Spy Hill Snowplane Start of Prairie Legend
By Noelle Grosse
Seventy years ago, Karl Lorch took his first "snowplane" for a spin
around Spy Hill, Sask. and created a Canadian legend
His propeller-driven sleds helped conquer winter isolation in rural Canada until they became obsolete when all-weather roads appeared in the 1950s. Today, Lorch snowplanes have almost vanished from the Canadian Prairies save for a few parts scattered around farmyards. That is why Wayne Lorch was delighted to find one of his father's snowplanes in Lampman, Sask.
"I bought it on the spot," says Lorch, who lives in Regina. "Everything was original except the motor was gone. It still had the Lorch sign on it." The discovery was pure coincidence. He was working in the area and happened to spot the plane in the back of a garage. In 1994, Lorch donated the machine to the Western Development Museum, where restoration work on the artifact is nearing completion.
The Lorch snowplane is a significant item in the WDM collection because it played such an important role in the development of Prairie transportation. Karl Lorch owned a garage in Spy Hill, Sask., 200 km east of Regina. He wanted to build a machine that would replace the horse and cutter during winter months. He secured a patent for the machines in 1935, and set up a manufacturing plant in Spy Hill. According to an account by the late Karl Lorch in The Lorch Snowplane Story, he used many of the innovations of airplanes at the time to build a lightweight machine. Lorch built the frames for his snowplanes out of welded aircraft tubing, and covered the cab of the planes in treated linen. Ford motors were originally used in the snowplanes, but in later years, snowplanes were equipped with 6-cylinder Lycoming aircraft engines. About 40 people from Spy Hill were employed making snowplanes, but it was also a job for the whole Lorch family. "
"I spent probably hundreds of hours after school, stitching and cutting tubing," says Wayne, who was only a boy when snowplanes achieved their height of popularity in the 1940s. "But I remember the excitement when we'd get one down to the street and we'd watch it drive away."
Lorch snowplanes were purchased by doctors, taxi drivers, government power and telephone companies, and the Canadian army. There was even an inquiry from the transportation department of the former Soviet Union. The snowplanes were popular because they could go through deeper snow than track machines like the Bombardiers. Karl Lorch opened a second factory in Wolford, North Dakota, where he manufactured snowplanes that could switch from skis to wheels in the summer.
With a good wind, the snowplane could reach up to 160 km per hour. Wayne Lorch remembers his father driving the planes on the highway from Wolford to Spy Hill. By the end of the 1950s, commercial demand for Lorch snowplanes had dwindled, and snowplaning became an activity done purely for pleasure. In 1983, Karl Lorch attended the unveiling of a cairn in his honour at Spy Hill, just a few years before his death.
"Alot of his employees who were scattered across the country went back for it," recalls Wayne. "Building snowplanes was unlike anything else they had ever worked on."
Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection
article was originally published as part of a newspaper articles written
by Noelle Grosse in celebration of the Western Development Museum's 50th
anniversary in 1999. The articles appeared as regular features over the
course of late 1998 and 1999 in the Saskatoon Sun,Yorkton This Week
and Enterprise, and as intermittent features in the Regina
Sun. In 2001, all 65 articles were gathered into a publication -
Museum Gold: Treasures from the Collection.
Museum Gold is available in WDM Gift Shops.
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