Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s Snow Cruiser

American industrial ingenuity couldn’t save the ill-fated Snow Cruiser on Richard E. Byrd’s third Antarctic expedition.

| September 2018

  • snow cruiser highway
    The Ohio State Highway Patrol leads the Snow Cruiser over the Lincoln Highway.
    Photo courtesy Ray D. Gottfried
  • snow cruiser drawing
    A cut-away drawing of the Snow Cruiser.
    Drawing by Sam Moore
  • snow cruiser
    The Snow Cruiser in a ditch near Gomer, Ohio.
    Photo courtesy Douglas Rex
  • Snow Cruiser
    Crowds flock to see the curious beast as it is parked in Upper Sandusky, Ohio, for five hours for repairs to hydraulic lines.
    Photo courtesy Ray D. Gottfried
  • Snow Cruiser postcard
    A postcard showing the Cruiser in the Antarctic.
    Photo courtesy Ray D. Gottfried

  • snow cruiser highway
  • snow cruiser drawing
  • snow cruiser
  • Snow Cruiser
  • Snow Cruiser postcard

This story has absolutely nothing to do with farming, or collecting for that matter, but collectors are always looking for "one-offs" and this machine would surely qualify as that.

In November 1937, the U.S. government became interested in an official American expedition to the Antarctic. Although Admiral Richard E. Byrd had made two earlier expeditions to that frozen region, both were privately financed. Byrd was planning a third private expedition when, on Jan. 7, 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt approved the plans for a federally sponsored trip to be commanded by the admiral.

Two ships were used by the expedition, Admiral Byrd's old ship, Bear of Oakland, that was reconditioned by the Navy and commissioned the U.S.S. Bear, along with the North Star, a 1,434-ton ice breaker. There were four aircraft as well. On the Bear was a twin-engine Barkley-Grow seaplane, and there were two twin-engine Curtiss-Wright Condor biplanes for use after landing in Antarctica. The fourth was a single-engine Beechcraft that was to be used in conjunction with the subject of this column, the Snow Cruiser.

Monster of a machine

Thomas C. Poulter, the second-in-command of Byrd's second expedition in 1933-35, had experienced the limitations of motorized transport in the Antarctic. A Cletrac crawler tractor, two Ford snowmobiles and three Citroen halftracks (the latter originally designed for desert use, but modified for the Arctic with skis replacing front wheels) had made up the motor pool. The tracked vehicles were usually able to move, but couldn't cross crevasses and there was a lot of trouble with water condensing and freezing in the fuel lines.



By the time the third expedition was announced, Poulter was Scientific Director at the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago and he determined to build a vehicle capable of navigating Antarctica. The resulting "Snow Cruiser" was built in the Pullman Company's Chicago shops in less than six months and at a cost of $150,000, all donated by private entities.

The Snow Cruiser (sometimes called "The Penguin") was huge. It measured 55 feet, 8 inches long and was just under 20 feet wide. With the wheels extended, it stood 16 feet high. Loaded weight was 75,000 pounds and the monster had two 150 hp Cummins diesel engines driving generators supplying power to four 75 hp electric motors, one driving each wheel.

Designed to cross crevasses

Inside the machine, besides the control cabin, were a machine shop, four bunks, a scientific laboratory and a combination galley/darkroom. In the rear were storage space for spare parts and tires and enough food for a year, along with 2,500 gallons of diesel fuel (enough for 5,000 miles of travel) and 1,000 gallons of aviation fuel for the onboard plane. The machine was capable of 30 mph on a flat, hard surface, could climb a 37 percent grade, and, with its four-wheel steering, could turn in its own length and move crab-like at a 25-degree angle.

The Goodyear tires were 10 feet in diameter and, despite being smooth as a baby's behind, were expected to give excellent traction in the Antarctic snow. The wheels could be retracted. Sled runners were attached to the cruiser's bottom so that when a downgrade was reached, the wheels were to be retracted, and the huge machine slid down the incline.

In order to cross crevasses as wide as 15 feet, Poulter set the four huge wheels so there was more than 17 feet of overhang at both front and rear. When a crevasse was encountered, the front wheels were retracted and the rear wheels pushed the machine halfway across the gap. The rear wheels were then raised and the front ones lowered to pull the machine the rest of the way across. The single-engine Beechcraft monoplane, equipped with skis, was carried on top of the Snow Cruiser for aerial photography and exploration.

Shy on field testing

Because of the tight timetable, there was no chance to test the Snow Cruiser in deep snow, so Poulter started out on Oct. 26 to drive the thing from Chicago, Illinois, to Boston, Massachusetts, for loading on the ship. The trip was an adventure in itself, as one can imagine, with a vehicle 20 feet wide and 16 feet high traversing the two-lane roads and narrow bridges of 1939. The tall machine got stuck under a bridge or two and the hydraulic steering failed near Gomer, Ohio, where the Snow Cruiser ran off U.S. Route 30 and into a ditch, causing a delay of three days.

Huge crowds of curious people jammed the route. At Framingham, Massachusetts, some 72,000 cars became entangled in "the world's worst traffic jam" as folks tried to get a glimpse of the machine. Poulter finally reached Boston in early November and drove the cruiser aboard the North Star, which left Nov. 15 for Antarctica.

Reaching what became known as West Base on the Bay of Whales early in January 1940, the Snow Cruiser was being unloaded when the ramp partly gave way under its weight. Poulter, who was driving, applied full power and the machine lunged onto the ice.

When Poulter tried to move the cruiser through the snow, it quickly became obvious that, even though the big tires had about 12 square feet of ground contact, there was little traction. The wheels sank deeply into the snow and spun helplessly most of the time, while the under-powered electric motors quickly overheated. Finally, after much effort and little movement and with winter approaching, the crew covered the cruiser with timbers, canvas and snow, turning it into comfortable winter quarters.

Do you remember the Snow Cruiser?

With war imminent, the expedition was withdrawn in early 1941 and the machine was abandoned and forgotten during World War II. When polar exploration resumed after the war, tracked vehicles were the snow vehicles of choice.



In 1958, a team excavated the abandoned cruiser with a bulldozer and measured how much snow had fallen since 1941. It was left in place, but has since disappeared, even though its approximate location is known. Some folks think the Russians took the machine, but the more likely theory is that the ice it rested upon broke loose and floated out to sea where it sank and slowly turned into a big lump of rusty iron.

The 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 through Erie, Pennsylvania, and New York and Massachusetts to Boston. Do any Farm Collector readers remember seeing it pass by, back in October of 1939? FC


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.


For more information: A six-minute video of several 1939 film clips of the Snow Cruiser can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABaxjIRxheQ.



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