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September 12, 2016

Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Snow Cruiser: Historical Photos of a Hugely Ambitious One-of-a-Kind Vehicle Developed in the Late 1930s

Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic Snow Cruiser was built in 1939 to support his third Antarctic expedition. It was a huge, one-of-a-kind invention designed to house scientists while they traveled to the South Pole and back over a 12-month period. It sported four, independently-steered, pneumatic tires 10 feet tall, and carried an airplane on its roof in support of the expedition. This Jules Verne-like vehicle also slept four comfortably, boasted a galley, machine shop, darkroom, and radio room, and carried a year’s supply of food.

Byrd’s Snow Cruiser was designed by Dr. Thomas C. Poulter, Director of the Armour Institute in Chicago, and built by the Pullman Company of sleeping car fame at a cost of $150,000. The vehicle was so large the only way to get it from Chicago to Boston, its port of departure, was to drive it across country very, very slowly. The trip attracted huge crowds and newspaper headlines along the way especially when a series of mishaps (including a slip off a too-narrow bridge) spurred speculation that Byrd’s Snow Cruiser was a white elephant in disguise.

Unfortunately, the Snow Cruiser proved much slower in the field then her specified cruising speed of 10-13 miles per hour. Though she may have been adept at fording crevasses, she was unable to climb the 35 percent grade she was designed for, a serious problem given her 30-ton weight caused her to sink in the snow more times than anyone cared to remember.

Byrd’s Snow Cruiser proved so problematic that it only managed to cover 96 miles in 12 months of activity and much of that in reverse! As a result, when the expedition ended the vehicle was abandoned. She was rediscovered sometime in the 1950s only to float away on an ice shelf and sink to the bottom of the sea.

Chicagoans got their first good look at the giant snow cruiser built for the Admiral Byrd Antarctic expedition when it was rolled out of the Chicago construction yards on October 24, 1939. (AP)

A huge snow and ice cruiser designed for the Byrd Antarctic Expedition was unveiled in model form at Chicago July 14, 1939 by its designed Dr. Thomas Poulter. Resembling a cross between a bus and a tank, the actual cruiser will be 55 feet long and 15 feet high. It will be able to carry four men inside and an airplane depending upon conditions. (AP)

The Antarctic snow cruiser, designed by the search foundation of Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago, undergoing tests in the dunes near Gary, Indiana, on October 26, 1939, while en route to Boston then to the south polar areas. (AP)

Admiral Byrd’s snow cruiser passes through traffic and onlookers before halting for the night in Framingham, Massachusetts, on November 12, 1939. Traffic was snarled for 20 miles in a jam that involved 70,000 automobiles. Note the two spare tires visible in the rear compartment of the cruiser. (AP)

The Snow Cruiser gently approaches a low bridge on its way to Boston in 1939. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection)

The Snow Cruiser safely passes under a railroad bridge on its way to Boston in 1939. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection)

The controls of the snow cruiser, with Dr. F. A. Wade (foreground), chief scientist of the U.S. Antarctic service, and Harold Vagtborg, director of the Armour Institute of Technology Research Foundation. (AP)

The vehicle arrives on Boston’s waterfront. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection)

Policemen keep a path clear as the Snow Cruiser maneuvers to the wharf in Boston. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection)

On the docks in Boston in November of 1939. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection)

Onlookers watch as expedition members prepare to load the massive Snow Cruiser onto the deck of the North Star in November of 1939. The rear section of the vehicle is prepared for removal, to allow it to fit on the ship. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection)

The Snow Cruiser rolls onto the North Star at high tide. (Courtesy trustees of the Boston Public Library/Leslie Jones Collection)

Richard Byrd's giant snowmobile aboard the North Star in Boston on November 14, 1939. (AP)

Admiral Richard E. Byrd, leaving the North Star in Boston, the Snow Cruiser in background. Byrd was making inspection of Gear, Etc. in readiness for his departure for the Antarctic. (AP)

Admiral Byrd’s snow cruiser protrudes two feet over the port rail despite its 10-foot tail being removed, shown here safely stowed across the deck of the North Star, ready for the long journey to the Antarctic region with tons of supplies aboard. The North Star set sail on November 15, 1939. (AP)

Members of Rear Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic expedition are hard at work loading sleds with supplies from the ship, North Star, (in background), at the party’s west base on March 16, 1940. By this time the Snow Cruiser had been driven off the North Star, proved itself unable to handle the Antarctic terrain, and had been converted into a heated crew quarters. (U.S. Antarctic Service Photo / AP)


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