free a car stuck in the snow (Boulder, 1930) | Boulder Public Library
The cars of yesteryear were nowhere near as well-equipped for winter driving as modern vehicles. In addition to unwieldy rear-wheel drive configurations, the first automobiles had narrow tires with poor traction, rudimentary brakes, cold-intolerant carburetors, windscreens prone to icing, and unreliable engines that were difficult to start but easy to kill. Snowy, icy roads spelled trouble for even the most capable of drivers. Read on for a collection of images from Colorado history that illustrate the perils faced by early motorists navigating winter conditions.

Discovering an icy patch of road the hard way

Antique car overturned in front yard of a Colorado Springs house in 1954
Spill on icy street, Pikes Peak Avenue (Colorado Springs, 1954) | Pikes Peak Library

On January 26, 1954, the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph printed a story about a schoolteacher in Colorado Springs, who rolled her car after hitting an icy patch of road while driving down a hill on Pikes Peak Avenue.

 

An excerpt from the story read: “Mary Elizabeth Nolan, a teacher at Lincoln School, escaped injury this morning when the car she was driving went out of control on a snow-covered hill in the 2500 block of W. Pikes Peak Ave. The car finally hit the gravel, and after making a three-quarter turn, wound up in front of this house at 2511 W. Pikes Peak Ave. (No one was injured.) Shown with the teacher is County Coroner William Joss. An unidentified spectator also views the wreckage. Nolan and two other passengers in the car escaped injury.” Newspaper photographer Stanley L. Payne was credited for the photograph of Nolan and her overturned vehicle.

Not knowing when to turn back as conditions deteriorate

Antique car stuck in snow in Glenwood Canyon in 1920s
A man stands beside his car in deep snow (Glenwood Canyon, 1920s-1930s) | Denver Public Library
Three men with antique car stuck in the snow in Glenwood Canyon
Three men & car stuck in snow (Glenwood Canyon, 1920s-1930s) | Denver Public Library

Before the engineering marvel of the I-70 viaduct through Glenwood Canyon was built in 1992, motorists relied on a dangerous two-lane highway called U.S. 6 to navigate the narrow gorge. Before U.S. 6 was developed and designated in the 1930s, the only route through the rugged Glenwood Canyon was a primitive, one-lane dirt road situated just a few feet from the banks of the mighty Colorado River. Chipped out of the rugged canyon walls in 1902, the original path through Glenwood Canyon, known officially as the Taylor State Road, provided a route for horse-drawn wagons traveling east to west in the summer months.

 

As wagons made way for automobiles, brave travelers began testing the conditions of Taylor State Road during the winter months. Oftentimes this decision was ill-advised, for the road wasn’t plowed and tire chains weren’t widely adopted yet. Drivers who failed to turn back as conditions deteriorated found themselves stuck in several feet of snow, frustrated to realize a strenuous ordeal of pushing and shoveling awaited them.

Realizing four-wheel drive vehicles aren't invincible

A 10th Mountain Soldier drives a Jeep down a snowy hillside in Colorado
A 10th Mountain Division soldier drives a Jeep down a slope of deep snow (1940s) | Denver Public Library

When the first Jeeps rolled off the assembly line in World War II, Americans were awed by the rugged, off-road capabilities of these four-wheeled machines. Built initially for the military to drive slow speeds on rough terrain, their jarring, bare-bones ride was far less comfortable than other vehicles at the time. That didn’t bother the 10th Mountain Division soldiers, who welcomed the arrival of these tough new vehicles at Camp Hale. They allowed the soldiers to traverse the rocky terrain of the Colorado high-country, and opened the door for adventurous winter experiences, like driving down a slope of deep snow just to see if they could do it.

 

As four-wheel drive vehicles became available to civilians in the coming years, it wasn’t uncommon for casual motorists to overestimate their capabilities. Snowy, icy roads still required prudence, patience, and skill to navigate. The magic of four-wheel drive was (and still is) its ability to provide traction for the tires to get started and continue rolling. Braking and turning received virtually no benefit. Even in the modern day, four-wheel drive vehicles are often the first ones seen sliding off the road and ending up in the ditch.

Struggling to put on tire chains, praying they do their job

A man puts tire chains on an antique car on Lookout Mountain road in 1916
Putting on tire chains during a snowstorm on Lookout Mountain (1916) | Denver Public Library
Antique car with tire chains on a Colorado mountain road
Automobile with tire chains on a Colorado mountain road (1920s) | Denver Public Library

The first iteration of tire chains came in 1904, when inventor Harry D. Weed patented his “Grip-Tread for Pneumatic Tires” invention. At the time, automobiles had wooden wheels with narrow rubber tires, offering drivers virtually no traction in the snow. As a result, early motorists in mountainous areas parked their vehicles during the winter months, relying on horse-drawn sleighs for transportation. Weed’s tire chains showed promise for expanding winter travel, though weren’t widely adopted until the 1930s and 1940s. Before that, only courageous motorists put them to the test in conditions ranging from mild to burly.

 

The Lariat Loop route on Lookout Mountain in Denver’s Front Range offered one such opportunity for burly winter driving. Built in 1913 to ascend from Golden up the steep side of Lookout Mountain, Lariat Loop was considered impassable during snowstorms. Still, brave motorists attempted passage with Weed’s tire chains strapped to their tires, praying the simple apparatus did its job.

