The Antarctic Snow Cruiser is undeniably a behemoth of engineering built to conquer Antarctica’s unconquerable terrain. In the remote, icy expanse of Antarctica, buried deep beneath layers of snow, the remnants of Little America remain unseen. This isolated location, situated south of the Bay of Wales on the Ross Ice Shelf, once served as a series of exploration bases for the United States during the 1930s–50s.
Today, these sites have long been abandoned. However, a colossal industrial marvel known as the Antarctic Snow Cruiser is hidden in the snow and ice or perhaps on the ocean floor. Weighing 37 tons, stretching 55 feet in length, and standing 12 feet tall, this legendary vehicle was part of a renowned American research expedition in 1939.
The story of the Snow Cruiser is a testament to resourcefulness and innovation. However, there is a compelling explanation for why this immense ice crawler remained a unique venture undertaken by the U.S. government—one that never returned from Antarctica, let alone revolutionized the realm of winter exploration vehicles.
Regrettably, the Snow Cruiser proved to be a resounding failure.
The Origins of the Antarctic Snow Cruiser
The Antarctic Snow Cruiser was the brainchild of Dr. Thomas Poulter, the second-in-command to renowned explorer Admiral Richard Byrd. After returning from a previous Antarctic expedition in 1934, Dr. Poulter conceived the idea of a massive specialized transport vehicle specifically designed for Antarctic exploration.
This vehicle was envisioned as an unstoppable fortress capable of traversing long distances across the continent’s vast stretches of snow and ice, even in the most extreme weather conditions.
Through his position as the scientific director of the Research Foundation of the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, Dr. Poulter persuaded his colleagues to embark on the ambitious project of designing the Snow Cruiser. This collaborative effort spanned approximately two years, from 1937 to 1939.
Meanwhile, Admiral Byrd was planning his third Antarctic expedition, scheduled for the spring of 1939. Dr. Poulter and Foundation director Harold Vagtborg successfully convinced officials in Washington D.C., who oversaw the United States Antarctic Service, to incorporate the Snow Cruiser into Admiral Byrd’s upcoming expedition.
The Research Foundation was responsible for constructing the vehicle and securing the necessary funding, estimated at $150,000, to bring the project to fruition.
Construction of the Snow Cruiser began on August 8, 1939, and was completed within approximately 11 weeks. The vehicle was specifically designed to navigate treacherous crevasses, featuring extended overhangs at both ends and retractable wheels to aid in this endeavor.
The ingenious design of the retracting wheels allowed them to be tucked into housings, where they received warmth from the engine exhaust gases. This not only facilitated traversing the terrain but also prevented the 10-foot Goodyear tires, lacking treads, from cracking in the extreme cold (more about the rubber will be discussed shortly).
The Snow Cruiser had the capacity to accommodate a crew of four to five individuals. The flat upper section between the 20-foot wheelbase was designated for carrying a small plane to conduct aerial surveys of the surrounding landscape.
Positioned in an elevated control room at the front of the vehicle were the driver and navigator of the Snow Cruiser. Below a catwalk, various compartments were housed below the control room, including a machine shop, snow melter, and various generators, pumps, and hoists. The engine room, situated just ahead of the front wheels, housed 300-horsepower Cummins inline-six diesel engines.
These engines were paired with two generators and four electric motors, provided by General Electric, contributing an additional 300 horsepower. Moving towards the rear wheels was a photo darkroom and gallery, followed by living and sleeping quarters for the crew.
At the back, behind the rear wheels, was the storage room, with a separate compartment reserved for holding two spare tires.
The design of the Snow Cruiser was widely acclaimed as a remarkable feat of American engineering. However, a significant obstacle had to be overcome before the grand Antarctic exploration could commence.
The production facility of the Research Foundation, located near Chicago at the Pullman Company, was a considerable 1020 miles away from Boston, where the United States Coast Guard Cutter North Star was stationed, eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Snow Cruiser.
To resolve this logistical challenge, the logical solution was to embark on a lengthy drive, covering the entire distance to Beantown at 30 mph, with the colossal vehicle itself.
How Impressive was the Antarctic Snow Cruiser?
The Antarctic Snow Cruiser boasted several notable features that enhanced its functionality and served the needs of the expedition team:
- Retractable Wheels and Tires: The vehicle’s wheels and tires could be retracted into heated housings using engine exhaust gases. This design prevented the natural rubber compound from cracking in shallow temperatures.
- Overhangs for Crossing Crevasses: The Snow Cruiser featured long front and rear overhangs to assist in navigating crevasses up to 15 feet wide. The front wheels could be retracted, allowing the front of the vehicle to be pushed across the crevasse. Once across, the front wheels would extend while the rear wheels retracted to continue the journey. This process involved a complex 20-step procedure.
- Aircraft Pad: The top of the Snow Cruiser was equipped with a pad designed to accommodate a small aircraft, specifically a 5-passenger Beechcraft Model 17 Staggerwing biplane. A winch system facilitated the placement of the aircraft on the pad, enabling aerial surveys to be conducted during the expedition.
- Efficient Heating System: Engine coolant circulated throughout the cabin, providing efficient heating. The crew reported that they only required light blankets for sleeping due to the warmth generated by the system.
- Electrical Power Storage: Excess electrical power could be stored in batteries, allowing for the operation of lights and equipment even when the engine was not running.
- Diesel-Electric Drive Train: The Snow Cruiser utilized a diesel-electric drive train, which offered several advantages. It allowed for the use of smaller engines, creating more space for the crew.
