Auto Stages in Yellowstone
Yellow Buses & the White Motor Co.
Copyright 2020 by Robert V. Goss. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by an information storage and retrieval system without permission in writing from the author.
Yellowstone Park Transportation Co.
Automobiles take over the Roads
Before the Auto Stages - The Early Days . . .
Prior to the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, travel in the park was limited to small horse parties and mule pack outfits. Up until 1883 these folks were generally on their own in this wilderness, perhaps guided by or having taken the advice of an acquaintance that had traveled there previously. The earliest commercial transportation venture in the Park seems to be the log toll bridge built by Jack Baronett in 1871 just upstream of the confluence of the Yellowstone and Lamar (East Fork of the Yellowstone) rivers, near what is today known as Tower Junction. He had hoped to seize upon traffic to the gold mines near the northeast entrance of the park and the occasional explorers and hunters in Yellowstone. Following along the shores of the Yellowstone River was the easiest route of travel in those early days.
Baronett's Bridge in 1871,
photo by Wm. Henry Jackson
In 1873, John Werks, George Huston, and Frank Grounds embarked on the operation of a primitive pack and saddle business from Mammoth Hot Springs into the depths of the park. A year later stagecoach service to Mammoth from Bozeman, Montana commenced on a weekly basis by Zack Roots Express. Park Supt. Philetus Norris and his crew began construction of a primitive road in 1878 from Mammoth to Lower Geyser Basin. In a couple of years sections of the interior of Yellowstone opened to wagon travel and allowed Marshall & Goff to initiate a stagecoach business in 1880 to the Geyser Basins and Marshall’s Hotel. Continued expansion and improvement of the road system over the years enabled a variety of transportation operations to improve and diversify.
Above: Ad for Frank Grounds and George Huston's pack train that trekked into Yellowstone from Mammoth Hot Springs.
[Bozeman Avant-Courier, 11Jun1875]
Right: Ad for George Marshall's Stage Line for travel between Virginia City, Mont. and the Fire Hole Basin, 1881.
[Robert Strahorn, Montana and Yellowstone Park, 1881]
During the next 36 years numerous companies operated stagecoach lines, including Wakefield & Hoffman in 1883, Monida & Yellowstone Stage Co. in 1898, Yellowstone & Western in 1913, and Holm Transportation Co. in 1912. In 1886 the Yellowstone Transportation Co. (YTC) became the first of the successive companies that led to the current transportation operation in the park. It was followed by the Yellowstone National Park Transportation Co. (YNPTCo) in 1891, which was taken over in 1898 by the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company (YPTCo) under the ownership of H.W. Child, Silas Huntley and Edward Bach. By 1902 Huntley had passed away and Bach sold out, leaving Harry Child as the sole owner of the company, although heavily backed financially by the Northern Pacific Railroad. A variety of camping companies also operated their own stage and wagon operations for their customers, including the Wylie Camping Co., Shaw & Powell Camping Co., Bassett Brothers and many others. (See my Stagecoach & Camping pages for detailed info on these various operations)
This plethora of transportation options came to an abrupt termination with the close of the 1916 season. In an effort to streamline and standardize the concession operations in the park, the new National Park Service consolidated the various transportation, hotel, and camping entities. The big winner in the transportation arena was Harry Child, who became sole provider of transportation within the park’s boundaries. And as owner of the Yellowstone Park Hotel Co. he also obtained monopoly status on all hotel ventures. Of even greater significance in this huge upheaval was the requirement to eliminate the stagecoaches and replace them with automobiles. Gone were the mighty steeds of yore, unceremoniously turned out to pasture and replaced with the noisy, smoking, gas-guzzling, although admittedly faster and more efficient auto stages. A new era was launched in Yellowstone.
Cody-Sylvan Pass Motor Company . . .
