The huge machine was called the "Snow Cruiser," built at the Pullman Railroad Car shops in Chicago. It was more than 55 feet long, 20 feet wide, 15 feet high and weighed 75,000 pounds.
When Dr. Thomas C. Poulter returned from the 1933-34 Antarctic expedition where he rescued Admiral Richard E. Byrd, he began to develop his ideas for a machine which would enable scientists to explore vast areas of the Antarctic. His machine was designed to carry one year's provisions for a crew of five, enough diesel fuel to travel 5,000 miles, besides 1,000 gallons of gasoline for the small aircraft that it would carry. There were living quarters for the crew, a galley, a machine shop, a darkroom for photography, a storeroom and many types of scientific equipment aboard the strange machine, hopefully constructed to roll across ice fields on 10-foot, rubber-tired wheels, and also for climbing polar mountains and crossing 15-foot crevasses with ease.
The "Snow Cruiser" left the Chicago shops on October 24, 1939, to begin the journey to Boston, 1,021 miles to the east. Heavy city traffic caused many delays as cars and trucks were detoured to make way for the giant vehicle which took up two lanes as it traveled down the highway. Turning a corner in Chicago took two hours, as they headed for Indiana.
There were few divided highways at that time, and since the machine covered both lanes, the four policemen assigned to the trip had to clear all the traffic along the route as the Cruiser drove along at 30 miles an hour. The convoy entered Indiana on US 6 and headed for the Indiana Dunes to experiment in the sand (*NOTE: see the end of this article for more details), thought to be a texture closely resembling the Arctic snow. After some performance testing was done in the sand, the vehicle went on the US 31 then south to Plymouth to go through Indiana on US 30, with the first overnight stop planned for Fort Wayne. Crowds were everywhere and huge traffic jams followed the Cruiser.
The Cruiser suffered a series of problems on the road. Near Warsaw a front wheel struck part of a bridge, and the vehicle turned over on its side into Pine Run Creek. It had a close encounter with a train, was side-swiped by a semi-trailer truck near Columbia City, and often the electric motors powering each huge wheel would overheat. In eastern Ohio, a line which controlled the steering broke in an accident, and the Cruiser limped into Erie, Pennsylvania, using only the right-side motors. The left side motors were repaired and they traveled on to Framington, 20 miles from Boston, where the worst traffic jam was caused when 72,000 vehicles were unable to move on the highways.
The Cruiser finally arrived in Boston on November 12, 1939, and drove to the wharf only to find that about five feet of the rear of the machine had to be cut off before loading it on the ship, the "North Star." With the Cruiser lashed to the main deck, the ship headed for the Antarctic by the way of the Panama Canal and New Zealand.
By January 1940 (summertime in the Antarctic), the "North Star" was lashed to the ice about a mile from the base camp of the expedition.
The problem, of unloading the 75,000-pound Cruiser from the deck of the ship to the floating ice was thought to be solved by Dr. Poulter who had an 80-foot long ramp built to serve as a bridge. As the machine moved slowly down the long ramp, sudden creaking and popping sounds were heard as the front wheels broke through the cross timbers, the vehicle coming to a dead stop. Dr. Poulter, in the driver's seat, abandoned caution and gunned the motors as the Cruiser pulled itself free, then inched down the ramp to the solid ice, while all the while Admiral Byrd was hanging on to a length of rope on the very top of the vehicle.
The Cruiser moved slowly along on the ice for about three miles, where it was halted by a slight grade which proved to be too steep. The huge wheels stopped turning and the $150,000 (more for your money in the 30's) machine never moved again. Engineers figured that power had been sacrificed for speed in the gear-reduction unit, and that the machine was too heavy for the four tires. The texture of the Antarctic snow was found to be different from that of the sand at the Indiana Dunes.
The big Cruiser was used only as living quarters for several of the members of the expedition, who continued their pioneering in the ice and snow of the Antarctic until 1942 when, because of World War II, concern led the explorers to return back home.
The big "Snow Cruiser," along with other equipment used by the expedition, was abandoned on the ice shelf, which moved slowly toward the sea and began to break up. By now, Dr. Poulter's dream of a perfect snow rover could be on the bottom of the ocean.
This was not the Indiana Dunes State Park. It was not tested there.
On October 5, 1939, Chesterton Tribune wrote: "Test Snow Cruiser on Sand Dunes."
I looked up to see whether the Snow Cruiser actually made to the Indiana Dunes.
On October 25, 1939 - "Byrd Snow Cruiser Disappoints Thousands; May Come Later." This says it all. It did not come in the Indiana Dunes State Park.
There was an article on the "Chicago-born Antarctic cruiser never equaled hype" by Stephan Benzkofer in the Chicago Tribune 7/28/2013.
This is what Stephan Benzkofer says: "I found that the cruiser did some testing around Cleveland Street and Ridge Road in Gary at what appears to have been a construction area when they were building or extending Cleveland to 45th avenue. From 1939 articles in the Gary, Hammond and Michigan City papers, it appears maybe they took advantage of this construction area with its sand dunes to conduct some tests but the cruiser never reached the park itself."
I want to set the facts straight. The Snow Cruiser was never at the Indiana Dunes State Park. Pass it on.
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