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“Big Bertha” – Admiral Byrd’s Monster Snow Cruiser

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  • The Research Foundation of Armour Institute of Technology and Industry represented the seventy-plus manufacturers involved in the project

Throughout the 19th and into the early 20th centuries, Polar explorers occupied a place in the culture akin to that of astronauts in later years. The environment they ventured into was nearly as hostile as outer space, and more than one disappeared into the vast frozen emptiness, never to be seen again. Perhaps the best-known American Antarctic adventurer was Admiral Richard E. Byrd. Between 1928 and 1956, he would make five trips to the bottom of the world. The subject of this post is the unique vehicle built for his third voyage in 1939.

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  • The Snow Cruiser arriving in Boston after the long journey from Chicago

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  • The Boston Army pier – Dr. Poulter cleaning a wheel – Removing the tail 

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  • The long voyage to Antarctica begins aboard the “North Star”

There had never had been anything quite like it before. The creation of Dr. Thomas C. Poulter, himself an experienced polar explorer, it was larger than even the biggest construction equipment of the time. It was assembled by the famed manufacturer of railroad passenger cars, the Pullman Company, between August and October of 1939. When completed, it was 55 feet 8 inches long, 19 feet 10.5 inches wide and 16 feet high. You will find many detailed construction photos showing the structure, engine installation and outer skin being built at the Pullman Factory (scroll down).

Fully loaded, it weighed 75,000 pounds. Power came from two 150 HP 672 cubic inch Cummins diesels driving generators that in turn ran four General Electric traction motors, one in each of the wheel hubs. It carried tanks for 2,500 gallons of specially formulated cold temperature diesel fuel and another for 1,000 gallons of aviation gas for the Beech 17 “Staggerwing” it carried. Originally dubbed The Snow Cruiser, the crew nicknamed her Big Bertha. The final cost was a staggering $150,000.

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  • A section of the Armour Institute of Technology and Industry brochure contains an artist’s rendering of the interior layout of the Snow Cruiser

Hard as it may be to believe, this behemoth was actually driven from Chicago to Boston on public roads in order to meet the ship that would transport the expedition southward. It caused a sensation and drew curious crowds everywhere along the route and, despite a trip that was fraught with mishaps and breakdowns, Dr. Poulter and crew eventually arrived at the dock in time.

Much has been written about the Snow Cruiser and this expedition in the past. You’ll find a detailed article by Bob Lichty from the June, 1985 issue of Special Interest Autos here and a contemporary article from MoToR here. Top and bottom illustrations courtesy of the AACA Library. Center photos courtesy of the Leslie Jones Collection at the Boston Public Library,

The video below shows the inauspicious beginning to Byrd’s mission

26 responses to ““Big Bertha” – Admiral Byrd’s Monster Snow Cruiser

      • The Antarctic Explorer was abandoned in place. It was rediscovered in 1958 during the International Geophysical Year by a team in Antarctica. Parts of the Ross Ice Shelf including the Little America base have since calved off, a victim of global warming, presumably taking the Penguin with it.

      • Excerpt from the ‘Pullman Page.’
        The Antarctic Explorer was abandoned in place. It was rediscovered in 1958 during the International Geophysical Year by a team in Antarctica. Parts of the Ross Ice Shelf including the Little America base have since calved off, a victim of global warming, presumably taking the Penguin with it.

    • The tires were based on a swamp buggy’s, and had almost zero traction in snow and ice. They mounted the spare tire/wheels to make it six tires, and put chains on the rear, even then it could barely move and worked best in reverse.
      But it did make a very nice stationary base, especially since the crew cabin was heated using the engine coolant. With 2500 gallons of diesel, and batteries to store power, I’m sure a nice steel cabin with power and heat was a wonderful thing for then to have.

  1. Gene,

    This is quite a rig Adm. Byrd had for his arctic expedition. Watching that old footage of Big Bertha being off loaded was pretty hairy when those timbers, in what can only be described as a make shift ramp, gave way under the weight of Bertha. Amazing.

  2. My 94 year old father-in-law has related one of the “mishaps” mentioned in the article about the trip to Boston. He grew up on Lafayette, OH, not too far from US 30 which the vehicle had used. Coming through Gomer, OH the driver missed a curve at Pike Run. It went off the road down into the creek and apparently took significant work to get it back on the road.

  3. Very cool. I like the the mentions of it from “The sixth extinction ” by James Rollins. But really, I doubt it was lost due to “global warming.” Hilarious, everyone except gore and Obama know that has been disproved.

