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Dr. Henry Wheeler’s Snow Yacht


In the bleak midwinter, North Dakotans have often looked to outdoor sports like bobsledding, skating and skiing for invigorating recreation. Long before the invention of snowmobiles, Dr. Henry Wheeler of Grand Forks sailed across the frozen landscapes west in an exhilarating sport called snow yachting.

On this date in 1886, the Grand Forks Herald reported that Dr. Wheeler’s snow yacht was almost ready for sailing in the winds of the season’s first blizzard. Wheeler’s snow yacht was very large – thirty-two feet long and fourteen feet wide. Its mast stood twenty feet tall, supporting two triangular canvas sails.

The idea of snow yachting came from the Hudson River Valley in New York, where ice yachts zipped over the river ice at speeds up to eighty miles an hour. The yachts were set up with razor sharp runners similar to the blades of ice skates.

On the Dakota prairies, Wheeler’s yacht had eight-inch wide toboggan-like runners, much like the logging sleighs in Minnesota’s north woods. The broad runners could glide smoothly over the snow.

Dr. Wheeler found that his yacht could scoot across “a firm crust of snow” on the glazed prairies at speeds from ten to forty miles per hour.

A three-man crew piloted the craft, encountering few obstacles – for in those years there were “miles and miles of country land” without a fence. The snow yacht easily avoided the occasional telegraph pole or clumps of trees.

Other North Dakotans also enjoyed the snow yachting thrills of the 1880s. The town of Larimore boasted of four or five snow yachts. Mr. V.M. Kenney had a lighting fast snow boat nicknamed “Elk” that reportedly traveled at speeds of forty or fifty miles an hour.

“A sail over a Dakota prairie in midwinter,” exulted a Grand Forks Herald reporter, “causes the blood to flow quickly through the veins, bringing a bright tinge to the cheek of sailor and passenger” alike in this “fascinating sport.” The yachts could glide “with equal ease” over “snow banks five or six feet deep” or “along smooth paths” of light snow.

Dr. Henry Wheeler claimed that snow yachts were responsible for saving the lives of several travelers who had lost their way in wintry Dakota Territory or were “overcome by the cold and snow,” because the snow yacht commanders were not afraid of braving the wildest of Dakota blizzards. Whether true or not, Wheeler’s boasts of snow-yachting rescues created a legend of brave-hearted souls who could sail across Dakota at speeds that exceeded those of the fastest express trains of the 1880s.

Today’s Dakota Datebook has been written by Dr. Steve Hoffbeck, History Department, MSU Moorhead.