First, there were horses

The U.S. began designating national parks shortly after the Civil War, when railroads were stretching west and supplementing revenues through tourism. A stagecoach line opened in 1883 to carry tourists to Yellowstone National Park from a railroad station, and not long after, buses became as much as icon of national parks as the bear or the buffalo.

In 1886, the line added a fleet of sight-seeing coaches. In 1916, the Yellowstone transportation concessionaire operated 700 coaches with about 2,000 horses.

“The mode of travel through the park has been a succession of coaching parties,” a New York Times story of the day stated. “The larger vehicles have been drawn by six, the smaller ones by four, strong horses, well fed, well groomed, high spirited, yet safe.”


It started with the Model T

Coach in Yellowstone. Undated.

The park service prohibited automobiles until 1915, when the first car, a Model T, was admitted to Yellowstone. Park superintendents found wildlife were startled less by puttering engines than by heavy wagons following herds of horses.

It also was proven that horses did not appreciate motor vehicles. For the 1917 season, the Yellowstone concessionaire was ordered to swap the horses for a fleet of buses.

“About the last place in the world where coaches are operating is in the Yellowstone National Park, but on June 20 these comfortable reminders of a less hectic period will be cast aside. In their place will be luxurious and speedy automobiles. Tourists have shown that they desire this type of transportation. Automobiles, by their greater speed, will be a convenience to tourists having but a short time at their disposal and also to those infirm in health, who have found the long stage rides fatiguing.”


Buses as icons

The White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, sold the first buses to Yellowstone and remained the preferred manufacturer for all national parks until World War II.

“White sold a tremendous amount of vehicles to the national parks,” said Bob Smith, a board advisor to the Museum of Bus Transportation in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “Mr. White got in with a couple of the fellows who were involved with the national parks. He built a special bus for sightseeing and touring. Everybody in the national parks bought a White 706.”

In 1917, White shipped 100 11-passenger buses and 17 seven-passenger touring cars, both with four-cylinder engines, to Yellowstone. The bus bodies were built with eight doors but those on the driver’s side were sealed with screws to keep passengers from disembarking into passing traffic.

A canvas top and removable bows could be deployed but passengers were carried in fresh air when possible. A dedicated trunk carried blankets for cold days.

In 1926, the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company operated 269 buses and 51 touring cars, including 23 built by Lincoln. Later, White buses carried six-cylinder engines and fixed tops that could be opened on dry days to allow passengers to stand. Between 1936 and 1939, White sold 500 buses to the parks.


After the war

Yosemitie bus vintage postcard

Visitation in national parks surged after WWII due to economic prosperity, widespread ownership of reliable automobiles and expanding national highways. More travelers fulfilled dreams of seeing national treasures by automobile, planting the seeds of the congestion clogging popular parks today.

It was buses that had made the parks accessible and desirable. In its 1917 article, the New York Times explained:

“Touring cars will carry visitors within the girdle of the park’s snow-capped peaks, hidden away in the Rocky Mountains, 8,000 feet above the level of the sea, while they look upon a constant series of stupendous sights—a blending of the beautiful and terrific, the strange and sublime.

“The new method of transportation will permit travelers to pass hurriedly by the less interesting places, spending more time where they most wish to be. It will be possible to go through the park in two days and, if a longer trip is undertaken, tourists may arrange to visit the remotest parts of the reservation which have been inaccessible to ordinary vehicles.”


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