Posts Tagged ‘Adirondack Snowmobiling History’

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Adirondack Snowmobile History, Part Five

In Part One of Adirondack Snowmobile History, we traced the emergence of snow machines in the early 1900s, in Part Two we looked at the development of the personal sled that is so familiar today. Part Three followed the explosion of makes and models and the spread of snowmobiling throughout the Adirondack region with races, clubs, and dealers taking advantage of the boon in snowmobile sales that occurred from 1965 to 1970. Part Four covered the emerging conflicts over snowmobiles in the Adirondack Region, a topic we’ll conclude this series with today.

As the the 1970s began, new snowmobile clubs and riders argued for more trails and Adirondack locals increased their investment in the industry. The New York Times, noted in an piece tilted “Snowmobiles in the Adirondacks” in 1972:

An economic boom is putt-putting into the remote fringes of the Adirondack Forest Preserve these days on the rubber tracks and diminutive skis of the snowmobile. Some restaurants, banks, gasoline stations, and grocery stores, long accustomed to depressingly quiet winters in this snowfast region, now are doing a volume of business that reminds them of days in July and August. Each weekend, some 11,000 snowmobilists fan out from . . . downstate areas for a day or two of picnicking and racing on the lakes and mountains.

The local residents of such villages as Speculator are happy to see the winter weekenders trundling along the highways with their snowmobiles cradled on trailers behind their cars. “Most winters we used not to make expenses,” said Howard Romaine, a restaurant proprietor here. “But with these snowmobile people coming in, the millennium has arrived.”

As snowmobilers talked about the economic impacts of their sport in the Adirondacks, the number of snowmobile being sold every year boomed to unprecedented levels. In the early 1970s there just over a hundred snowmobile makers. The most profitable were the big three – Bombardier / Ski Doo, Polaris, and Artic Cat – but motorcycle and outboard motor companies also branched out to take advantage of the increasing popularity in the sport.

From 1970 to 1973 more than 2 million sleds were sold but the popularity of the sport was at its peak. Never again would sled sales equal those golden years. The recession of 1973 and a declining economy throughout the 1970s helped slow outdoor sports sales at a time when other opportunities to ride – namely ATVs – were beginning to emerge.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, a new environmental awareness made it less desirable among many to run the trails on a noisy motor powered machine. Noise was a major factor in the first attempts to seriously regulate snowmobiles. The reason was explained by snowmobile historian Leonard Reich:

Snowmobiles were noisy for technical, economic, and social reasons. Technically, it was difficult to quiet their two-stroke engines without compromising power output. Baffled mufflers that worked well on four-stroke engines disrupted the two-stroke’s exhaust flow and robbed it of power. To be effective a muffler had to contain substantial quantities of sound-absorbing materials, which made it large, bulky, and expensive. Even if the exhaust could be quieted, the engine’s air intake created noise, and the entire drive system of clutches, gearing or chains, and track added even more. Shrouds and other enclosures helped, but they too added weight, bulk, and expense.

Even though noisy snowmobiles could have an adverse impact on riders’ hearing, many wanted loud machines. An article in Snow-Mobile Times commented, “For some snowmobilers, noise is a large part of the fun of the sport. The sound of that loud motor means power, speed, the thrill of being in control of a revved-up machine.” Snowmobile dealers knew their market. As one commented, “If it’s noisy and goes like hell, it will sell.”

By 1972, a number of state legislatures had acted to curb snowmobile noise, setting decibel limits for a full-throttle machine heard from 50 feet. When the maker of the Johnson Skee-Horse and Evinrude Skeeter committed itself to achieving 73 decibels within six years, the ISIA [International Snowmobile Industry Association, formed in 1965 by Bombardier] grudgingly went along, and several states wrote that limit into their legislation. It was not long, however, before the industry “recognized that it had spoken too quickly and had to backtrack when subsequent engineering and marketing analyses led most industry members to conclude that they could not produce a marketable machine meeting this noise standard.” What that statement meant, of course, was that the added expense and reduced “vroom” would significantly cut into sales.