Additionally, eliminating large mechanical drive components made this application one of the earliest instances of a diesel-electric powertrain in a four-wheeled vehicle of this size. This design has since become common in large modern mining trucks.
The Long Journey of the Antarctic Snow Cruiser to Boston
Admiral Byrd’s team would have been wise to pay heed to the warnings that arose during the Snow Cruiser’s preliminary test journey, which was accompanied by an extensive police escort but encountered a multitude of issues.
The vehicle was involved in a collision with a truck in Indiana, and later experienced troubles with its fuel pump. Adding to the list of mishaps, just outside Lima, Ohio, the Snow Cruiser collided with a bridge, tumbling into a small creek where it remained stranded for a period of three days.
These incidents raised pertinent questions about the vehicle’s ability to handle the challenging and unforgiving terrain of middle America, let alone the harsh conditions of Antarctica. Such doubts were well-founded.
However, despite these setbacks, the vehicle garnered significant attention and public interest, fueled by an extensive media campaign that included a cover story in Popular Mechanics in October 1939.
Approximately 125,000 people eagerly gathered to witness the lumbering progress of the Snow Cruiser during its journey, resembling a tranquilized bear. While many were captivated by its imposing presence, doubts about its capabilities emerged.
The Antarctic Snow Cruiser Reaches Antarctica
Finally, on November 12, 1939, to the relief of all involved, the Snow Cruiser arrived in Boston just before the North Star’s scheduled departure. The voyage to Antarctica proved successful, and on January 15, anchored at the Bay of Wales, the ship prepared for the delicate task of unloading the Snow Cruiser onto the Antarctic shore at the Little America III base.
To facilitate its disembarkation, the crew constructed a substantial timber ramp. However, as the Cruiser cautiously descended the ramp, disaster struck halfway down as the wood suddenly splintered and gave way. Miraculously, despite the precarious situation, the vehicle managed to maintain its balance and avoid sinking into the frigid waters below.
With determination, Poulter engaged the throttle, and against all odds, the mighty machine reached the safety of the solid, frozen ground.
Unfortunately, that moment of triumph marked the Snow Cruiser’s final hurrah. It didn’t take long for the immense vehicle to encounter insurmountable difficulties. Its oversized, smooth rubber tires spun fruitlessly as it sank several feet into the deep snow.
The crew had no choice but to deploy spare tires to enhance traction on the front axle and fit chains onto the rear wheels. Despite these efforts, the Snow Cruiser struggled to conquer even snowy inclines, likely due to its unfavorable gear ratios and the lack of tread on its rubber tires. Surprisingly, it turned out that maneuvering the vehicle in reverse was considerably easier, and the crew even embarked on a 92-mile journey in reverse.
While colliding with a Ford vehicle was unlikely, the prospect of careening backward into an ice canyon would have been equally undesirable.
Merely 15 days later, on January 27, Thomas Poulter departed from Little America to return to Big America, leaving behind a smaller crew to carry out various scientific experiments such as seismology, cosmic ray measurements, and ice-core sampling.
Despite its resounding failure in terms of its intended purpose, the Snow Cruiser succeeded as a stable operating base and a full-time living space. The vehicle’s interior benefited from engine coolant circulation throughout its structure, effectively providing heat to counteract the bitterly cold Antarctic temperatures, which could plummet to around -50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Despite the vehicle’s shortcomings, it served as a shelter from the harsh conditions.
Thomas Poulter aspired to return to Antarctica and enhance the Snow Cruiser with improved components. However, when the United States became embroiled in World War II, the government redirected its financial resources toward the war effort.
As a result, Poulter’s plans for further development were abandoned, and the Antarctic Snow Cruiser was left behind at the Little America III base on December 22, 1940, destined to remain a relic of an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful expedition.
What Happened to the Antarctic Snow Cruiser?
In the post-war era, as the world focused on technological advancements and innovative projects, the Snow Cruiser ceased to be considered viable. However, subsequent expeditions managed to locate the vehicle in 1946, discovering that it only required air in the tires to be functional.
Another expedition in 1958 found the Snow Cruiser buried under several feet of snow, necessitating a bulldozer to excavate it. Surprisingly, the vehicle’s interior was remarkably well-preserved, with various papers, magazines, and scattered cigarettes still present.
The Snow Cruiser disappeared after this excavation, becoming a subject of speculation and conspiracy theories. Some theories suggest that it may have been rediscovered and acquired by the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
However, concrete evidence regarding its fate remains elusive. One fact that is certain is that a significant portion of the Ross Ice Shelf, located in close proximity to Little America, collapsed into the Southern Ocean in the mid-1960s. The specific impact of this event on the Snow Cruiser’s whereabouts remains unknown.
As of today, the fate of the Antarctic Snow Cruiser remains a mystery. It could be entombed beneath countless layers of snow and ice, preserved like a mosquito trapped in amber. Alternatively, it may have found its resting place submerged in the ocean’s depths.
Regardless of location, the Snow Cruiser project is a remarkable endeavor driven by the indomitable human spirit of exploration and discovery. It represents a bold and ambitious attempt to achieve greatness, showcasing the unwavering determination of individuals to push the boundaries of knowledge and venture into the unknown.
Next, read about Marvin Heemeyer, the man Who Had Enough. Then, about Carl Tanzler, the Doctor Who Preserved His Lover’s Body for 9 Years!
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