These Throwback Red Buses are Almost As Popular as Glacier National Park itself!
By Shady Hartshorne
Jammer Joe adjusts his headset and sets the volume level on the speakers as we get settled into our seats. He is preparing to continue a tradition that stretches back more than 75 years: the Red Bus Tour of Glacier National Park.
These “retro” looking buses have been a signature icon of the park since, well, since before they were “retro” and the drivers – known as “jammers” because of the way they had to double-clutch the gears in the old days – have been almost as famous – or infamous – as the buses themselves.
Up until WWII, Jammers wore a uniform of shiny English riding boots, “winged” riding pants, light gray shirts, and blue ties. They were known for their expert driving skills, their entertaining banter and for their ability to “flutter the hearts” of female passengers.
Jammer Joe first came to Glacier 40 years ago on a sightseeing vacation and, like many visitors, he was overcome by the majestic beauty of the park and vowed to return someday.
His dream came true when he heard that Glacier Park Inc., the company that manages the fleet, was willing to hire “seniors” to drive the iconic buses that shuttle around 50,000 visitors per year along the spectacular Going to the Sun Road that crosses the continental divide and connects the park’s eastern side with the west.
After explaining his own history, Joe promises to give us “the whole load of hay,” that is the history of the park and some basic geology of the area, information about the local flora and fauna as well as some songs, cowboy poetry and a few groan-inducing jokes.
Some History of Glacier National Park
The dream of George Bird Grinnell, naturalist and editor of Field & Stream from 1896-1911, and Great Northern Railroad magnate Louis Hill, Glacier National Park was created in 1910, before the automobile had cast its spell on the American public.
Hill launched a PR campaign dubbed “See America First” attempting to convince the well-heeled US traveler to forego the long sea journey across the Atlantic because all the beauty and luxury of the Swiss Alps were accessible by train here in Montana’s rugged western mountains. Hill’s Great Northern Railway would deliver passengers right to the door of their grand lodgings from which they could explore the park by horseback or stagecoach.
The lodges built for the park are still there. Much like the buses, they’ve been updated a bit to handle the needs of most modern travelers, but they still maintain their rustic charm, right down to the exposed timbers with their original bark. The electrical systems are still somewhat behind the times, however, so you won’t find hair dryers or microwaves in your room.
You also won’t have televisions or internet service which may come as a shock to modern travelers, but you will see families playing cards or games together in the spacious common areas, retired couples reading by the fire, and guests mingling and sharing their experiences in the park, comparing notes on whitewater rafting trips, fishing expeditions or possible encounters with bears or other wildlife.
If the rustic lodges are not to your liking, there are also plenty of other options for RV parks, hotels, motels or backpacker housing for as low as $15 per night.
Going to the Sun Road
As the 20th century progressed, cars and buses became the preferred mode of transportation for visitors and the park’s management created the Going to the Sun Road in 1933 which was considered a miracle of engineering expertise.
Surveyors clung to sheer rock faces to map out the route, pack horses and sledges hauled tons of dynamite up the steep inclines and hauled boulders back down to be smashed into substrate for the new highway.
Bridges and support structures allowed the engineers to skirt the sides of mountain peaks and when that wasn’t feasible, tunnels were blasted right through. All along the way, pullouts were created so motorists could stop and enjoy the view while allowing other traffic to flow by.
The Arrival of the Reds
The next step was to purchase a fleet of buses to carry passengers along the road because those who tried to drive it themselves quickly found it a bit nerve-wracking to try to take in the scenery while simultaneously trying to navigate the tight turns and avoid a nasty drop.
But not just any bus would be suitable for “America’s Switzerland” so a design competition was held to determine which company would win the contract. The winner was the White Motor Company of Cleveland, OH with a design concocted in part by Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, a Russian-born sports car stylist who was a grand prize winner of the 1929 Monaco Concours d’Elegance.
Yellowstone National Park was already using White buses – in yellow, of course – but the Glacier buses were fitted out in red and black. Their most distinctive feature was the canvas convertible top that could be rolled back to allow the passengers to look up and appreciate the majesty of the park’s craggy peaks.
If you want to win an easy bar bet, you could ask how many of the original glaciers that carved out the U-shaped valleys of Glacier National Park are still in existence. A knowledgeable person might say 25. That’s the number of glaciers in the park today. But in fact the original glaciers all melted away many thousands of years ago.
