Weather Window | Truckee has fair share of over-snow machine innovators

Mark McLaughin
Special to the Sun
Courtesy Donner Summit Historical Society / Norm Sayler

Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series. Watch for the Sierra Sun’s next installment in two weeks.

Over-snow vehicles are ubiquitous today in Tahoe’s mountain country. They range from high powered “sleds,” as modern snowmobiles are commonly called, that scream up the steepest slopes, to the super expensive and sophisticated snow cats that level moguls and groom a resort’s snow surface into ribbons of corduroy. Outfitted with specially designed implements, modern snow cats enable operators to trick out perfectly formed half pipes popular with snowboarders and skiers. Improving technology for these rigs has been a boon for both winter power-sports enthusiasts and downhill skiers and riders looking for artificial terrain features or a smooth level surface.

The first mechanical over-snow vehicle was invented by Virgil D. White of New Hampshire in 1913. Over the course of nine years he modified a Model T Ford automobile, substituting runners or skis for the front wheels. Another set of rear wheels were added and traction belts installed to provide additional grip on the snow. The traction belt consisted of a series of metal plates joined together by steel links. The outer plates were cleated for traction and side-slipping protection and the inside plates were curved to fit over the tires and act as track guides. The steering runners were fitted with keels to facilitate turning and prevent slide-slipping. White’s “Snowmobile Attachment” invention worked, but it never reached production.

The first commercially successful snowmobile was designed and built by Carl Eliason in northern Wisconsin in 1924. Eliason, an auto mechanic, steam engineer, blacksmith and general store owner, struggled with a foot deformity and could not ski or snowshoe into the forest to hunt, fish, and trap with his friends. To make up for his disability, Eliason used his mechanical knowledge and old fashioned Yankee ingenuity. During a two-year period, he built a small over-snow vehicle using various automobile and bicycle parts, powered by a 2.5 horsepower, liguid-cooled outboard boat engine. This primitive motorized toboggan utilized four snow skis to glide on and a cleated conveyor belt webbing to provide floatation and propulsion. The driver steered by a rope attached to two short skis mounted under the front of the rig. The Eliason Motor Toboggan was patented in 1927 and sold to hunters, fishermen and trappers. Over time the prototype unit was improved upon and within a few years certain models of the machine could seat up to four passengers and reach speeds of 40 miles per hour.

James McIver, Jr. was exactly the kind of man a pioneer mountain community like Truckee needed in the early days. A horseshoer, dairyman, dynamite expert, engine mechanic — McIver was a man of many talents. In the early 1930s he built one of the first snowmobiles, a bulky one from a kit that adapted a Fordson Tractor power plant for traveling through snow. Unlike Eliason’s nimble motor toboggan, McIver’s “Snow Devil” utilized two long rotating drums with raised screw threads welded to its surface. The two rotors were chain driven to “screw” their way through the snow. McIver’s rig could travel up to 5 miles per hour and haul supplies and passengers on the sled it pulled behind. This rugged, reliable vehicle was too slow to travel very long distances, but one year Jim and Constable Tom Dolly used it to deliver the mail from Truckee to Hobart Mills five miles away. During the 1986 World’s Fair in Vancouver, Canada, a transportation movie in the California Exhibit showed Jim and his snow devil crossing over frozen Donner Lake.

Snowmobiles served a purpose, but their small size and exposure to the winter elements limited its function. Inventors and innovators realized there was a market for a more substantial over-snow vehicle, such as one that could carry utility repair crews into the mountains or troops into war. One of the first successful innovators was Emmitt Tucker. Tucker was born in a log cabin near Grants Pass, Ore., in 1892, and even at a young age he began dreaming of a transportation vehicle that could travel through deep, soft snow. In the mid-1920s he moved to southern California where he continued working on his idea of an over-snow tractor. Similar to McIver’s corkscrew-powered snow devil, Tucker built several spiral-driven machines that also worked on a screw principle to move though snow.

Dissatisfied with the machine’s performance, he searched for a better system. By the late 1930s, he developed the first Tucker Sno-Cat using a steel track that rotated around a rear-mounted pontoon. In 1942 Tucker moved his business to Grass Valley, Calif., just below the Sierra snow belt. He set up a production line and was able to sell about 70 of his prototype Model 222. Some of his first customers were the railroads, the U.S. Soil Conservation Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Read more about the evolution of over-snow transport in the next column.

Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You can reach him at Check out Mark’s blog at

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