Monday, October 26, 2015

LeTourneau Sno-freighter, a Cold War giant makes Arctic transportation history




On a hillside along the Steese Highway south of Fox, Alaska sits a relic of the Cold War, a “sno-freighter” used in the mid-1950s to move supplies from Central Alaska to the Arctic coast for construction of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line. The DEW Line was a series of military radar stations (no longer in existence) arrayed in a 6,000-mile arc across Northern Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

The sno-freighter is a “land train” built by R.G. LeTourneau Inc. These land trains, developed as off-road vehicles, were (in train fashion) multiple wheeled cars linked together. Their motive power was individual electric motors located in the hub of each wheel. This arrangement evenly distributed power across all the wheels, providing better traction. LeTourneau worked on development of land trains until the first heavy lift helicopters went into production in 1962. These helicopters eliminated much of the land-train market.

Between 1953 and 1962 the company developed five land trains, each one unique. The VC-22 Sno-Freighter (shown in the drawing) is the second one LeTourneau produced. It was built for Alaska Freight Lines, owned by Al Ghezzi. Ghezzi was a pioneering Alaska trucker — his company was the first to keep Thompson Pass north of Valdez open in the winter.

General Electric Corporation (GE) was the main contractor for DEW Line construction, and Ghezzi obtained a contract from GE to deliver 500 tons of freight to the Canadian Arctic. The sno-freighter was a key part of his plans for the supply effort.

The vehicle has a lead power unit, plus five trailers. The lead unit is 16 feet wide and about 45 feet long. It contained a control section, a bunk section for its four-man crew, and a power section. Power for the train was provided by two 400 hp Cummins diesel generators. The generators provided electricity for the vehicle’s controls, and to run the electric motors that drove the sno-freighter’s 24 wheels. (The power section is now gone.) Each trailer is 16 feet wide and 40 feet long. The complete land-train is 274 feet long, and towers above the ground on 88-inch-high balloon tires.

According to the book, LeTourneau Earthmovers, in February 1955 the sno-freighter was shipped disassembled from LeTourneau’s Texas plant to Circle, located at the end of the Steese Highway about 135 miles northeast of Fairbanks. LeTourneau technicians accompanied the land train and re-assembled it at Circle.

A 1950s LeTourneau brochure touts the land-train’s off-road capability. However, the same brochure says that it was designed to utilize ‘bulldozed trails” in heavily-vegetated areas. Indeed, when the sno-freighter (carrying 150 tons of cargo) left Circle headed northeast towards the Canadian Arctic, it was accompanied by five bulldozers to blaze a trail, and 32 Mack trucks with loaded trailers. (With 500 tons to be delivered, Ghezzi needed more than just the sno-freighter to fulfill his contract.)

The land train worked well during its first winter trek. The caravan covered about 1,000 miles round-trip, returning in the spring to Eagle where the sno-freighter was parked for the summer. (Eagle, located about 300 miles miles east of Fairbanks, is the northern terminus of the Taylor Highway.)

Resupplied for the next winter freighting caravan, the sno-freighter made it into Canada before an accidental fire destroyed its generators. Without power, and with no possibility of repair, the land train was abandoned.

Cliff Bishop, in his book, “Eighteen Wheels North to Alaska,” wrote that the sno-freighter was eventually towed back to Boundary, just inside the U.S. border. Bishop participated in the recovery and moving of the land train, car by car, from Boundary to Tok. Its final destination was Fairbanks.

The sno-freighter was eventually bought by long-time Fairbanks resident Bobby Miller and later acquired by Rick Winther, who also has deep Fairbanks ties. Rick originally hoped to display the land train at Pioneer Park, but when those plans fell through. John Reeves allowed him to store the sno-freighter on Reeves’ Fox property. Anyone traveling the Steese Highway can now view this piece of Cold War transportation history.

Sources:


  • “Conversation with Rick Winther, owner of the LeTourneau sno-freighter

  • Eighteen Wheels North to Alaska, a History of Trucking in Alaska. Cliff Bishop. Publication Consultants. 2009

  • “LeTourneau Earthmovers.” Eric C. Orlemann. MBI. 2001

  • “New Horizons in Off-Road Transportation.” R. G. LeTourneau, Inc... no date (c 1955)

  • “Trucks Blaze New Winter Trails Northeast to the Arctic.” in Fairbanks DailyNews-Miner. Nov. 8, 1955


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