Antarctic Snow Cruiser by Pullman

Polar explorer Admiral Richard Byrd’s staff commissioned the Pullman Company near Chicago to build a snow cruiser for what would be Admiral Byrd’s third trip to Antarctica. 

Antarctic snow  cruiser; tires 10 feet tall
Standing by snow cruiser; tires were 10 feet tall.

The idea for the vehicle grew out of a desperate occurrence during Byrd’s second trip to the South Pole. In 1934, Admiral Byrd was operating the meteorological station that was several hours away from base camp. The men at base camp became alarmed when Byrd’s radio transmissions became erratic.

This was out of character for Admiral Byrd.

Dr. Thomas Poulter (second in command) along with two others organized an expedition to check on Byrd. To reach the weather station, they contended with darkness, heavy snow, and mechanical difficulties with the tractor-like vehicle they were using. Twice they had to turn back.

Finally, on August 13, 1934, they arrived at the camp and discovered Byrd was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. One of the men identified the faulty heater and was able to repair it.  But Byrd needed to be taken elsewhere for medical care. It took two months before an airplane could fly into the area to transport Admiral Byrd and Dr. Poulter.

Idea for Antarctic Snow Cruiser

Based on his experience trying to get to Admiral Byrd during an emergency, Dr. Poulter returned to the United States committed to get funding for a purpose-built vehicle. Ideally, it would be a mobile work station that could maneuver through the uneven snow and ice, and traverse the crevasses.

Penguins near snow cruiser
Penguins visit snow cruiser

U.S. Commits to Third Antarctic Expedition

The powerful countries of the world were making claims on parts of Antarctica for possible military bases. Germany wanted a base there for U-boats. This would put them in position to attack enemy boats coming around the cape of Africa.  

With other countries staking ground, the United States needed to maintain a presence.

Poulter’s Idea for a Vehicle

Dr. Poulter was scientific research director for the Armour Institute of Technology (a private university) in Chicago.  He and other staff members developed a plan for a snow plow/tank-type of machine that could operate in sub-zero temperatures.

Sketch of what the snow cruiser would look like
Plans for the snow cruiser; the drawings along the bottom show how the cruiser could go across crevasses.

They wanted a mobile unit that could provide living and working space within it. They envisioned an interior space that slept four-five scientists, had a galley, a control room, a machine shop, a dark room, and a radio room. It could carry all the needed scientific equipment as well as a one-year supply of food.

The cruiser was powered by six diesel engines that generated 300 horsepower. This only permitted speeds of 20-30 miles per hour. The cruiser also had snow melters and pumps and generators to keep the cruiser running.

The top of the vehicle was flat so that it could carry an airplane that would be useful for additional exploration. The plane itself was equipped with a laboratory and special aerial cameras. It was planned that it could fly a 300-mile radius around the cruiser.

There were also two gigantic spare tires.

Men showing how big the Goodyear tires were.
A newspaper photographer puts in perspective how big the tires were.

Tires for the Cruiser

The tires were a story unto themselves. They were pneumatic tires, ten-feet high, with no treads. The scientists saw that treads collected snow easily, and this led to freezing of the tire surface. By keeping the tires smooth, they hoped to keep them running better.

Each tire also had an electric motor that could be used to retract the tires one by one. This was helpful if a tire needed to be warmed. It could be pulled up within the vehicle where it could be heated by the motors and pumps. But the retraction also helped in crossing a crevasse. If the cruiser arrived at a fissure, the two front tires lifted, and the overhanging front of the vehicle could slide over to the other side of the crevasse. Then the tires could come down and begin rolling again. (see image.)

Antarctic Trip Planned for November 1939

The government was slow to agree to the added expense of the cruiser. Finally just six months out from the expected departure date of the expedition, they earmarked $150,000.

Dr. Poulter had been at work long before the approval came through. He felt confident of his plan and went ahead and contacted businesses and universities to ask for donations of scientific equipment, laboratory supplies, and funding. Eventually about 70 organizations agreed to donate or help with the trip in some way.

Pullman to Build Cruiser

The Pullman Company agreed to build the cruiser and had the plans in hand. When the government funding came through, they got to work as quickly as they could, starting on August 8, 1939. (Departure was to be early or mid-November.)

The cruiser was built in an amazingly short time. From start to finish, actual production time took only 11 weeks. When it was completed, it was 55 feet long, 19 feet wide, and 16 feet tall. It weighed 36 tons.

How to Get It to Boston?

While the plan for the cruiser was underway, no one was focused on how to get a vehicle made in Chicago all the way to the Boston harbor for a November departure date.

photo of the cruiser
Antarctic snow cruiser

Ultimately, the men realized that it would have to be driven there. Unfortunately, the maximum speed the cruiser could travel was about 20 miles per hour—fine for Antarctic exploration, but not so fine for traveling roads between Illinois and the city of Boston.

Departure Date

Admiral Byrd would be using the U.S. Coast Guard cutter, The North Star. Though there was some flexibility in departure date, there was a relatively firm window as to when they would still be able to sail into the Bay of Whales near Little America in Antarctica. If they couldn’t be there by early January, they would have to turn back as the bay would be inaccessible.

Along the Way

As the behemoth moved out of the Pullman factory and on to the roads and highways that could hold such a heavy vehicle, crowds gathered. Everyone wanted to see this unusual “beast,” so police cruisers accompanied them on the full trip.

There were innumerable problems along the way. In Indiana, a truck side-swiped it, causing a delay while a fuel pump was repaired. Because the vehicle was so large, there were numerous times when it damaged items along the way—the corner of a bridge here, a tree there… Then outside Lima, Ohio, the cruiser started across a narrow bridge. The unit hit the side bridge barricade and toppled into the creek below. The cruiser rested awkwardly in the water, and because of its positioning, it took three full days to get it out.

