Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum's Fordson snow tractor and the Detroit-Arctic Expedition

Fordson snow tractor outside the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum in Fairbanks

The odd-looking contraption in the drawing is a Fordson “Snow Motor,” also called a snow tractor. It is basically a Fordson tractor (built by the Ford Motor Company) with the wheels removed, and two large torpedo-shaped screws attached. The screws, which were counter-rotating and controlled by separate clutches, propelled the tractor across snow and ice.

The screws and related equipment were sold as a kit by the Armstead Snow Motor Company. A demonstration film made in the 1920s shows the vehicle to be speedy (for a tractor) and remarkably agile over snow-covered ice and deep pack snow. In the film the vehicle performed well on relatively level terrain, and was touted as being able to pull up to 20 tons.

It seemed like just the vehicle for winter use in Alaska, but the first known attempt to use them in Interior Alaska resulted in failure.

In 1926 Australian aviator and explorer, George Hubert Wilkins, undertook an expedition to find a rumored large island, Keenan Land, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. Arctic explorers for decades had been tantalized by sightings (what we now know to be mirages) of mountains to the north, across the Arctic Ocean. By foot, dogsled and boat they had been unable to come close to the island’s supposed location, hundreds of miles north of Alaska. Wilkins proposed to use airplanes to explore the region instead.

Simon Nasht, in his book, The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, hero of the great age of polar exploration, writes that Wilkins wanted to reach the “Pole of Inaccessibility,” that point “furthest from all land masses and about 400 miles south of the North Pole.” In that area Wilkins though Keenan Land, if it existed, must be.

With backing from the North American Newspaper Alliance and the Detroit Aviation Society, Wilkins organized the “Detroit Arctic Expedition,” and hired Alaska aviator, Ben Eielson, as pilot.

Fairbanks, at the northern end of the Alaska Railroad, was the starting point for ferrying the expedition’s two airplanes to Barrow, from whence flights out over the Arctic Ocean would originate. However, Nenana, 60 miles to the south, was to be the jumping off point for an overland caravan hauling aviation fuel, radio equipment and other supplies for the expedition. Plans were to travel downriver to the village of Tanana, near the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers, and then strike out cross-country to Barrow.

To expedition organizers the Fordson snow tractors seemed an ideal choice for the Arctic caravan (with the addition of enclosed cabs), and three tractors were shipped to Nenana and assembled. Two tractors, each pulling five specially-designed cargo trailers, set out on February 10, 1926.

Unfortunately, they did not get far before encountering problems. After 12 days the snow tractors had only covered 65 miles.

According to a 1990 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, the tractor screws could not get adequate traction in Interior Alaska’s dry powder snow, and their engines were troublesome in the region’s frigid sub-zero temperatures. I also noticed in the demonstration film that while the tractors worked well on relatively level ground, they had some trouble going over obstructions or rough ground. Of course, there was also the seven-foot width of the snow tractor. The Alaska Road Commission typically blazed trails to a five-foot width. If the caravan left the river it would have encountered problems on most of the regions winter trails.

Also, the snow tractors had voracious appetites and would have burned through all the tractor and aviation fuel before reaching Barrow. Wilkins abandoned the snow tractors and flew the aviation gas to Barrow instead. The rest of the supplies reached Barrow via dogsled.

What happened to the snow tractors next is a mystery, but one of them ended up in the possession of Fairbanks resident George Clayton. That machine was eventually acquired by the Pioneer Air Museum at Pioneer Park. It sat for years in from of aviation museum and now is on loan to the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum.


  • Demonstration film of Fordson Snow Motor, at “The Old Motor,” an online vintage automobile magazine. <http://theoldmotor.com/>
  • “Early snow tractors fail course on ’26 trek.” Eric Troyer. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 4-1-1990
  • The Last Explorer: Hubert Wilkins, hero of the great age of polar exploration. Simon Nasht. Arcade Publishing. 2005
  • Signage at Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum
  • “Wilkins-Eielson expeditions helped open arctic skies.” Paul Solka. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 4-1-1990

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