    • I was fortunate at twelve living in Boston my father took me to see Bertha and I remember most visabily the huge Wheels and waiting in the early evenings semi lit darkness for Admiral Byrd to arrive but being cold I think we may have left a little early?

      • Like to know if the Adm showed up on that cold evening in Boston field (date? ?)anybody sill around that may have been there with me? Like to communicate!

  4. The Snow Cruiser exists somewhere. Maybe someday it will be found. Wherever it is its preserved. Can you imagine seeing this thing in person? This is one of my favorite things to search for on the web. I hadn’t seen the video of it before. Extraordinary.

  5. If a dedicated team of enthusiasts can recover a P38 from many feet down under the ice, to enable a Classic Aircraft restorer to put a P30 lightning back in the air again, –
    If enthusiasts have recovered WW2 AFV’s from the depths of marshes and lakes, and restored them to running condition again for Museum Dsiplay: –
    If a Specialist Classic Car restorer can re-create the Bugatti Aerolithe from a few photographs; –
    perhaps it’s not too much to hope that some person or group will finance another attempt to find, – salvage, – recover to a civilized and warmer country, – and restore – this extraordinary machine!

  6. If Admiral Byrd went down there 5 times between 1928 – 1956, what exactly was he doing there? One would think there would be tons of data and information about expeditions such as that, stories, events and milestones etc. Where is it all, what were they really doing down there?

  7. There are many more mysteries surrounding Antarctica than the general public has been made aware of. In the late 1950’s when all nations were generally in a state of gleeful, gluttonous consumerism and with the cold war looming, suddenly they all suddenly get together (including Russia!!) and agree via treaty for ‘hands off’ to vast natural resources that Byrd discovered down there? Too strange to comment further here…

    There are many anomalies that have not been disclosed about Antarctica including strange sun sightings during the winter when it should be totally dark and impossible due to the earth’s tilt… much more… Google around and check it out for yourself. Expect the unexpected!

  8. We were never taught about this aspect of American history in any of the Boston Public Schools I attended. Why am I only finding out about this Snow Cruiser ‘Penguin’ now? (2017). I was taught about Admiral Byrd staying over in the Antarctic alone as a kid, but was never taught (or heard of) Operation High Jump or a battle taking place in 1946 under Admiral Byrd’s command. The Snow Cruiser is being loaded on the ship ‘North Star’ at Black Falcon Pier South Boston, just three blocks from where I grew up. I enlisted in the Navy and took the oath at the Army Base seen in the back ground of the ‘Penguin’ being loaded in Boston. Yet, again, I have never heard of this event until just now (2017). What gives???

  9. This very vehicle is in Clive Cussler’s book “Atlantis Found.” Chapter 37. Good book. In the book, it’s found and restored.

  10. I saw this “monster” as it drove down State Street in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I Was amazed as to the massive tires and the incredible size over-all.

  11. Large, complicated mechanical equipment has no place in the polar regions. Byrd’s “Snow Cruiser” was definitely a unique feat of design and engineering but unfortunately proved to be utterly useless. It’s sad that so few early twentieth century Antarctic explorers followed Ronald Amundsen’s example of traveling with excellent efficiency by using the toughest, lightest and simplest equipment available. Captain Scott’s expedition brought gas powered crawler tractors that failed almost immediately. They had ponies as a backup but the poor animals couldn’t survive in the extreme conditions. The only option left to them was to man-haul excessively heavy sledges toward the South Pole. Sadly, they were doomed before they started. Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian team reached the South Pole safely five weeks before the British. This was accomplished by planning an optimal route and choosing the best locations for well-stocked supply depots. In simpler terms, they used common sense, not machines. When Amundsen and his team set out for the Pole they used simple non-mechanized equipment, such as skis for the men and lightweight dog sleds for their gear. Amundsen knew that other than simple hodometers mechanical equipment has no practical use on the ice. On polar ice and snow machines are far more of a burden than a benefit. In the harsh environment of the polar regions machines die only slightly more quickly than the people they were intended to help.

  12. Many have known about this beast, no conspiracy to hide it. It was a failure, no real point in talking up such a disappointment . Europe and Asia both about to become the only foreign news we would hear about. And why not, biggest thing of the century, or any for that matter.
    In view of then current events, and put in perspective, it was a very short blip on the radar. Never forgotten , but buried in history.
    From our time as auto enthusiasts, it is intriguing as all get out, and wouldn’t that thing be a treat to explore? Cussler does about the next best thing.

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