By Steve Pierce – Antique Snowmobile Club of America
There has been much ado concerning the first powered flight of the Wright Brothers in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 17, 1903, marking the beginning of air travel, but what about snow travel?
No, Joseph Armand Bombardier did not invent the very first snowmobile. Nor did the Hetteens or Carl Eliason. Who actually first traveled over the snow in a tracked, motorized vehicle may forever be a mystery.
The first U.S. patent awarded to a power sled came on March 24, 1896, to Moses, William and Joseph Runnoe of Crested Butte, Colorado. Their power sled had an endless track of chain and eight steel crossbars supported by spring straps. The cleats had spurs on the outer edges for traction. Bear in mind that 1896 was only one year after the first U.S. automobile patent was issued to George Selden in 1895. This was 21 years before U.S. involvement in World War I and merely 20 years after Custer’s Last Stand!
In October 1921, Charles H. Young of Norway, Maine, filed for a patent on a motor- driven sled. His machine had an endless belt on an independent rear suspended power unit and a curved front with skis for steering, forerunning Eliason and others. He received his patent on March 17, 1925.
In the early 1900’s, Ski Kits, chain-driven paddlewheels and track conversions of various configurations were appearing on various automobiles and motorcycles.
In 1914 Frank and Howard Sawyer of Jackson, Minnesota built a snowmo-cycle with skis and side-by-side seating. The rear wheel was positioned between the passengers and it was powered by a twin cylinder Excelsior motorcycle engine.
In 1917 Iver Holm of St. Paul, Minnesota built a similar machine powered by a four cylinder Henderson motorcycle motor.
Carl J.E. Eliason of Saynor, Wisconsin began experimenting with his idea for a motor toboggan in 1924. His vehicle used a front- mounted, water-cooled outboard motor for power. He obtained a patent on November 22, 1927 on a vehicle for snow travel.
In 1928, while exploring the Antarctic, Admiral Richard E. Byrd left his base on the Bay of Whales, Little America, in a converted Ford Model T. It was later abandoned about 75 miles out of camp. He did not fare much better in 1939 when, on an expedition from Little America III, he abandoned the â€œSnow Cruiserâ€, a very large twin-tracked vehicle designed expressly for Antarctic travel.
The late 1920’s and early 1930’s saw the Tucker Motor Company of California develop a most unique method of over-the-snow propulsion – an auger! The â€œSpiral Over-Snow Vehicleâ€ was sixteen feet long and steered with one ski. (The auger concept was resurrected years later by Polaris, with little success.)
Bombardier moved from wind-powered machines to large tracked transport vehicles. It would be late in the 1950’s before he would produce the light and nimble front-engined sled that became Ski Doo.
Eliason had metamorphosed from wooden, front-engined toboggans to rear-engined steel models by 1951, influencing later manufacturers.
Roseau, Minnesota saw Hetteen Hoist and Derrick become Polaris Industries in 1954, and they began work on their own rear-engined design. It would be 10 years until the ill-conceived Comet, their first front-engined offering, would cause financial disaster and nearly bankrupt the company.
Howard Schraeder’s single ski rear-engined Snowbug emerged from Sudbury, Ontario in 1957.
There were a flood of manufacturers from Quebec who stormed the snowmobile scene. In 1958, Hus-Ski, from Pointe Claire began testing an unusual design. A twin-tracked front-power unit towed a passenger sled behind it. Not in production until 1962, the company was purchased by Food Machinery Corporation in 1965. The Hus-Ski became the Bolens Diablo Rouge.
Bouchard started Moto Ski in 1962 and produced 10 machines in La Pocatiere.
Rejean Houle of Wickham made 20 Skiroules in 1963.
Thetford Mines was home to Sno Jet and 25 units in 1964.
In the United States, Edgar Hetteen would leave Polaris and found Polar Manufacturing in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. In 1962 Polar became Arctic Enterprises and would produce the first front-engined sled in America.
Trail-A-Sled of Crosby, Minnesota also made a front-engined snowmobile in 1962. From a plywood and fiberglass prototype, the soon to be Scorpion design was unique in that the hood and tunnel were fiberglass, and one piece at that!
Mick Rupp, experimenting with an aluminum tunnel, would produce about 200 sleds in 1965.
By 1966, most of the rear-engined snowmobiles had melted away like the spring snow, giving rise to a sport-minded era of prosperity in the industry that would create nearly 200 snowmobile manufacturers by the mid 1970’s.