Prior to this shakeup, private automobiles had been allowed into the park in August of 1915 and they had shared the roads with the stagecoaches. The mixture of the two foreign modes of travel proved incompatible and provoked the eventual transition to automobiles. By the end of the 1915 season the Holm Transportation Company had gone bankrupt, leaving no service provider from Cody and the east entrance into Yellowstone. To alleviate this situation, the Park Service authorized the creation of the Cody-Sylvan Pass Motor Co. for the 1916 season. This company became the first commercial motorized transportation concern allowed into the park and it journeyed from the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad depot in Cody to Lake Hotel where passengers were loaded onto YPTCo stagecoaches for travel into the interior of the park.
Left: 1916 Letterhead from the Cody-Sylvan Pass Motor Co. Courtesy Bruce Austin, it lists the officers involved in the company.
Above: Kid Wilson in from of the Irma Hotel in Cody, driving a 1916 White TEB for the Cody-Sylvan Pass Motor Co..
This was a cooperative venture with Frank Haynes of the Yellowstone & Western Stage Co. owning 40% of the shares and Harry Child and Billy Nichols of YPTCo controlling 35%. A.W. Miles of the Wylie Permanent Camping Co. and J.D. Powell and Leo C. Shaw of the Shaw & Powell Camping Co. shared 25%. This new company was incorporated April 4, 1916 in West Virginia to avoid higher taxes in Wyoming and a lease was received on June 16 for the period January 1, 1916 to December 31, 1916. Daily service began on July 1, a late start in the season to allow the snow to melt on lofty Sylvan Pass. Seven 3-4 ton White Motor Co. buses with open bodies and five Buicks were brought into service. After the end of the season, the vehicles and assets were sold to YPTCo on January 29, 1917 for $25,000.
Click Here to read New York Times article about the passing of the stagecoach, from April 29, 1917.
White Motor Company Buses in Yellowstone . . .
In 1916 Harry Child began negotiations with Walter C. White of the White Motor Co. in Cleveland OH for the purchase of motorized vehicles to supplant the stagecoaches for the 1917 season. After negotiating a new 20-year contract with the Park Service, Child obtained a mortgage for $427,104.67 from the railroad companies serving Yellowstone and purchased one hundred ¾-ton 10-passenger White TEB open-sided buses and seventeen White 7-passenger touring cars. He also contracted for seven ¾-ton service trucks and one 4-5 ton truck. The TEBs featured acetylene gas headlights powered by a canister mounted on the running board, front and rear kerosene running lights, a canvas top with detachable bows at each seat, along with side curtains and celluloid windows for use during inclement weather. General practice specified the open top when practical.
Above: Model TEB bus filled with Yellowstone tourists in 1917. 108 of these models were puchased between 1907 and 1923. The windshields were two piece, top & bottom.
Above: News article from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, April 15, 1917. It discussed the White Motor Co. buses and the replacement of stagecoach era that had lasted 30 years.
Above: White 7-Passenger Touring Cars at Mammoth Hot Springs, undated photo.
The new vehicles were stored at Mammoth Hot Springs (current Xanterra Aspen dorm site) in an elaborate barn built in 1903-04 that was designed by Old Faithful Inn architect Robert Reamer and originally used for the stagecoaches. For his transportation superintendent, Child hired Fred E. Kammermeyer, a native of Iowa and military transport officer during WWI. Kammermeyer proved to be an excellent choice and remained in that position until his retirement in 1948.
Left: "Tires in use two seasons. Average mileage so far 8000. Blowouts to date 6. No wonder they use Goodyears only on Yellowstone Park busses." View of the transportation facilities at Mammoth Hot Springs.
[Goodyear Tires post card ca1924]
According to the Anaconda Standard on March 9, 1917, the new auto-stage would be:
“Leaving the factory at Cleveland May 10, 100 motorcars for use in the transportation of tourists in the Yellowstone park will travel west by special train, and after being- exhibited fn Chicago, Milwaukee, Indianapolis and the Twin cities, will arrive here in time for the opening of the park on June 20, The equipment
is being purchased by the Yellowstone Park Transportation company of this city, recently formed through a merger of the principal camping companies which have been operating in the park, and will replace the horses
and stage coaches heretofore used.”
