October 2007 Issue
Yellowstone National Park heralds the return of the historic Buses manufactured by Cleveland's White Motor Company.
As the grandes dames pass through the historic Roosevelt Arch at Yellowstone National Park, thunderous applause erupts and camera shutters click. The boxy yellow tour buses have returned to duty.
Seventy years ago, the eight 13-passenger motor vehicles began allowing tourists unparalleled access to the sights and sounds of America’s first national park before being replaced by more cushy coaches in the 1960s.
But, in keeping with the adage that everything old is new again, the fleet has made a comeback, unveiled to much fanfare this summer after a 40-year absence. It didn’t take long for tourists to eagerly cluster around the buses, eager to embrace the simpler era of the 1930s they represent –– leisurely days free of tailgating and road rage.
Outfitted with a retro-style dashboard, reupholstered seats, antilock brakes, automatic transmission, new windows and a spiffy paint job, the classy chassis were clearly ready for their close-up.
These “Old Yellow Buses” –– as park staffers have fondly dubbed them –– don’t have air conditioning, reclining seats or room for 50.
What they do have is a sense of history as towering as Old Faithful and an indelible link to Ohio’s past: They were manufactured by Cleveland’s White Motor Corp., an undisputed leader in the production of heavy-duty vehicles during the 1930s and ’40s.
“Ohioans have a right to be proud that this important piece of their state’s history lives on here,” says Yellowstone’s Todd Scott, director of support services and activities for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, which operates concessions, including transportation, at state and national parks throughout the country.
“It’s just amazing. Everybody wants to stop and take a picture of the buses. It’s such a wonderful experience and I think people truly are happy to see that they are back.”
White’s beginnings date back to 1857, when Massachusetts entrepreneur Thomas White began manufacturing small hand-operated, single-thread sewing machines. Seeking a central location near raw materials, White moved his company to Cleveland nine years later. As business boomed in the textile industry following the Civil War, his three sons decided to look for another market to tap. The burgeoning automotive industry led to the founding of the White Motor Car Co.
The trio ultimately found their niche by creating reliable, inexpensive and durable delivery vans, trucks and buses, explains Ed Pershey, vice president for museums and historic properties at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society.
“Back then in a large city like Cleveland, instead of having to care for and feed a horse if you’re running a grocery store, for instance, you can opt instead to use a delivery van that you can jump into and start up only when you need to,” Pershey says. “There’s a real cost savings there, so the Whites realized that was a market they should begin to tackle.”
Buses began rolling off the White assembly line and into Yellowstone in 1916, shepherding passengers between the railroad terminus in Cody, Wyoming, and the national park. It was no surprise, says Yellowstone interpretive specialist Leslie Quinn, that worlds collided when horses used to pull stagecoaches –– the primary means of transportation at that point –– encountered a motorized vehicle.
“It was a semi-disaster,” he explains. “Modern-day horses grow up with the sound of a car backfiring, but these had not. Needless to say, there were all kinds of wrecks, which led to the bus becoming the major method of transportation the following year.”
New and improved models came and went, sporting larger windshields, more seats and convertible tops. As Americans took to the road in their own cars following World War II, the demand for bus transportation began to decrease and the phasing out process began.
“They were not considered really cool antique buses back then,” Quinn says. “Any of us who has ever given up the ghost of an old car when it’s completely rusted out –– for me, it was a 1967 white VW beetle –– can understand why there weren’t many voices saying, ‘Do you realize what you are doing?’ They were just 20-year-old buses that were junk. The philosophy was, send them down the highway.”
And so they went. Eight, manufactured in 1936, 1937 and 1938, wound up in the Alaska panhandle town of Skagway, 90 miles northwest of Juneau. Steve Hites, owner of the Skagway Street Car Company, purchased them from collectors around the country to use as tour buses. Nicknames were assigned based on where they were found: Great Falls hails from Montana (the rancher who owned the bus had plans to convert it into a motor home, but abandoned the idea when the cost of gas went up in 1974); Big Rocky and Little Rocky were used for sightseeing in Colorado’s Estes Park; and Hollywood had a featured role in the 1986 film, “Big Trouble in Little China,” starring Kurt Russell. Monty (from Vermont), Cripple Creek (purchased from a casino in Colorado), Mason City (from Iowa) and Yellowstone were also along for the ride.
In 2001, Hites decided to modernize. He contacted Yellowstone to see if anyone was interested in purchasing the fleet.
The answer was a resounding yes, and a $2 million refurbishment commenced. Since their encore in June, the buses have been used to transport tourists to photo safaris, pre-dawn wildlife excursions, journeys to the Continental Divide and other trips.
White Motor ceased to exist in 1985. But at Yellowstone, an integral component of its legacy remains in full gear.
“I love her deeply,” says tour guide Mary McClung about Hollywood, the bus she frequently conducts her photography classes out of. “Whenever I’m behind the wheel, I feel a deep sense of tradition. She’s moody just like the rest of us. There are days when a window won’t roll up, and a door handle doesn’t want to work perfectly if it’s cold outside.
“But once she’s on the road, she’s ready to raise a rip-roar.”