In 1971 efforts to increase the miles of trails as a hedge to the rampant trespassing and misuse of cross-country ski trails began in earnest. By 1973 more than 40,000 miles of snowmobile trails had been built in North America. By the end of the 1970s the number had more than doubled. In 1980, an ad-hoc DEC survey of snowmobile trails in the Adirondacks estimated that there were about 850 miles of snowmobile trails in the region. When the DEC announced it 2006 Snowmobile Plan for the Adirondacks it noted that there were about 850 miles of snowmobile trails in Wild Forest and Primitive Areas alone and another 1,172 miles of funded snowmobile trails in the park as a whole not including perhaps more than a thousand additional miles maintained through lease agreements with private landowners by towns (particularly Webb and Inlet) and local clubs. The entire 2006 Snowmobile Report can be found here.

While the number of snowmobile trails in the Adirondacks has increased dramatically since the sled boom of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the number of sleds sold each year continues to slump.

According to Leonard Reich:

For the 1968 model year, an unpleasant statistic, called “carryover,” crept into the industry’s production and sales figures. That year, 170,000 machines were produced but only 165,000 sold to consumers. The remaining 5,000 awaited the following year in dealers’ hands. The next year carryover increased to 35,000, then shot up to 100,000 in 1971 on a sales volume of just under 500,000.

In 1971, snowmobile sales for the first time failed to increase substantially over the previous season, thus exacerbating the carryover problem. Whereas 1968’s 165,000 sales had become 1969’s 250,000 and 1970’s 460,000, sales fell short of 500,000 in 1971. In an industry accustomed to rapid growth, many producers soon faced bankruptcy, and the shakeout began. Sales remained in the 400,000-500,000 range through 1974, while carryover increased from 125,000 in 1972 to 315,000 in 1973, and to 500,000 in 1974, a colossal drag on the industry.

By 1997, sales had reached 260,000 sleds and have continued to drop ever since. With the advent of ATVs (which evolved in the 1960s and spread in the 1970s and 1980s) and the reduction of annual snow cover due to global warming, the snowmobile may be on its way to becoming a relic of the past.

Return to Part One. Read the entire series here.


Monday, October 8, 2007

Adirondack Snowmobile History, Part Four

In Part One of Adirondack Snowmobile History, we traced the emergence of snow machines in the early 1900s. In Part Two we looked at the development of the personal sled that is so familiar today. Part Three followed the explosion of makes and models and the spread of snowmobiling throughout the Adirondack region with races, clubs, and dealers taking advantage of the boon in snowmobile sales that occurred from 1965 to 1970.

From the beginning some snowmobile riders and some folks concerned about the impacts of snowmobiles on the rural and wilderness environments began to debate the new outdoor sport. With 200,000 snowmobiles already traveling American lakes, fields, and trails in the 1966-1967 season and many more apparently on the way, government and environmental advocates began to address the possible impacts and attempt to responsibly manage them.

Snowmobile historian Leonard Reich noted that:

During the mid-1960s, snowmobile enthusiasts began to organize clubs whose activities were oriented toward safety, social events, and group activities such as festivals (“snodeos”), clearing, marking, and grooming trails, and trail rides (“snofaris” and “sno-mo-cades”) that could include as many as fifty sleds. One observer of a large nighttime ride recalled that “from a distance, their bobbing head-lights resembled a religious procession,” and in a way it was. Some clubs shipped their snowmobiles to distant sites, then flew or bussed members there for group touring.

In 1970, New York State began requiring riders to register their sleds with the Parks and Recreation Department’s Division of Marine and Recreational Vehicles. Registration forms could be had a local dealers, county clerks, Sheriff’s offices, and regional offices of the Department of Conservation. Registration cost just $5, although some sled riders complained at the cost despite the fact that events organized by local clubs often cost as much as $1 to $2 per sled. The 1970 regulations also required young riders to take a Young Snowmobile Operator’s safety course before riding alone.

