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.