South Pole Snow Cruiser

This Ray Gottfried photo shows Byrd’s Snowmobile in its true colors. The story will tell you why it needed a police escort during its journey across states from Illinois to Massachusetts.

On the way to Antarctica It Passed through Ashtabula County

By November 1937, Admiral Richard E. Byrd had already led two private expeditions to Antarctica that he and his backers privately financed. In the Admirals case, privately financed did not mean limited funds, since wealthy Americans including Edsel Ford and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. as well as the American public contributed generously to raise the more than $400,000 cost of these the first two expeditions. People in all walks of financial circumstances responded to the Admiral’s enthusiasm for his expeditions, charisma, and the lure of the largely unknown and unexplored poler region at the bottom of the world. He attracted generous backers for both his first and second forays into Antarctica.

FDR Makes Admiral Byrd’s Third Expedition, the United States Antarctic Service Expedition,  Government Issue

While planning a third expedition to the Antarctic, Admiral Byrd was delighted to learn that that the United States government decided to finance an official American Antarctic expedition. He was even more delighted when on January 7, 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed plans for a government sponsored trip with Admiral Byrd in command. In his order or November 25, 1939, FDR possibly with an experienced ear and eye to Antarctica’s strategic importance and the war clouds gathering in Europe, directed that they establish two permanent bases.

The East Base would be located near Charcot Island, Alexander I Land, or on Marguerite Bay, while the West base would be established near King Edward VII Land or alternatively at a site on the Bay of Whales or near Little America. Eventually, the Expedition established bases off of Little America and Stonington Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. The expedition members were also directed to explore the Antarctic Coastline while conducting extensive geological, biological, meteorological studies.

When the Byrd’s Third Antarctic Expedition left Boston for the Antarctic on November 15, 1939, besides its 125-man human contingent, it had two ships, Admiral Byrd’s former ship, Bar of Oakland and the North Star, a 1,434-ton ice breaker and four airplanes. The motorized equipment also included a Light Tank and a Carrier, and an innovative hybridized car transformed into snowmobile with facilities on top for an airplane. The Admiral planned to use the fourth airplane, a single engine Beech craft, with his newest technological toy, the Snow Cruiser.

 Thomas C. Poulter Creates the Antarctic Snow Cruiser or Byrd’s Snow Machine

Admiral Byrd’s third expedition enjoyed the additional advantage of the experience and expertise of Thomas C. Poulter. Thomas C. Poulter had been his deputy commander of Admiral Byrd’s Second Expedition from 1933-1935, which gave him firsthand experience with the problems of motor transportation in the Antarctic. During the Admiral’s Second Expedition, second in command Poulter discovered that the crawler tractor, two Ford snowmobiles and three Citroen halftracks that made up the motor pool could move through the snow, but they could not cross the plentiful crevasses. They also were prone to bouts of water condensing and freezing in the fuel lines.

By the time the plans for the Third Expedition were being finalized, Thomas Poulter had become Scientific Director at the Armour Institute of Technology and he resolved to build a vehicle that could handle the conditions in Antarctica. He used his resources, both personal and financial to raise the $150,000 it cost to build the Antarctic Snow Cruiser in the Chicago shops of the Pullman Company in only eleven weeks during the summer of 1939.

The Snow Cruiser, also known as Byrd’s Snowmobile, or the Penguin, resembled an elephant or a dinosaur, measuring fifty-five feet, eight inches long and almost twenty feet wide. When the operator extended its wheels, it stood sixteen feet high, with a loaded weight of 75,000 pounds. The Snow Cruiser carried two 150 horsepower Cummins diesel engines which powered generators to run four seventy-five horsepower electric motors, with a motor driving each wheel.

 A Glance Inside the Snow Cruiser

Besides the control cabin, the Snow Cruiser featured a machine shop, four bunks, a laboratory to practice science, and a combination kitchen and darkroom. The rear of the vehicle contained space for spare parts and other items and 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel to provide for 5,000 miles of travel as well as 1,000 gallons of aviation fuel for the Beechcraft airplane riding on the roof. Enough food for an entire year completed the Snow Cruiser’s stores.

The Snow Cruiser’s capabilities ranked as impressive as its size in the mind of Thomas Poulter and looked the part on paper projections. It could do thirty miles per hour on a flat solid surface, climb a 37 percent slope and using its four-wheel steering could turn its own length and crawl like a crab at a 25-degree angle.

 The Snow Cruiser’s tires measuring ten feet in diameter were manufactured at the Goodyear Company in Akron, Ohio. Although the tires were as smooth as a silken smile, Thomas Poulter and his crew believed they could and would travel through the Antarctic snow with workman like traction. The Cruiser’s wheels were fashioned to retract, and workers attached sled runners to its bottom. According to its creators, when the Cruiser reached an Antarctic downgrade, the operator could retract the wheels and the Cruiser would slid down any challenging hill.

Thomas Poulter had firm ideas about crossing crevasses and Snow Cruiser wheels, as well. He set the four huge wheels on the Snow Cruiser with over seventeen feet of overhang at the front and rear. When the Cruiser encountered a crevasse, the operator retracted the front wheels, and the rear wheels pushed the Cruiser halfway across the chasm. Then the operator raised the rear wheels and lowered the front wheels to pull the Cruiser the rest of the way across the gap. The Beechcraft monoplane complete with skis, traveled on top of the Snow Cruiser, ready to perform aerial photography and explore the Antarctic.

Teetering Down the Highways, Including Routes Thirty and Twenty

Since the autumn season had already progressed into October, and the Snow Cruiser had to be at Boston Harbor by mid-November, Thomas Poulter and his four-man crew did not have time to test their vehicle for snow worthiness. Eager to meet their deadline, on October 26, they climbed into the Snow Cruiser in Chicago and began the first leg of their journey to Boston, Massachusetts. The road trip from Chicago to Boston took the Snow Cruiser through northern Indiana and Ohio, following what was then U.S. Route 30, then north to U.S. Route 20 to Erie, Pennsylvania, into New York, and finally, Boston Harbor.