Beginning in 1971, a number of governments across the United States and Canada began investigating the boom in snowmobiles in order to asses and mitigate their impacts. In 1971 Congressional testimony, Sno Goer magazine publisher Susie Scholwin voiced the freedom snowmobilers felt on their new machines:

Before snowmobiles, in northern Wisconsin] winters were something just “to be lived through.” Nice winter days on weekends brought the sleds, skis, toboggans, and general fun-in-the-snow. Nights were long and lonely. As were the weekends as a whole. Ice fishing on the lake was good, but the best spot was over a mile away. . . .

The winter of 1964 and early 1965 took on a different tone than those before [with our family’s purchase of a snowmobile]. Mom and dad loved it–the kids loved it. Winter was not the gloomy thing it had been–but each day was an adventure of its own. It was much easier to get “over to the other side of the lake” fishing. . . .

There were races held, but they were something minor. . . . The important thing . . . was that more and more of the neighbors in the area were buying these fantastic little machines and, lo and behold–winter was turning into FUN! The little snowmobile had become a funmobile–one that made winter something to look forward to! Everyone in the area looked forward to weekends, with their picnics, trail-riding, exploring, scavenger hunts, and social gatherings. . . . Many in their fifties and sixties, who were not enthused about the muscular sport of skiing, found that the snowmobile was the answer to their dreams.

For their part of the debate, the dozens of snowmobile clubs in the Adirondack region began exercising their muscle. For example, the President of the Keeseville Trail Riders wrote to local papers in 1972 to remind riders that a $1.15 billion bond issue coming before voters in November would include $44 million for land acquisition in the Adirondacks, but he “doubts very much if any of this money would be used to acquire land for snowmobile trails.” In opposing the bond issue, the Trail Riders noted that their $5 registration fee was being used to build boating services in the Adirondacks.

Take your neighbor or friend or the fellow down the street who owns a boat, the fee to register it for three years is $3.00 and the state has built parking lots and boat launching ramps.

The economic argument was also put forward early:

Take a minute to think how much money this sport has brought to the North Country. We have Boonville over in the western part of the state where thousands come to view races on weekends. Then closer to our community we have our friendly neighbors, Schroon Lake, where the Chamber of Commerce is in the process of putting out our their winter brochure.

So you see everyone stands to gain either enjoyment, money or employment from this sport.

True or not (and their was some question about the actual impact of snowmobilers on the Adirondack economy, even in the boom years), the economic arguments of the clubs and their supporters found important allies in the local press and among the property rights and anti-government crowd. We’ll explore those conflicts in Part Five.

Return to Part One. Read the entire series here.


Friday, October 5, 2007

Adirondack Snowmobile History, Part Three

In Parts One and Two we traced the emergence of snow vehicles from their earlier cousins, the automobile, the tractor, and motorcycle, and the development of the smaller more versatile nowmobiles popular today. That development led to some forty snowmobile manufacturers in the late 1960s and, eventually, an explosion in interest.

To help build a customer base, sled makers began traveling to winter events and showing their machines. Beginning in January of 1964, snowmobilers in Lake Placid organized one of the first annual “power sled meets.” The event was followed by Artic Cat’s first snowmobile derby in February 1964 in Eagle River, Wisconsin. The company invited all known snowmobile makers, and held dozens of races in front of a couple thousand attendees.

Snowmobile historian Leonard Reich noted:

Drag races, obstacle courses, and hill climbs provided thrills, and a “marathon” event of 22 miles demonstrated the reliability of the machines over long distances and difficult terrain. Soon, race derbies organized by towns, manufacturers, and distributors were taking place all over the winter landscape. Like its automotive precursors, the snowmobile industry used racing and other organized events to generate excitement, attract attention, and demonstrate the capability and reliability of its product. As the early automakers had said, “Race on Sunday, Sell on Monday.”