Steep Grades

In the Adirondacks, the team ran into difficulty with steep grades. They were also contending with a bad front wheel. To repair it, they needed to get to a flat enough area that the cruiser would not roll on its own.

They tried reducing their speed even further. When that didn’t help, they solicited aid from the state highway department. (The department must have been only too eager to get the thing moving and out of the state.)

Eventually, they rigged up a way for state highway trucks to lift some of the weight. They were able to creep into a relatively flat place to stop to take a look at the wheel.

The men also learned that when they were having trouble driving the cruiser forward, it could move a little better in reverse. Of course, re-positioning it, was never easy but it did offer a way to keep going.

At least 92 of the miles covered were done moving in reverse. To observers, however, it didn’t make any difference. The big, bulky snowmobile looked about the same from the front and the back.

Remained Optimistic

But whether it was the ceaseless press coverage or the excited crowd that came out to see the vehicle wherever it traveled, the men remained optimistic that the Cruiser would do just fine in Antarctica.

The Antarctic snow cruiser was always followed by crowds.
Snow cruiser with crowds

Some people wrote into the various newspapers along the travel route. Readers asked how the men felt the unit would be able to navigate in Antarctica when it was having so much trouble on the roads of America.

Reporter Joseph F. Dinneen of The Boston Globe asked directly about the problems. Alexander Schreiber, speaking on behalf of the Armour Institute, told Dineen: “It is advisable to point out that the motors were designed for full loads under temperatures of 80 degrees below zero. Therefore, the necessity for stopping during the ascent of steep grades for the cooling of traction motors in this temperate climate should be obvious.” (November 10, 1939)

Schreiber also noted that the exposure to operating the vehicle was giving the men invaluable experience driving the cruiser. The drivers themselves had a vigorous job handling the controls. It was not for the weak or weary.

The team was buoyed by the hope that with the snow cruiser, Admiral Byrd’s team would be able to accomplish in three months as much as they had accomplished during the weeks and months spent there previously.

Arrival at the Boston Port

By November 13, 1939, the snow cruiser reached the Army Base in Boston where it awaited being loaded onto the North Star. Huge crowds kept visiting to see the monstrous vehicle. 

The Antarctic snow cruiser arrives in Boston and there are more people out to see it.
Crowds at the Boston port. Courtesy Boston Public Library

Loading the cruiser was going to be a herculean task. This was abundantly clear when they arrived at the port and saw that the unit was too long to be accommodated by the ship.

The decision was made to lop 10 feet off one end of the vehicle. The extra piece would go with them and be welded back on in Little America (Antarctica). It was still going to be a tight fit.

Antarctic Arrival

On January 12, 1940, the North Star was the first of the fleet of ships to sail into the Bay of Whales. Its valuable cargo seemed to have that made the trip just fine. Hopes were high that the cruiser was now ready to accomplish all the team planned for it.

map of Antarctica
Location of Bay of Whales

But reality set in quickly. A ramp was built so that the vehicle could roll off the ship and onto the ice. As it traveled across the ramp, the wood holding the ramp crunched on cue as the gigantic conveyance rolled over each section. Fortunately, the cruiser was not damaged in the process.

However, after that, the cruiser never really achieved its potential. They gave up trying to use it for travel and were able to make it function well as a work base. Even with the exterior temperatures hovering in the range of – 50 degrees, life inside the cruiser was roomy and comfortable.

War Looms

As it became clear the United States was likely to get involved in the war, Admiral Byrd and his team realized they needed to return to the United States. There was nothing to do but leave the snow cruiser there.

Dr. Poulter was regretful, but he made notes about how the cruiser could be fixed to make it operational. He intended to return when he could to get the thing going again.

The Pullman-built snow cruiser was left parked near Little America III on December 22, 1940. No one realized that was the official good-bye.

After the War

By the time the war ended, it took time to get an expedition going for a return to Antarctica.

There were dreams that somehow the cruiser could be re-tooled, but when the men located it in 1946, they saw that it was a lost cause. The changes in technology during the war were so vast that there was little enthusiasm for doing anything with the snow cruiser.

Snow cruiser virtually hidden by snow drifts
Snow cruiser buried in snow drifts

The next sighting of the cruiser was when an Antarctic team arrived in 1958 and several bamboo poles rising above snow. They suspected that was where the vehicle was and decided to excavate to see if anything of value was inside.

Using a bulldozer to dig through many feet of snow, they were able to step into the living quarters. Everything was perfectly preserved—from newspapers and magazines to left-behind cigarettes. 

Wisdom Ignored

In 1939, The Boston Globe ran an article citing an interview with a man the reporter identified as the “glacier priest.”  Reverend Bernard R. Hubbard, told the reporter: “With all the difficulty it had in crossing the magnificent highway system of the United States, I fear that when it gets into the insurmountable difficulties of higher glacial altitudes, it may not quite live up to expectations.”

But Reverend Hubbard added a footnote: “If the snow cruiser holds up in the ice fields, it will be one of the greatest mechanical successes ever achieved in polar regions.”

Clearly, the scientists had staked their hopes on the footnote.

Where is the Antarctic Snow Cruiser Now?

Today no one is sure what has happened to Byrd snow cruiser built by the Pullman train company. In the mid-1960s, a large portion of the Ross Ice Shelf fell into the Southern Ocean, carrying with it much of Little America. In all likelihood, Admiral Byrd’s snow cruiser fell with it, an underwater symbol of well-intentioned hopes and dreams. 

Here is another story about Admiral Byrd’s explorations: Admiral Richard Byrd’s Dog Igloo.

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