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Oregon Trails: Snow Go

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MEDFORD, Ore. – This is the season for snowy weather around our area, and thanks to the efforts of state, county and city crews, getting around is not as tough as it was a few generations ago. It’s also thanks to the creative genius of a couple Southern Oregon men that navigating on or off the road in the winter is even possible in many cases.

Almost every year, the U.S. Forest Service and BLM hire ODOT to bring their heavy-duty snow plows to the summit of bear camp road in the coast mountains of Southern Oregon. There they clear the sometimes 15 or 20 foot drifts that often block the road well into the month of May. At the same time, rotary plows are the workhorses for the National Park Service to clear the rim road of mountainous drifts at crater lake. It’s likely that those big snow blowers are the descendants of a machine built by a Southern Oregon man more than 80 years ago.

Medford resident Paul Wright was a mechanic at Crater Lake National Park in the 1920′s, and saw first hand the annual battle to blast and hand-shovel snow to clear the rim road every year. He thought, there must be a machine that could that job faster and cheaper. In July 1926, Wright obtained a patent for a rotary plow. Several prominent Medford businessmen signed on, bought stock and were given half interest in the Wright Snowplow Company.

Willamette Iron and Steel built a prototype, and on May 10th, 1927, the Wright plow made it’s debut near Union Creek. Park service officials liked what they saw, and ordered it to be used that summer to clear the record-deep snow blocking access to crater lake park. It was not self-propelled, so it took the park’s five ton bulldozer to push it through the snow. The road was finally cleared in time for a July 1st opening.

“It needed a bulldozer to push it, and the park services bulldozer wasn’t really powerful enough for the machine to work properly and there were just the little obstacles he was unable to overcome and it just never really became a commercial success,” Former SOHS Archivist Bill Alley.

Wright filed for bankruptcy in 1934 and no other Wright plows were ever built. While the Wright snowplow opened the door for the development of rotary plows like those used at Crater Lake and Mt. Hood today, it was another tinkerer, from Jump-off Joe Creek, who perfected the science of traveling over the snow and ice. As a young man growing up in Josephine County, Emit Tucker always had a knack for things mechanical. He spent his early years near trail and often had to walk through deep snow. Thinking there must be a better way, by the 1930′s he designed and built the tucker Sno-Sled.

It was powered by a two cylinder Indian motorcycle engine. The original is at the company’s Medford plant, along with other early machines. In the ’40′s tucker was making snow vehicles in California. But longing to get back to his roots, he moved the company to Medford. That’s where the tucker company still makes what is likely the best known tracked snow vehicle in the world.

“My grandfather wanted to build a quality machine. He wanted to be sure whoever was out in that machine went out and came back and being in the snow business, it’s very hazardous out there,” said Sno-Cat CEO, Marilee Tucker.

Tucker made it’s name with the 1957 trans-Antarctica expedition. The 10,000 mile trip tested the strength and durability of the machines from Medford, and ensured the Sno-Cat’s reputation for innovation and reliability. One of the antarctic explorers – nicknamed “Rock and Roll” – is at the Medford plant.

Today, most are diesel powered, built to order and shipped all over the world. The tucker company has also branched out into the farm equipment business. It’s web site describes the “Tucker Terra” as a machine designed for use in soft-soil situations where other equipment might sink or get stuck. They make two machines now for soft land farming situations.