The first International Diamond Trophy Snowmobile Championship held on Mirror Lake in Lake Placid in January 1967 was one of the first major snowmobile meets at a time when, as the Essex County Republican, reported: “At least three major power sled meets are scheduled for the Adirondack Park area, and a dozen or so lesser meets, although no sanctioning unit has yet organized the sport, and there is no official record keeping or planning.” Nonetheless, the Mirror Lake meet offered $1,000 in cash prizes and included a hill climb and downhill slalom. By the 1969-1970 season major races around the country could see purses as high as $25,000.

Other area meets in 1966-1967 included the Eastern New York Races at Lake George (about 125 registered sleds and a new Schaefer Cup trophy race), and another at Boonville where the New York State Snowmobile Championship was held (more than 100 sleds and the emblematic Adirondack Cup). Lesser races were held at Malone, Tupper Lake, Speculator, Schroon Lake, Chazy Lake, and Old Forge.

For the 1966-1967 season 100,000 copies of Johnson Motors’ “Fun Guide to Snowmobiling” were distributed to various dealers around the country which included facts about the sport and sources for trail information. By the end of the 1966-67 season there were about 200,000 snowmobiles in America and even the first magazine devoted to the new sport – Sno Goer, was published by an advocate for snowmobiling on public lands named Susie Scholwin. According to industry sources, the snowmobile industry rose from $3 million in sales in 1965 to $30 million in 1967.

With the boon in snowmobilers, came a local boon in snowmobile clubs. The Central Adirondack Association was organized before the 1966-67 season. By 1973, the Essex County Association of Snowmobile Clubs (ECASCO) included nine clubs from the county’s twelve towns: the “Keeseville Trail Riders,” “Bouquet Valley Snow-Drifters” of Essex Willsboro, “Crown Point RR&R Snowmobile Club,” “Lake Placid Snowmobile Club,” “Moriah Snowmobile Club,” Schroon-North Hudson Snowmobilie Club,” the “Adirondack Snowmobile Club” of Ticonderoga, “Mt. Valley Snogoers,” the Wesport area “Bessboro Ski-ters” and the “Lewis-E’Town Snow Machine Club.” Even “North Country Squares,” a dance group, was getting into the action by organizing weekly races at the Clinton County Fairgrounds in Plattsburgh.

Snowmobile dealers were spreading throughout the region by 1970 when the Essex County Republican newspaper saw fit to publish a special snowmobiling section. In Peru, auto dealer Truman Davis sold Ski Doos based at the Stanley-Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Plattsburgh. Also in Plattsburgh, Jim Manley’s Welding and Repairs sold Skiroule; in Jarvis Falls, Jarvis Auto Parts sold Polaris; Ray’s Mobile Service in Keeseville usually sold chainsaws, but now also sold Allouette sleds; in Elizabethtown Dick Burpee’s Outdoor Power Equipment sold Artic Cat, Elizabethtown Builders sold Sno Jet and Artic Cat, and Norton Insurance Agency advertised snowmobile insurance.

Along with the spread of snowmobiles in the late 1960s there also emerged the first rumblings of those concerned that the noise, new trails, and detrimental effects to the environment were something to be concerned about. But as we’ll see in Part Four, just as it appeared that snowmobiles would conquer the Adirondack environment the bottom fell out.

Read the entire series here.


Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Adirondack Snowmobile History, Part Two

In Part One of Adirondack Snowmobile History, we looked at the emergence of the “motor sleigh” in the early 1900s with experimental models that included half-tracks, airplane props, and converted Model A Fords. As snow machines became more widely known and began being used by government agencies, utilities and lumber companies, local experimenters began building their own variations. The 64 snow mobiles (by then already being called by that generic name) registered in New York State in 1935 were all large vehicles that held several passengers.

Joseph-Armand Bombardier, who had been experimenting with rear engine designs since he was teenager, came forward in 1935 with the B7, a seven passenger enclosed snow vehicle. It’s sucess was short-lived. When snow removal on roads became widespread in the late 1940s, Bombardier turned primarily to more general overland tracked vehicles. But while Bombardier and others were focused on making bigger snow machines, others had also been making independent progress on smaller, more versatile, auto sleighs using increasingly available small motors on more traditional (though now steerable) sleigh and bobsled runners.

