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On the road again in Glacier

Famed Red Buses return to national park

The Red Buses are back in business in Glacier National Park.
The Red Buses are back in business in Glacier National Park.  

By Eleni Berger

(CNN) -- The main road through Glacier National Park in Montana is a dilly -- 50 miles of asphalt snaking along the sheer cliffs and hairpin curves of the Continental Divide. Not exactly easy driving for a tourist eager to take in the scenery.

But nervous navigators don't have to stay away. In fact, they can take in a slice of Americana with the view.

Glacier has brought back one of the park's most beloved symbols: the Red Bus fleet. The open-top vehicles had been out of commission for three years.

Introduced to the park in the 1930s, the Red Buses quickly became a tourist attraction in their own right, known as much for the tour guides -- bus drivers called "jammers" for the way they jammed the vehicle's gears -- as for the tours.

"They were nice," said Dr. Robert Wise of Williamsburg, Virginia, who was a jammer in 1936 and 1937. "The canvas top came back and in those days (the passengers) could stand up and take movies or photographs. They had blankets because it could get very cold. It was just a great bus for sightseeing because most of the scenery is above. If you go in a car or van you miss so much."

See more pictures of the new and old Red Bus fleet 

The buses were a fixture of the Glacier experience for six decades, ferrying celebrities as well as ordinary sightseers through the park. Wise recalls visits by Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, even the Queen of the Netherlands.

Safety and environmental concerns

But by 1999, the Red Bus fleet was in serious need of rehabilitation, and the vehicles were taken off the road.

"It was definitely a safety issue," said Mike Bento, senior vice president for marketing and communications with the National Park Foundation. "The frames were cracking and 60 years of patch-and-repair just hadn't kept them all going."

Environmental factors were also a consideration, since the gasoline-powered vehicles "were not particularly clean," he added.

The news was a blow to many who had come to view the fleet as an integral part of the park experience.

"People really believed that was the end," Bento said. "They mourned it as the end of an era."

That's when Ford Motor Company stepped in.

"People at Ford heard the buses were taken off the road and out of use because they were literally falling apart and unsafe," said Sara Tatchio, Ford's spokeswoman for environmental vehicles. "We thought this was an excellent way to give back to the park."

Ford participates in the Proud Partners of America's National Parks Campaign, a program which harnesses corporate resources to enhance national parks throughout the country.

Preserving history

Over a period of 18 months, Ford has painstakingly refurbished the 33 buses in the fleet, adding modern safety features and new propane- and gas-burning engines that Ford says make the vehicles 93-percent cleaner than they were before.

But Tatchio said the company also tried to preserve the historical integrity of the vehicles by keeping as much of the originals as possible.

Visitors enjoy a ride in a Red Bus in 1938.
Visitors enjoy a ride in a Red Bus in 1938.  

So even though the bus chassis and engines are new, the original bodies have been repaired. And while the windows now are made of safety glass, they maintain their original size and shape. That was no small feat, Tatchio said, since the original windows were hand-cut and thus all slightly different sizes.

"The opportunity that Ford seized on," Bento said, "was how can we make (the buses) safe, how can we make them cleaner than they've ever been, and how can we save this really terrific experience that has meant so much to people literally for generations."

When word of the rehabilitation effort leaked out, he said, "there was a lot of excitement." The jammers set up a Web site, and local media reported bus sightings. The excitement was just as great when the first refurbished bus was brought back into service in June.

Since the fleet's return, Bento said the park has received "tremendous positive visitor comments."

"The reasons that (the buses) were introduced not only still exist today, but they are even more important," Bento said. "The problem in national parks isn't too many people, it's too many cars," so transportation that enhances the park experience is more important than ever.


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