Between 1918 and 1924, Child purchased forty-seven additional White 7-passenger touring cars, two 8-passenger cars, 104 ten-passenger buses, along with a few Lincoln touring cars. Beginning in 1920 YPTCo began purchasing White Model 15/45 tour buses. These 10-passenger units sported a split windshield right and left, with twin openings top and bottom – a key distinguishing feature from the TEBs, which had a full windshield, split top and bottom. The 15/45s also had a slightly longer wheelbase and improved chassis and motor. Twenty-four units arrived in 1920, twenty each in 1921 and 1922, and sixty in 1924.
Right: White model 15/45 buses in front of the Mammoth Hotel ca1920. Note the split windshield top-bottom and right-left
White Model 50 bus in front of the Mammoth Hotel ca1923. [YNP Archives]
In 1923 the YPTCo purchased two White Model 50 buses that were used to transfer passengers from West Yellowstone to Old Faithful. There were six side doors opening onto seven benches to seat 25 passengers plus the driver. The Bender body had a 198” wheelbase with a 4-cylinder GN motor. The roof was solid and luggage could be stored on the roof rack. They had electric lights and utilized 36” x 6” tires all around, with duals on the rear and 198" wheelbase. Previous modelsutilized acetylene gas lights.
Disaster Strikes the Yellow Buses in 1925 . . .
All seemed to running smoothly and life was good, when suddenly – an unspeakable disaster occurred:
On March 30, 1925, around 2:15 in the afternoon, fire broke out in the Mammoth main bus barn. Apparently an oil furnace exploded sending fiery debris all over the shop. With a swift breeze from the south, the fire spread quickly and furiously - within an hour, the entire Reamer-designed barn was a total loss. Included in the damage were the carpenter and paint shops, the top shop, oil house, new storage shed and the residences of Fred Kammermeyer and J.C. Drew, the master painter. Fortunately another garage containing 215 vehicles was saved. However, inside of the main storage barn lay the smoldering ruins of about 93 vehicles, including 22 7-passenger White touring cars, 53 10-passenger White buses, 6 White trucks, 4 Ford roadsters, and 8 other vehicles, 4 of which belonged to the YP Camps Co. Luckily there were no fatalities or serious injuries. Damages were estimated to be close to a half million dollars.
Left: 1925 Fire at Mammoth
[Courtesy Bill Chapman]
Right: 1925 Fire at Mammoth
[Courtesy Bill Chapman]
Bottom Left: Aftermath of 1925 fire at Mammoth
Bottom Right: Aftermath of 1925 fire at Mammoth
But now – what to do? The opening of the summer season would arrive in a mere 2-1/2 months – the vehicles had to be replaced! Harry Child quickly got in touch with Walter White of the White Motor Company. Negotiations were soon finalized for the purchase of ninety model 15/45 buses, along with five 2-1/2-ton trucks and two 4-5 ton trucks. Because of the tremendous business potential involved, the White company scrambled together all their resources and focused their production on Yellowstone Park. They were successful and the new vehicles arrived in time for the opening of the 1925 season.
Coincidently, YPTCo had been constructing larger and more modern garage facilities in Gardiner. Although originally scheduled to open in the fall, this project too was rushed to completion in time for the June opening. This new facility included modern mechanics stalls, body and upholstery shops, carpenter shop, blacksmith shop, tire and battery shop, paint shop, and a coal-fired heating plant. The building is still in use and accommodates Xanterra Parks & Resorts Transportation and Human Resource divisions.
Above: Magazine ad from 1924 showing a new White Model 15-45 in front of Old Faithful geyser. At right are Harry Child and Walter White. After the fire the following year, Walter White came to the rescue with 90 replacement buses.
Above: View of the bus garage in Gardiner with White Motor Co. buses in front, undated. The building is still used by Xanterra Parks & Resorts for the vehicle repair shop & human resources.
Above: View of the bus storage barn in Gardiner, located where the former horse & carriage barns stood. This was built around 1926. It is still in use by Xanterra Parks & Resorts.
[YNP #32072, 1951 photo]
A New Era is launched . . .