In 1920, Lewis Newton, the owner of a Hudson Falls bicycle shop, announced that he had “perfected and auto-sleigh which attains nearly fifty miles per hour and can be operated with absolute safety.” Newton mounted two Thompson motors on a specially constructed bobsleigh and rigged a motorcycle wheel with a skid chain; the crank was kick-started. Some of the several he made may still be hiding out in Warren or Washington county barns.

In the late 1920s, Wisconsin outboard-motor dealer Carl Eliason hand-built about forty smaller snow machines (his patent is shown below). It was these that were copied by agricultural machinery manufacturer Polaris Industries’ when they developed the “Pol-Cat,” which was introduced in 1954. The Pol-Cat was followed closely by Bombadier’s “Ski-Doo,” which went on sale in 1959. Then when Edgar Hetteen (founder and president of Polaris Industries) had a falling out with his partners in 1960 he left to create the Polar Manufacturing Company which produced the “Artic Cat” in 1961. Although thirteen American patents were issued between 1927 and 1962, and by 1970 there were several dozen snowmobile companies, the still relatively small snowmobile market was dominated by these three companies: Polaris, Bombardier / Ski Doo, and Artic Cat.

Leonard Reich, who has written on early snowmobile history in the journal Technology and Culture, noted that what happened next depended largely on the role of motor boat dealers:

Northern marine outlets were an obvious place to sell snowmobiles, and many early dealers came from the ranks of boating businesses looking for a line to carry them through the fall and winter. In fact, outboard- motorboating served as a model for the developing snowmobile industry. The first outboard motor was manufactured in 1911 by Ole Evinrude, and the industry progressed slowly until after the Second World War. Outboards were usually installed on rowboats or on hulls originally designed for inboard power, which limited their capabilities and constrained the market. With the introduction of inexpensive fiberglass boat construction and light planing hull designs during the 1950s, at a time of national prosperity, rapid population growth, and television marketing, outboard-motorboating became extremely popular and dramatically changed summertime recreation patterns on lakes and rivers. Now, a mechanical whine split the summer’s natural sounds, transforming in its wake the search for relaxation to a powered pursuit of recreation. Many snowmobile dealers and buyers had their first introduction to motorized recreation through motorboating, and snowmobile salesmen often used the analogy in making the sale. Snowmobile purchasers were more than twice as likely as the general population to own motorboats.

The ready made market notwithstanding, snowmobile purchases were limited by the number of sleds produced and more importantly, by the number of people who thought they were worthwhile. Arctic Cat sold just 20 sleds in their first year (1961), and 700 the second. Bombardier produced 225 the first year (model year 1960); 700 in 1961; 2,100 in 1962; 5,300 in 1963; 8,500 in 1964; and just 13,300 for all of the United States and Canada in 1965. Advertising at first targeted fish and game officers, foresters, trappers, missionaries, prospectors and utility companies, but by 1965 had began to serious shift to the outdoor thrills market. The number of makers also multiplied with, according to historian Leonard Reich, “Trail-A-Sled in 1961, Moto-Ski and Skiroule in 1963, Sno-Jet and Johnson Skee Horse in 1964, Rupp, Fox-Trac, Hus-Ski, and Polaris (with a Ski-Doo-like model) in 1965. By the end of 1967 approximately forty makes had come to market.”


Among the early snowmobile dealers in the Adirondacks were George Moore Truck and Equipment Corp., in Keeseville whose first advertisement in 1965 claimed that their Ski-Doos “provide entertainment for all ages as it bounces over snow drifts, climbing and descending hills with ease. It has also proved its worth as a traveler on ice for fishermen and into the dense forests for hunters.” By the 1967-68 season they had secured the statewide distribution and were advertising for new dealers to join the ranks. “Snowmobiles, fast moving, profitable,” their advertisement read, “the snowmobile boom is underway… here is the opportunity to get in on this money-making fun market…to sell the nation’s hottest recreation machine.” Artic Cat, whose nearest sales room was Rochester, had to wait until 1970 before it would see an Adirondack shop.