The park’s current glaciers were formed in the Little Ice Age that occurred between 1550 and 1850. But these too are slowly melting away and may eventually lose the official designation of “glacier” which requires them to be a certain size and depth.
The End of the Line?
The Red Buses served as workhorses until an unfortunate overhaul in 1989 installed power steering in a way that put some extra strain on the front end. In 1999, according to the archives of the Glacier Park Foundation, one of the buses lost an axle – fortunately AFTER dropping off its load of passengers – and the Department of Transportation decreed that the fleet was no longer safe and had to be retired.
This created a crisis for the park’s management and they quickly bought new Dodge vans to replace the Reds. But the experience was not the same and passengers, drivers and residents of the area begged for the return of the original vehicles.
At this point, the Ford Motor Company stepped in and suggested that, though the old White wheel base didn’t match any of their chassis, they might be able to “stretch” one of their designs to fit.
While the cost of the refurbishing would be significantly less than building new replica buses, it was still a daunting factor, so a partnership was formed between the Ford Motor Co., the Glacier Park Foundation, the Glacier Fund and others to pay for the restoration.
The buses were shipped to a plant in Michigan where they were stripped down, fitted with the new chassis and a host of other high-tech improvements including: a lightweight aluminum “honeycomb” floor for extra strength, new seats, heaters, and a dual-fuel powertrain that can burn either gas or propane.
This last feature allows the buses to qualify as Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles and makes them run smoother and quieter.
With the return of the Reds in 2002, visitors can once again enjoy the wonder and beauty of Glacier National Park in style in what is considered by some to be the oldest fleet of touring buses anywhere in the world.
If you are planning on taking a Red Bus Tour, remember to bring a hat and sunscreen. On sunny days with the top down, you’ll be getting plenty of sun, but keep in mind that Montana’s mountain weather can change quickly, so you should also pack something warm just in case.
Also remember that entrance fees to the park and your driver’s gratuity are not included in the package price. Tours range from 2.5 hours to 9.5 hours and cover a wide variety of routes. You should note that the buses are not wheelchair-accessible. Glacier Park, Inc. offers fully narrated tours in alternative vehicles for people with disabilities.
There is also a free shuttle system operated by the National Park Service that runs every 15-30 minutes and makes 15 stops along the Going to the Sun Road.
For a tour with a Native American perspective, you can ride with Sun Tours, owned and operated by Ed DeRosier, a member of the Blackfeet tribe.
They will explain the significance of the natural features, animal and plant life in the world of the native peoples both historically and in modern times.
On your trip, you might notice brightly colored scarves tied to tree branches in the woods lining the road. Blackfeet Indians hang their scarves in the trees when they have completed a sweat-lodge ceremony as a rite of passage.
The Red Buses aren’t the only historic vehicles available for tours in Glacier National Park. Glacier Park Boat Co. maintains a small fleet of wooden boats built in the 1920s by J.W. Swanson that ply the waters of Two Medicine, Many Glacier, St. Mary’s and Lake McDonald.
Some hikers use these boats as a shortcut to the backcountry. Others prefer to sit back and enjoy the views of mountains reflected in the clear blue water. Short, easy-paced guided hikes are also available as well as canoe or kayak rentals for those who prefer to do their own paddling.
If flat water doesn’t “float your boat” you can try out some of the Class III or Class IV rapids with one of the area’s whitewater rafting guide companies. Naturally, in Montana, there’s going to be fly-fishing and there are a number of outfitters that can teach you the art of casting and get you acquainted with the various species of trout – both native and non-native – in the area. For something different, you can sample some Glacier Dew or North Fork Rye at the Glacier Distilling Company in Coram.
Whatever your preference, be sure to take advantage of the huge amount of information available at web sites like Montana Tourism, Glacier Park, Inc., Glacier Country, and others.
There’s an interesting footnote to the story of the Red Bus’ return to Glacier National Park. According to Amy B. Vanderbilt’s “On the Road Again” – a giant party was planned for June 2002 with speeches by dignitaries and testimonials from Jammer alumni.
The Tropical Montana Marimba Ensemble was even booked to entertain the party. Unfortunately, a surprise June snowstorm dropped several feet of snow on the area and the party had to be postponed.
As Jammer Joe likes to say, “You learn one thing in Glacier National Park – Mother Nature rules.”
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