Karl E. Lorch was a tinkering sort of guy. In fact, he was the
sort of tinkerer that Saskatchewan has spawned dozens of over the
years - a guy with a practical and inventive mind who saw a problem
and did something about it.
We Saskatchewanians love to complain about our highways, and many
of them are not as smooth as one would like. But at least they're
just about always passable.
Such was not the case when Karl was a young man living in the village
of Spy Hill just north of the Qu'Appelle Valley and only eight miles
from the Manitoba border. Roads were few and far between in Karl's
day, and those that did exist would be rendered virtually impassable
by rain or snow.
Karl never did solve the mud problem, but he thought there had
to be a way to beat snow. For his first attempt (in 1928), he and
his friend George Thorpe converted a Model T Ford into a funny looking
little buggy with skis on the front and a couple of tracked wheels
on the back. It could chug along if the snow was not too deep, but
it certainly was not the "answer" that Karl was looking for.
The airplane, still a novelty in the late 1920s, provided Karl
with his next inspiration. Why couldn't an airplane propeller, he
reasoned, be used to scoot a vehicle over snow? Not many people
had much faith in Karl's idea. Even his own father thought he was
nuts and insisted that any tinkering Karl did on his idea be cleared
out of the Spy Hill Garage before they opened for business the next
Saskatchewan Archives Board
Lorch with his
first 'snowplane', in 1929.
But Karl persisted. He built a sort of sled and attached a propeller,
driven by a Ford engine, to the rear. When he first started it up
next to the shop, it just sort of sat there and made a lot of noise.
His Dad smirked with an "I told you so!" look. Karl pushed the sled
away from the shop so that it got better air flow, and it started
to scoot down Main Street in Spy Hill!
The rest, as they say, is history. Karl pursued his links to the
world of flying machines and soon developed a design that was based
on the tubular steel construction favored by the aircraft manufacturers
of his time, along with the cloth sheathing that also graced airplanes
through the 1940s. He coined the word "snowplane" for his vehicles,
secured patents, and manufactured and sold them across northern
A couple of American rural mail carriers got interested in the
Lorch snowplane in the late 1930s. The result was that Karl linked
up with a garage owner in Wolford, North Dakota, and manufactured
his snowplane south of the border as well, until the United States'
entry into World War II in late 1941 made it too difficult to procure
parts and skilled labor.
Saskatchewan Archives Board
garage where Karl worked by day and tinkered by night.
Karl's American operation produced one significant innovation.
The Lorch snowplanes were particularly popular with rural mail carriers,
but our American friends are not used to snow the way we Canadians
are. So Karl developed a model that had both wheels and skis. If
there was snow, you used the skis, if not, you lowered the wheels.
In one interesting demonstration that resulted in several sales
during a visit to the U.S., Karl turned off the engine of the car
that was towing one of his snowplanes on a trailer, turned on the
snowplane engine, and used it to propel the car, the trailer and
the snowplane through the town!
But the expanded shop in Spy Hill continued to turn out Lorch
snowplanes. A tinsmith at Gerald manufactured the fuel tanks. Many
experiments were conducted to develop a propeller that was just
right for the snowplane. At length, Karl made them himself, developing
a process that involved soaking the wood, shaping it and adding
protective brass to the outer edges. The skis were also refined
over the years. The most sophisticated were made of oak and shaped
in a process similar to that used for the propellers.
The Lorch snowplane was very popular with rural doctors who needed
a reliable way of getting to their patients in winter. They were
also in demand with other public health professionals and the government
of Manitoba was Karl's best customer.
Barry, Saskatchewan place name expert
Eventually, though, the advent of all weather roads and better
snow removal equipment spelled doom for the snowplane. Karl Lorch
built about 500 of them over the years, but they passed into history
in 1963. A remarkable story just the same - an innovative Saskatchewanian
who met a problem head on - and solved it!
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