Got Snow? A Brief History of the Snowmobile
From the time hunter-gatherers first wandered far enough into the northern hemisphere to encounter snow, mankind has struggled to get through it. A wooden ski dating from about 6300–5000 BC was found about 1,200 km northeast of Moscow at Lake Sindor, and historians believe that the first practical snowshoes were invented some 4,000 to 6,000 years ago, probably in Central Asia. Sometime between AD 1000 and 1600 the Thule people of northeast Canada got the bright idea of harnessing a team of dogs to a sled; but even though the steam engine was powering the world by the mid 1800’s we still hadn’t figured out how to effectively get through the white stuff without utilizing old-fashioned muscle power.
The first machine powered vehicle specifically built for snow hit the forests around Waterville, Maine in 1901. The Lombard Steam Log Hauler was a somewhat cumbersome machine resembling a steam locomotive with a half track design and front skis. With a top speed of about 4.5 miles per hour (7.2 km/h), the later models could pull eight sleds loaded with 40,000 to 100,000 board-feet of logs. The record train length was said to be 24 sleds with a total length of 1,650 feet (500 m).
|The Lombard Steam Log Hauler|
Alvin Orlando Lombard, a blacksmith specializing in logging equipment, built 83 of the steam log haulers between 1901 and 1917.
But Lombard’s Log Hauler didn’t travel over the snow so much as it bullied its way through it with sheer weight and power. In 1909 O.C. Johnson built an “over the snow machine” that actually went on top of the snow, sometimes. It was roughly ten feet long and used a track powered by a single cylinder engine.
In 1913 New Hampshire Ford dealer Virgil White invented a track and ski unit conversion for the Model T Ford. This invention was almost simultaneously invented in Waterville, Maine with neither man having knowledge of the other. Mr. White was the first to use the word “snowmobile”.
|Carl Eliason’s “Motor Toboggan”|
One of the most impressive of these early snowmobiles was built in 1924 in Sayner, Wisconsin by Carl Eliason; his “motor toboggan” was fitted with two skis steered by ropes and powered by a 2 1/2 horsepower Johnson outboard motor: it was driven by an endless steel cleated track. Eliason’s front mounted, liquid cooled engine with a jack shaft was a design usually credited to modern day snowmobiles.
In 1927 Eliason received the first patent for a snowmobile, listed as a “snow machine”. Development and refinement during 15 years of production in Sayner lead to larger models: as many as 40 Sayner snowmobiles were built and sold with no three being exactly alike. Trial and error refinements were important to success, but the track and suspension concept was carried over on all units.
By the 1930’s Eliason was using motorcycle engines from Harley-Davidson, Excelsior and Indian. The 12 hp.Excelsior twin and the later Indian 45 CID 25 HP motors were preferred since they came with a single cast unit for the engine and transmission. But with production limited to eight or nine units per year, anticipated World War II orders could not be met.
Between the years of 1927 and 1962, thirteen patents were granted to inventors for snow vehicles considered the predecessors to the modern snowmobile. Eliason manufactured his machine until 1939 when he sold out to F.W.D. Corporation in Canada: F.W.D. continued production until 1960.
Edgar and Allan Hetteen, partners in Hetteen Hoist and Derrick Shop in Roseau, Minnesota decided to create a vehicle to make hunting locations more accessible. Their concept model was finished in 1954 using a grain silo conveyor belt as a track and an old Chevy bumper for skis; Edgar was skeptical of its value and disappointed that the group had spent company time and materials on the machine, but their No 1 sled was soon sold a local lumberyard owner. The employees continued to build snowmobiles and soon a second model was created, called the Polaris Sno Traveler; the first production model rolled off the assembly line in Minnesota in 1956. The original Polaris models weighed close to 1,000 lb (450 kg) and moved at a speed of about 20 mph (32 km/h).
In 1960 Edgar led three snowmobilers on a 1200 mile trek across the Alaskan wilderness, starting from Bethel, Alaska. The trip took three weeks, and much of the time Edgar struggled to maintain 10 mph over the snow. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner put them on its front page, and soon after completing the trip Edgar started a competing company called Polar Manufacturing in Thief River Falls, Minnesota.
The company name later changed to Arctic Enterprises; in the mid-1980s it filed for bankruptcy amid fierce competition as snowmobiles became popular and other manufacturers jumped into the market. The company emerged from bankruptcy and continues on today as Arctic Cat.
Early in the winter of 1922, fifteen year old Canadian J. Armand Bombardier had designed a wind driven sleigh with a Model T engine. By 1930 he had built a successful machine that was driven by tracks, steered by braking one track or the other. In 1937 he made his first major breakthrough, building a vehicle with steerable skis in front of a set of tracks.
In 1958 Bombardier designed a modern snowmobile following his earlier experiments. Bombardier is considered the father of snowmobiling, and began commercial production and marketing of the “Ski-Doo” snowmobile in 1959: he was the first person to successfully market snowmobiles. In 1960 his endless track vehicle was granted a Canadian patent, and a U.S. patent followed in 1962.
Fewer than 20 years later after Bombardier’s newly formed snow mobile races and marathons were being conducted all over America: by the 1970’s there were around 250 sponsored races. The United States Snowmobile Association sponsored many relays, and still sponsors a few today. One of those races is a scurry that runs from Winnipeg, Canada to Minneapolis, Minnesota, approximately 650 miles. This organization additionally pushed the Aspen X Games to authorize the Snocross snowmobiling event.
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