Visitors entering and leaving Yellowstone via the Cody Road through Wapiti Valley and Sylvan Pass gained significant touring comfort in 1931 when YPTCo introduced eight new White Model 614 buses. These 14-passenger units featured permanent tops, glass side windows, and an opening roof cover so that guests could stand up to enjoy the heights of scenery offered on this scenic thoroughfare. They also provided better protection from the frequent storms and inclement weather. The buses had a more powerful 75hp engine to facilitate climbing the pass and hydraulic brakes provided increased safety.
Left: Photo of Harry W. Child, undated
Right: Obit for Harry Child
[Billings Gazette, 5Feb1931]
Left: White Motor Co. Model 614 bus at the Upper Geyser Basin, undated. There were 8 of these models purchased in 1931.
Right: White Model 614 bus in Yellowstone, undated.
Yellowstone Bus Draws Attention
The Missoulian, Sept. 17, 1930
The new bus Is designed to replace those now in use which are constructed after the pattern of touring cars with seating space for 11 passengers. The more modern design gives the bus the stability and comfort of a sedan while retaining visibility by eliminating
the permanent covering customary in the construction of a sedan. The sides of the sedan top are supported by especially designed and upholstered beams made of light and strong metal. With six of these stays across the top join the sides. Another departure from the usual design is the omission of the ceiling. In case of storm the bus can be covered from an automatic roll which is made a part of the baggage section. The covering can be placed in less than three minutes.
By the mid-1930s, the Yellowstone buses were aging and it was decided that modernizing the fleet with buses utilizing more powerful engines and greater passenger capacity was necessary. Transportation operations in the other western national parks were facing the same problems and coming to the same conclusion. In response, representatives of those parks got together and began searching for a bus that would meet the needs of the rigors of travel in the mountainous west. Negotiations began with the major auto makers in 1935 and trials were conducted in Yosemite of various models. Participants included Ford, REO, GM, and White.
The model that best seemed to meet their current needs was White Motor Company’s Model 706. The proposed 14-passenger bus featured two squared-glass windshields, lantern-style rear running lights, 13A engine, and measured about 26 feet long. A canvas cover on the roof could be pulled back to allow for an open top and unobstructed views. Yellowstone acquired twenty-seven of these models for the 1936 season. Similar models became the norm in other western parks, including Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Zion, Mt. Rainier, and Rocky Mountain national parks. Content with the 706’s performance, YPCo purchased forty-one more in 1937 and twenty in 1938 which included improved 318 cubic inch 6-cylinder engines. A final purchase of ten more was made in 1939, bringing the total to ninety-eight Model 706 buses – more than any other national park.
This is one of the new busses to be used In Yellowstone park, designed by the White company and park officials especially for use In Yellowstone. The new busses carry 14 passengers and the driver, and have an exceptionally large baggage compartment in the rear.
Yellowstone's new busses ride more comfortably than any of those previously used, and a particular feature of them is that they have roll tops which, under ordinary weather conditions, are rolled back Into a compartment In the top of each bus. This gives passengers an unlimited view, and many times during a trip, they may stand up and look out over the top of the bus, particularly when passing through the numerous park canyons. During inclement weather this top Is rolled forward and makes the bus as tight and warm as an ordinary commercial unit.
The new park busses perform equally well In all altitudes, officials say. They have to operate In altitudes of 5,300 foot at Gardiner, 10;200 feet over Mount Washburn and 11,000 over the summit of the road between Red Lodge and Cooke City. [Helena Daily Independent, June 17, 1937. Note: the paper was a year late in announcing this, as 27 buses had already been purchased in 1936.
White Model 706, No. 386, purchased in 1936. This is a Real-Photo postcard. After guests unloaded from the train at West Yellowstone, a photo was taken of their bus that could be purchased upon their return. There are many thousands of the these type of cards available on internet auction sites.
White Model 706 buses parked at Tower Falls in 1939.
White Model 706, No. 457, purchased in 1939. This was the 4th to the last 706 bus purchased in Yellowstone. Park Superintendent Garrison is standing at right of the bus filled with Park Service and concessionaire officials.