Avoiding other drivers and cars cluttering the roads

Looking down Boulder Canyon at antique cars in the snow at Sugarloaf Junction
Looking down Boulder Canyon at Sugarloaf Junction (Boulder, 1928) | Boulder Public Library

The presence of other cars on the road during accumulating snowstorms was often a mixed bag for early drivers. On the one hand, those traveling in rural areas found a measure of relief knowing they weren’t alone out there. On the other hand, more cars on the road meant more opportunities for collisions.

 

Sugarloaf Road in Boulder County was one such location where this tug-of-war played out. Accessed via Sugarloaf Junction, a hairpin turn off the mountainous Boulder Canyon Drive, Sugarloaf Road has always been a steep, twisty route. Early motorists traveling the road when the snow started flying encountered challenging—if not hair-raising—conditions. Those who attempted the treacherous route, which linked Boulder to the Sugarloaf townsite and Sugarloaf Mining District, may have preferred to travel without the presence of other drivers cluttering the way. Unless, of course, they found themselves stuck in the snow, wishing for the presence of another motorist to give them a lift or help them shovel and push their way out.

Maneuvering in and out of snowy parking spots

Antique cars in snow on 8th Street in Greeley, Colorado in 1940
Cars parked in the snow on 8th Street in Greeley (1940) | Greeley History Museum

Early automobiles were far more difficult and dangerous to operate than modern cars. Even in the best of conditions, simple tasks like parallel parking presented challenges riddled with frustration and risk. Adding snow to the mix only complicated matters. Their rudimentary transmissions were prone to lurching, thin tires prone to slipping, and manual steering and braking impossible to actuate without muscle and finesse. That was all in addition to the threat of personal injury from getting the vehicles started in the first place.

 

To get their cars running, drivers couldn’t simply slide a key in the ignition or press a button to activate the starter. They needed considerable physical strength to turn a heavy metal hand crank connected to the crankshaft to get the pistons moving, and in turn start the engine. But if drivers didn’t operate the hand crank just right, the force of the pistons coming to life could hurl the hand crank backwards and break the driver’s arm.

 

As plowing became more widespread, drivers attempting to maneuver in and out of parking spots found the snow piles created by plows another impediment to overcome. Crowns in the road from paving operations created issues too, as drivers spun their wheels trying to crawl up onto the crown when pulling out of their parking spots.

Getting plowed in by snowplows

A 1940s car plowed in by snowplows in Allenspark, Colorado
DeSoto Airflow car sits outside garage in snow (Leadville, 1936) | Denver Public Library
Antique snowplow in Leadville, Colorado in 1936
A snowplow with caterpillar treads pushes deep snow along a street in Leadville (1936) | Denver Public Library

Dating back to the 18th century, the earliest snowplows were rudimentary horse-drawn wedge-plows made of wood. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that inventors began developing more advanced plowing apparatuses. One such apparatus was patented by inventor William E. Musgrove of Fairplay, Colorado in 1873. Musgrove’s “Machine for Clearing Streets of Snow” replaced the existing wedge-plow with a horse-pulled blower projecting furnace-heated air onto the snow and ice. Snowplow technology took another leap forward in the early 1900s, when plows built specifically for motorized vehicles were developed. Not far behind were the invention of snow loaders, which used a conveyor belt to lift snow off the ground and into a dump truck.

 

As automobile ownership ramped up, so did the demand for plowed roads. Municipalities in snowy climates across the country built out their snowplow fleets, while rural towns and property owners sought private snow removal equipment. While the benefits of snow-free winter roads were widely enjoyed, plenty of vehicle owners discovered the frustration of finding their cars entombed in a heap of snow, having been “plowed in” by the passing snowplows.

Dealing with slushy, muddy conditions as temperatures warm up

Antique cars on a slushy road at Pike Peaks ski area in 1932
Automobiles on a slushy road at the entrance to Merriman Ranch (1932) | Pikes Peak Library

In 1929, a group of skiers from Colorado Springs formed the Silver Spruce Ski Club (SSSC). Their home base was at Merriman Ranch, located on the former townsite of Edlowe between Woodland Park and Divide. The owners of the ranch, Mr. and Mrs. Ed Merriman, leased SSSC a small log cabin and land for building ski jumps.

 

Getting to Merriman Ranch often meant snowy, sometimes sloppy drives for the skiers, who strapped their skis to the front fenders of their cars. When the arrival of spring brought warmer temperatures and melting snow on the roads, the skiers who drove to the ranch in enclosed vehicles faired better than their convertible driving counterparts. For the latter, it wasn’t uncommon to arrive after a slushy drive with the vehicle and its occupants spackled with slush and road grime.

Crossing fingers the roads are finally passable

Vintage National Park Service truck assessing the snow on Trail Ridge Road
National Park Service truck on Trail Ridge Road, Rocky Mountain National Park (1950s-1960s) | Denver Public Library

Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park is the highest continuous paved road in the nation. Connecting Estes Park in the east to Grand Lake in the west, this high-elevation route tops out at an astonishing 12,183 feet. Threatening nervous drivers with significant drop-offs along vast stretches of road, Trail Ridge Road is one of the last places motorists would choose to be in icy, slippery, variable conditions. Fortunately, the National Park Service employs snowplows to clear a safe path in preparation for Rocky Mountain National Park’s vacation season.

 

Circa 1950s-1960s, the National Park Service (NPS) photographed an official Park Ranger truck assessing the condition of Trail Ridge Road after plows cleared a way for motorists through a 20-foot snowbank. Rocky Mountain National Park was set to open the following week on Memorial Day. The first motorists to arrive would surely have their fingers crossed the road would be cleared and safe for travel.