Bernard Drew | Our Berkshires: Mechanical wonders challenged our snowdrifts

Our Berkshires

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Members of the Adams Sno-Drifters Club and the Thunderbolt Ski Club used snowmobiles and a cabbed Tucker Sno-Cat to rescue two campers in distress atop Mount Greylock in December 2010 — one of many stories of the important role mechanical snow vehicles have played in Berkshire history.

An early and awkward snow machine was Maine industrialist Alvin O. Lombard's patent steam log hauler (it resembled an off-the-rails locomotive) manufactured from 1901 to 1917 and sold to lumbermen in northern New England and Canada.

Former Lombard employee Holman H. Linn came up with a design that more resembled a standard truck with Flexible Trackage. His New York state company made some 2,500 HafTraks from 1916 to 1952, selling to loggers in the Adirondacks and elsewhere. Berkshire Garage in North Adams was a Linn agent in the 1920s.

Frank G. Gould, an RFD mail carrier in North Adams from 1909 to 1930 put skis on the front of his Model T Ford.

Madison F. Bates' Bates Machine & Tractor Co. in Michigan in 1921 introduced the Bates Steel Mule Model F, a halftrack intended for agricultural use but agile on snow.

Early snowmobile

Virgil D. White, a Ford dealer in New Hampshire in 1913 modified a Ford Model T with 5-foot skis on the front and crawler treads on the rear. He copyrighted the name "Snowmobile." His conversion kits were reputed to allow travel through 3 feet of snow at 18 mph. Rural mail carriers pressed several Snowflyers into service.

In 1929 Ford recognized a good idea and demonstrated a tractor conversion from Armstead Snow Motor with screw pontoons on either side of the engine, said to surmount 5-foot drifts and navigate easily on ice. It was called the Fordson Snow Devil.

Lenox garage owner Oscar R. Hutchinson made a motorized snow sled for his own use in the 1920s, and others in the Berkshires did the same.

Canadian Joseph-Armand Bombardier developed his first snow vehicle in 1922 in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, manufacturing seven- and 12-passenger cabin vehicles by 1937 and in 1959 introducing the Ski-Doo snowmobile.

Allis Chalmers in the early 1940s extended the frame and tracks to the rear of one of its bulldozer models and affixing wheels/skis to the front. It was wartime. The engine and transmission were from Willys Jeep overstock, the bodies and frames from tractor parts. They were intended for rescue of downed pilots in remote areas.

Lenox millionaire Cortlandt Field Bishop in 1922 imported a French machine that, according to The New York Times, "carries five passengers and can climb over all obstructions, go through snowdrifts twenty feet high, skate on the ice and plow through sand hills at the rate of ten miles an hour. On the open road twenty miles an hour is its speed, and, perfected under the French Government, it is the first of its kind to be allowed to go out of France."

The first test, with chauffeur Felicien Harrer taking a turn at the wheel, "was a run from `The Maples' to Pittsfield, a distance of a little over 10 miles, over a badly-drifted and choppy road, with trucks and autos here and there around which the machine had to be driven," the Springfield Republican said.

French engineer Adolphe K gresse had devised the half-track vehicle in 1913 — a Rolls-Royce conversion, no less — while in charge of Nicholas II's garage. Lenin had a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost fitted with a Syst me K gresse track. In 1920 K gresse brought his concept to automaker Andre Citro n, who sold vehicles to military and, eventually, civilian buyers.

Bishop's open-seater was essentially a Citro n B2 auto outfitted with tracks on the rear. It was called the Citro n-K gresse-Hinstin K1 Autoneige (as distinct from the Autochenille, made for dry off-road recreationists).

The Tucker Sno-Cat — which is still in production — became the winter vehicle of choice for ski resorts starting in the late 1940s. Some models called Tucker Kittens had skis on the front, tracks on the rear. Bigger machines such as were used in the Trans-Antarctic Expedition in the 1950s had two tracks front, two tracks rear. Current models include the Trail Groomer and Tucker. Tuckers were sold in the company's trademark orange color.

Massachusetts State Police Troop B obtained a Tucker Sno-Cat in 1949; it could be trucked to emergency situations as needed. The $5,300 vehicle had been given a test run on Greylock the year before.

Police cat to rescue

Jiminy Peak in Hancock demonstrated its new cat in 1956, able to climb grades up to 30 percent with ease. TV Channel 19 in 1953 used a $6,000 four-track Sno-Cat to cart service crews to and from its antenna atop Mount Greylock to the facility now owned by WAMC Radio. In 1958, the state police cat at the hands of chief mechanic Robert Knox and radioman Thomas Murphy, both of Pittsfield, had to retrieve two men, Nelson Ellsworth of Pittsfield and Leonard Lavendol of North Adams, from the mountain after they were unable to repair the TV station's cat and were stranded for 22 hours.

Ski-Doo retailer Albert Bachand, owner of The Spruces in Williamstown organized a snow buggy race to the top of Mount Greylock in 1963. Eight snowmobilers plus one motorcycle with skis on front sped to the peak. Fred R. LaGrant of Lee made the run in 57 minutes.

Of course, snowshoes or cross-country skis are still viable alternatives in winter.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.


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