White Model 706 buses parked at the Gorham Chalet in Silver Gate, a few miles from Cooke City, Mont. They would been traveling the route over the Beartooth Pass and Red Lodge, south of Billings Mont.
End of an Era . . .
Sales of the older White buses began in earnest in 1936 and by 1940 seventy-eight 10-passenger buses and fourteen 15/45 models were sold. In the spring of 1938, a document from the Yellowstone Park Co. files indicated that the company had 200 White open-top autos that would be available for sale, plus two 25-passenger buses and ten 7-passenger Lincoln touring cars. The company was focusing on using the newer White 706 models. A $20,000 inventory of spare parts would accompany a mass purchase from a buyer.
Times were a’changin’ in the world and in the park. WWII and the attendant gas rationing and tire shortages had put a huge dent in travel to the national parks, while the military became a prime user of rail services throughout the country. After the war the American public rapidly became infatuated with the idea of personalized travel in private vehicles, a trend that had been building for a number of years. Rail travel, once the primary source for Yellowstone’s bus tours, was rapidly fading into obscurity. Park bus tours, originally 5-1/2 days in the stagecoach days, had dropped to 4-1/2 days with the advent of auto tours and by 1940 had been reduced to 2-1/2 days.
The days of quaint, leisurely tours through the park were becoming a thing of the past. The demise of passenger rail service to the park started around 1948 and ended completely by 1960. Although Amtrak reinstituted some rail service in 1971, it was never became a significant travel factor in Yellowstone. With all these changes the fleet of hundreds of historic vehicles to cart visitors around the park was no longer needed. Changes in travel of a magnitude similar to that of the transition from horse-drawn stagecoaches to autos would assault the park late in the 1950s. Private vehicles became king of the road and the future for guided tours in park buses dimmed rapidly. The prospect of large, modern-looking and seriously unaesthetic buses for the remaining traffic loomed on the horizon.
Roads and parking area filled to the brim with automobiles tourists, eventually helping to put the railroad passenger lines mostly out of business.
Left to Right: Cars lined up to see Giant Geyser, 1952 YNP #38969; Canyon Village, ca1957 postcard; Bear jam at unknown location, NPS photo.
These were difficult times for YPCo and the economic strain of the economy, added to park facility renovations demanded by the Park Service, heavily affected the company’s transportation options. Leasing school buses was apparently seen as the most cost effective plan to upgrade the fleet. The quaint ambiance and serenity of group travel in small buses would be no more. The beginning of a new era occurred in 1958, when YPCo signed a 5-year contract to lease six 41-passenger school buses from the Charter Bus Transportation System in Los Angeles. School buses for the L.A. City School System would spend their formerly idle summers now idling and smoking along the mountain roads of Yellowstone. These were Crown model A-779-11S with a 232” wheelbase and powered with a Hall-Scott 779 cubic inch engine. Fifteen more units were leased in 1959 while more of the classic old White buses unceremoniously hit the auction blocks.
Crown Model A-779-11, bus No.506, ca1959. It had returned from the LA School District and the "school bus" lettering was being covered over for summer use in Yellowstone.
[Photo Motor Coach Today, Apr-Jun 2000]
Motor Coach Industries bus Model MC-5B, ca1990. It is parked in front of the Gardiner Service Center.