The Snow Cruiser did not travel unnoticed. A machine twenty feet wide and sixteen feet high could not help but attract crowds of curious people in the small towns and cities along the route.

The Snow Cruiser traveling through Van Wert, Ohio

The Snow Cruiser also did not travel trouble free. The Snow Cruiser’s height and width made traveling the two lane, often unpaved roads and narrow bridges of 1939 America a sometimes-adventurous venture. Near Gomer, Ohio, in Allen County, Ohio, along the Lincoln Highway (Route 30), the Snow Cruiser’s hydraulic steering failed, and it ran off the Highway into a ditch, causing a three-day delay in its cross-country trek.

Along Route 20, Thomas and his crew had to stop in Painesville, Ohio, for repairs and at one point, rescue it from a muddy field after it ran off the road. After a few days of successful repairs in Painesville, Byrd’s Snow Cruiser continued along Route 20, stopping in Perry, Geneva, Ashtabula, North Kingsville and other communities along Route 20.

Ruth Tuttle of the Kingsville Library had this picture of Byrd’s Snow Cruiser.

The Snow Cruiser made it through to General Electric in Erie, Pennsylvania, for a few days’ worth of more repairs. Finally, the Cruiser and its crew were on the road again, through New York and finally, to Massachusetts.

People in Massachusetts were just as curious about the Byrd Snow Cruiser as those in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and the rest of the country. Crowds of people packed the route of the Snow Cruiser. At Framingham, Massachusetts more than 72,000 cars locked hoods and fenders in what the local papers described as “the world’s worst traffic jam.”

Finally, Thomas Poulter and his crew of four reached Boston Harbor in early November. With a sigh of relief, Thomas drove the Byrd Cruiser aboard the North Star and on November 15, 1939, the North Star departed for Antarctica.

Thomas Poulter sighed relief too soon.

The Snow Cruiser began to reveal its true operating procedures even before it touched Antarctic ice when the expedition arrived at Little America in the Bay of Whales. The workers had to build a timber ramp to unload it, and as they tenderly guided it toward the base, one of the wheels broke through the ramp. Thomas Poulter, ever protective of his creation, applied full power and the Snow Cruiser lurched across the ice with the cheers of the crew in the background.

The cheers of the crew froze in the air when the Snow Cruiser’s smooth, treadles tires would not move it through the snow and ice. They could get no traction, spinning freely, and sinking as deep as three feet in the snow. After trying chains on the rear wheels and attaching the two spare tires to the front wheels, the crew still could not create traction. After more experimenting, they discovered that the tires could achieve some traction when they drove in reverse. They drove the Snow Cruiser completely in reverse for their 92-mile journey.

Besides its lack of traction, the Snow Cruiser could not effectively navigate the ice and snow and crevasses that made up the Antarctic landscape. After the workers dug it out of several snowbanks, Thomas Poulter and his crew decided to make the snow work for the Cruiser. They covered it with timbers and snow and used it as a stationary home base for the scientists to conduct seismologic experiments, cosmic ray measurements and ice core samplings.

Thomas Poulter left Antarctica to return home to the United States on January 24, 1940, still convinced that his Snow Cruiser would eventually conquer the conditions in Antarctica. After Pearl Harbor, as the United States focused on World War II the government cancelled funding for the project and the Snow Cruiser spent the War buried in a snowbank.

After World War II ended, the United States Navy established The United States Navy Antarctic Developments Program in 1946-1947 or Operation HIGHJUMP, which began on August 26, 1946, and ended in late February 1947. Rear Admiral Richard E Byrd, Jr., USN, (Ret), Officer in Charge and his crew were charged with establishing Little America IV as an Antarctic research base. More than halfway through the operation, an expedition team found the Snow Cruiser and were astonished to discover that it needed only air in the tires and minor servicing to bring it to life again.

For a few weeks after turning the ignition and feeling the machine vibrating under their feet, the crew dreamed dreams of an operational Snow Cruiser. Their hopes snapped like a piece of ice breaking from an ice floe when they discovered that the Snow Cruiser still could not get traction and its other disadvantages had not changed during its snowbank burial in World War II.

Eleven years later in 1958, a bulldozer belonging to an international expedition uncovered the Snow Cruiser at Little America III. The expedition members discovered the long bamboo pole that marked the Snow Cruiser’s position, but the bulldozer had to dig through twenty-three feet of snow to unearth/unsnow it. The expedition members excavated to the bottom of the Snow Cruiser’s wheels and accurately measure the amount of snowfall that covered it since it had been abandoned.

When the Snow Cruiser’s rescuers looked inside it, the discovered that things were exactly as the crew had left them, with papers, magazines, and cigarettes resting in place. They too abandoned the Snow Cruiser to the frozen embrace of the Antarctic.

Later expeditions could find no trace of the Snow Cruiser. Rumor had it that the Russians had spirited away the Snow Cruiser during the Cold War, but no solid facts supported that theory. More recent scientific theories put the Snow Cruiser at the bottom of the Southern Ocean or buried more deeply under the Antarctic ice.

The Ross Ice Shelf constantly moves out to sea and in 1963, a large part of the Ice Shelf broke off and floating away, cutting Little America in half. Scientists are not certain which side of the ice shelf sheltered the Snow Cruiser, but most believe that it lies deep in the Southern Ocean.

The excitement and adventure of the Snow Cruiser also lies deep in the memories of Ashtabula County people who saw her lumber by on Route 20 to places most would never see but would remember in their adventurous spirits.

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