TAHOE NUGGET #258: CATS THAT RUN ON SNOW
Over-snow vehicles are ubiquitous today in Tahoe’s mountain country. They range from high powered “sleds” as modern snowmobiles are commonly called, that scream up the steepest slopes to the super expensive and sophisticated snow cats that can level moguls and groom a resort’s snow surface into ribbons of smooth corduroy.
Outfitted with specially designed implements, modern snow cats enable operators to trick out perfectly formed half pipes and other artificial terrain features popular with snowboarders and skiers. Improving technology for these rigs has been a boon for both backcountry power-sports enthusiasts and downhill skiers and riders looking for a smooth level surface on the hill.
Modern snow-cats and snow groomers are loaded with advanced technology and can have price tags north of $250,000.
The first mechanical over-snow vehicle was invented by Virgil D. White of New Hampshire in 1913. Over the course of nine years he modified a Model T Ford automobile, substituting runners or skis for the front wheels. Another set of rear wheels were added and traction belts installed to provide additional grip on the snow.
The traction belt consisted of a series of metal plates joined together by steel links. The outer plates were cleated for traction and side-slipping protection and the inside plates were curved to fit over the tires and act as track guides. The steering runners were fitted with keels to facilitate turning and prevent slide-slipping. White’s “Snowmobile Attachment” invention worked reasonably well, but it never reached production.
White's "snow-mobile" adaptation to winter travel was still being used in the early 1940s as depicted in this photo of a car on Highway 40 near Donner Pass. Note skis on the front in place of tires and traction belts on the drive wheels.
The first commercially successful snowmobile was designed and built by Carl Eliason in northern Wisconsin in 1924. Eliason, an auto mechanic, steam engineer, blacksmith and general store owner, struggled with a foot deformity and could not ski or snowshoe into the forest to hunt, fish, and trap with his friends. To make up for his disability, Eliason used his mechanical knowledge and old fashioned Yankee ingenuity.
Working in his shop, Eliason built a small over-snow vehicle using various automobile and bicycle parts, powered by a 2.5 horsepower, liguid-cooled outboard boat engine. This primitive motorized toboggan utilized four snow skis to glide on and a cleated conveyor belt webbing to provide floatation and propulsion. The driver steered by a rope attached to two short skis mounted under the front of the rig.
The Eliason Motor Toboggan was patented in 1927 and sold to hunters, fishermen and trappers. Over time the prototype unit was improved upon and within a few years certain models of the machine could seat up to four passengers and reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.
Truckee resident James McIver, Jr. was exactly the kind of man a pioneer mountain community like Truckee, California needed in the early days. An expert horseshoer, dairyman, dynamite technician, and engine mechanic—McIver was a man of many talents.
In the early 1930s he built one of the first snowmobiles; a bulky machine built from a kit that adapted a Fordson Tractor power plant and drive for traveling through snow. Unlike Eliason’s nimble motor toboggan, McIver’s “Snow Devil” utilized two long rotating cylinders with raised screw threads welded to their surface. The two rotors were chain-driven to rotate and literally screw their way through snow.
McIver’s rig could travel up to 5 miles per hour and haul supplies and passengers on the sled it pulled behind. This rugged, reliable vehicle was too slow to travel very long distances, but one year Jim and Constable Tom Dolly used it to deliver mail regularly from Truckee to Hobart Mills five miles away. During the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver, Canada, a transportation movie in the California Exhibit showed Jim and his snow devil crossing a frozen Donner Lake.
FRONT VIEW: This photograph, taken by Judge Vernon of Tahoe City, shows the Snow Devil pulling a sled with passengers, and Jim McIver on the hood. Mechanic Glenn Coffy is driving. Coffy owned an automobile repair garage in Truckee.
REAR VIEW: Note cyclinder drive chain on left hand side of Snow Devil. McIver's original snowmobile is on display at the Heidrick Agricultural History Museum in Woodland, California, where they have a collection of antique tractors and trucks.
Snowmobiles served a purpose, but their small size and exposure to the winter elements limited its function. Inventors and innovators realized that there was a market for a more substantial over-snow vehicle, such as one that could carry utility repair crews into the mountains or troops into war. One of the first successful innovators was Emmitt Tucker.
Tucker was born in a log cabin near snowy Grants Pass, Oregon, in 1892, and even at a young age he began dreaming of a vehicle that could travel through deep, soft snow. In the mid-1920s he moved to southern California where he continued working on his idea of an over-snow tractor. Similar to McIver’s corkscrew-powered snow devil, Tucker built several spiral driven machines that also worked on a screw principle to move though snow.
Dissatisfied with the machine’s performance, he searched for a better system. By the late 1930s, he developed the first Tucker Sno-Cat using a steel track that rotated around a rear-mounted pontoon. For balance on his first unit he installed three skis, one up front and two in the rear. To better position his R&D, in 1942 he moved to Grass Valley, California, just below the Sierra snow belt. He set up a production line and was able to sell about 70 of his prototype Model 222. Some of his first customers were the railroads, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.
While modern Tucker Sno-cats utilize 4 sets of tracks, a few experimental units and early production models used 2 sets as seen here in the 1950s.
In 1943, the U.S. Weather Bureau assigned Dr. Robert W. Gerdel to work with Dr. James E. Church from the University of Nevada-Reno who had started a snow surveying system in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Dr. Gerdel was then authorized to establish a snow laboratory at Soda Springs near Donner Pass where scientists could study snowpack hydrology and snow physics.
This M-7 model was the first snow cat used on snow surveys at the Central Sierra Snow Laboratory near Donner Pass, circa 1945.
It was the perfect location for Emmitt Tucker to test his new invention and the scientists at the Snow Lab were more than happy to put Tucker’s Sno-Cats through their paces. Soon the U.S. government and military were testing snow tractor technology across the country, and the Tucker Sno-Cat would later become famous around the world.
Hydrologists studying Sierra snowpack in 1948. Note that their M-7 snow cat is hauling lots of equipment. Before these over-snow vehicles were introduced, all gages and equipment had to be carried by men on skis or snowshoes. Castle Peak near Donner Pass in background.
The United States military started working on troop carriers early in World War II when strategists were planning a winter invasion of Norway. The M-7 model shown above was an early prototype.
This Tucker-designed Canadian high-speed troop carrier had articulated steering and full power through rear take-off to all four drive belts, circa 1955.
Over the past six decades, snow tractor and snowmobile development has produced vehicles that barely resemble these earliest prototypes, but the mechanical concepts for today’s rigs are primarily based on the work of those early dreamers of mechanized transportation.
This 1957 KRISTI model rear engine speedster reminds me something from a Jetson's cartoon.
This beauty is a Bombardier-designed "School Bus" during testing by the California utility company Pacific Gas & Electric for power line patrol at Soda Springs near Donner Pass, circa 1951.
Propeller-driven vehicles like this colorful Indian Air Snow Sled were good for travel in open untimbered or sparsely timbered regions such as the upper Midwest. Powered by an airplane engine, they are fast but ill-suited to either steep slopes or densely forested areas.
Air-propeller sled zipping along in dry Colorado powder. This type of vehicle performed poorly in deep Sierra Cement. Note uncaged prop behind driver.
*Special thanks to Dr. Robert Gerdel's son Chuck who has shared many photographs from his father's collection with me over the years.
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