This trend toward larger and modern vehicles persisted with GM Model 5302 buses hitting the roads in 1965 and Crown diesel Model AD-743-11’s entering the scene soon after. In 1975 YPCo settled on fifteen MC-5B buses from Motor Coach Industries (MCI) with 8V-71 diesel engines. Eight of these carried forty-one passengers and featured a restroom. The remaining buses could hold about forty-five passengers. The following year ten more buses were acquired. A mere ten years or so later, TW Recreational Services (TWRS) ended the somewhat profitable out-of-park charter runs under pressure from the park service, thus reducing the need for much of the MC-5B bus fleet. Sales of the buses commenced and by 1999 only nine of the original twenty-five remained, and in 2019 more of the buses were sold off.. According to transportation manager Kelly McAdams, in 2020 only one MC-5B was left in the fleet. But three newer MCI buses were purchased around 2017, made by MCI, Model No. D4005, 47-passenger
Engine: Cummins X12 w/engine brake, 410hp, 1,450 lb-ft torque
Transmission: Allison B500 Gen V
Front Axle: Meritor® 16,000 lb (7,257 kg) with conventional bearings
Drive Axle: Meritor® 22,500 lb (10,206 kg) with pre-set wheel bearings
Tag Axle: D4505: Meritor® 14,000 lb (6,350 kg) with conventional bearings
D4005: Meritor® 10,000 lb (4,536 kg) with conventional bearings
Seating w/lav: D4505: 55-passengers
Wheels: Hub-mounted steel, 22.5 x 9.0
Tires: Firestone FS400 315/80 R22.5 9.00" L-rated
Photo courtesy Kevinsbusrail.com, 7/2017
Above L-R: Nickel plated drivers badge, ca1930s; YPTCo luggage Tag, unk date; YPCo uniform patch, ca1970s.
Below - Metal Pinbacks, L-R: Pin with twp bears, probably YPTCo; YPTCo pin; YPCo pin, Transportation Division; YPCo pin, could be hotel, transportation or both, ca1960-70s
Return of the Yellows Buses - 2007
While all of these changes were going on, Steve & Gayla Hites, of the Skagway Street Car Company in Alaska, had managed to acquire eight of Yellowstone’s 1936-38 Model 706 White buses from various collectors across the country. He put them back to work as tour buses in the quaint panhandle town of Skagway, located about 90 miles northwest of Juneau. In 2001 Hite decided to modernize his fleet and offered his old Yellowstone buses for sale. He contacted Xanterra Parks & Resorts (latest in the lineage of names changes from YPTCo to YPCo to TWRS to Amfac) and current operator of the hotels and transportation system in Yellowstone.
The original bus numbers with the current Xanterra bus numbers,
and their Skagway names are:
1936 Models: 372 (516) Cripple Creek
377 (510) Yellowstone
1937 Models: 404 (514) Little Rocky
408 (511) Hollywood
413 (512) Great Falls
419 (517) Monty (Full Monty when loaded)
434 (513) Big Rocky
1938 Model: 450 (515) Mason City
Some of the Skagway Street Car Co.White buses upon their return to Gardiner Spring 2007. They were awaiting renovations.
[Photo by the author]
Looking to capitalize on an opportunity to restore the yellow buses to Yellowstone and score a historical, political and hopefully economic coup, Xanterra decided to purchase the eight buses. Sometime after their arrival in late September 2001, the buses were contracted to Transglobal Design and Manufacturing (TDM) in Livonia, Michigan for complete renovations. Each bus was carefully removed from their original chassis and placed on a Ford E-450 chassis with a Ford 5.4 liter gas engine. TDM refurbished the interior seats and oak trim throughout the vehicle. They replaced the old canvas tops with more modern materials and installed a public address system for guides to narrate the tour. Other upgrades included heaters under the seats and boxes with warm lap blankets, so that even on brisk Yellowstone days, passengers could comfortably see the beauty of the park through the open top. Rotten wood in the body was replaced and wood floors were replaced with aluminum for better insulation. Years worth of paint were stripped to reveal the original yellow paint and find its match using modern paint-mixing techniques. The eight buses cost a total of $1.9 million to purchase and refurbish.
Return of the Yellow buses. A parade was held June 2, 2007, that passed through Gardiner, the Arch, and on to Mammoth Hot Springs. they ply the roads every summer now, thrilling crowds of excited tourists yearning for the old days.
[Photos by the author]
Below: Refurbished 706 bus at Castle geyser, ca2000s.
Courtesy Xanterra Parks & Resorts
For more detailed information on Yellowstone's White busses, refer to:
"Buses in Yellowstone National Park", Motor Coach Today, Apr-Jun 2000, by Bruce Austin, Robert Goss, & Jerry Pesman.
Reprints available from the Motor Coach Society website.
Also, please visit these other fine Yellowstone Yellow Bus organizations:
Buses of Yellowstone Preservation Trust