In Part Three we’ll investigate the explosion in the snowmobile market in the Adirondacks, the organization of the area’s first clubs and races and their impact on the marketing and wider distribution of modern snowmobile.

Return to part one here. Read the entire series here.


Monday, October 1, 2007

Adirondack Snowmobile History, Part One

The snowmobile (or more generally, motorized snow travel) owes it existence to early developments in the motorized tractor, automobile, and motorcycle industries. In 1907, the year the future father of the modern snowmobile Joseph-Armand Bombardier was born, a “high speed motor sleigh” was featured in Popular Mechanics magazine. It had the body of touring car on skis but was propelled by a spiked wheel. “The motor sleigh is making slow progress,” the article’s author noted, “but will some day become a very popular form of sport.”

By 1912, a plethora of motorized sleigh prototypes appeared in the magazines pages. They included a half track, and a converted motorcycle. Among the most popular were those that used a large propeller for propulsion. Although dangerous and useful only on wide trails or open ground, the areo-sleighs avoided many of the problems spiked wheels and skis had with deep or wet snow. (As a side note, Adgate Schemerhorn of Ausable Chasm was rescued by an areo-sleigh after spending nearly two weeks in a snow-covered Idaho wilderness in 1943).

Ray Muscott of Michigan was issued a Canadian patent for his motor sleigh – “traineau automobile” in 1915 and the following year received the first American patent for an early snow vehicle design that included a tread belt and steerable skis mounted on a stock truck chassis.

Several others produced copies of a similar design, but the first snow vehicles that were produced in any numbers were Model A Fords converted by New Hampshire garage owner and auto dealer Virgil White. He started selling his “snow mobiles” to the general public in 1923 and sold some 25,000 before his factory burned in 1928. Although the new snowmobiles were used primarily for business – by mail carriers, doctors, logging and utility companies, farmers – as early as 1926 there was a race on a frozen Wisconsin lake attesting to the fun they could be put to. One of the first owners of a snow mobile in the Adirondack region was W.J. Dickinson, who was giving rides to his Willsboro neighbors as early as February, 1925.

In the 40 years from the birth of motor-sleighs until the advent of modern snowmobiles around 1960, snow vehicle design generally stuck to the large unwieldy halftrack type, and there were few of them. While there were more than 64,000 automobiles registered in New York in 1935, there were just 64 snow mobiles. Presumably several of these found homes in the Adirondacks – the New York State Conservation Department had some in the 1940s – but they were generally ignored by the local press. One notable exception was in 1932 when a snowmobile owned by the Gould Paper Company was sent in a blinding snowstorm to retrieve a lumberjack who had fallen from his sleigh while trying to get a runaway team of horses under control. Edward Hines, 65, was caught under the runners of the log filled sled and seriously wounded about 28 miles into the backcountry from McKeever. It took three hours to reach the lumber camp and another three to bring Hines into McKeever – unfortunately, he didn’t survive.

Another snowmobile milestone was met in 1938 when Olympic bobsledder J. Hubert Stevens, of the Whiteface Mountain Memorial Commission announced that he was “experimenting with a snowmobile with which to negotiate the mountain in winter.” According to press reports of the time, Stevens hoped to use the homemade snowmobile to carry sightseers and skiers to the top of the Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway during the winter. The Ticonderoga Sentinel described the vehicle:

The machine is minus wheels in front, large skis with eight inch blades being used instead. A tractor device gives it impetus… Stevens said that the machine will do 10 miles per hour in the accent and 35 miles coming down.

In January, after a few attempts to break the trail which made it up two of the eight miles to the top, Stevens abandoned the attempt and return to his workshop to make repairs. Figuring that the rear track was not wide enough he added eight inches to each side and headed back to the mountain three weeks later. This time, with local policeman Lester Beane onboard (the cab could hold eight) the made the top.

In Part Two we’ll explore the development of the snowmobile we know today and the role played by the burgeoning motorboat industry in bringing it to market.

Read the entire series here.