One of the more distinguishing features of Glacier National Park are its Red Buses. These 17-passenger tour buses were first introduced to Glacier Park in 1936 and today several tours make it possible for everyone to enjoy and experience this historic method of transportation.

Glacier National Park Early Transportation

James J. Hill, an industrialist who conceived and constructed the Great Northern Railroad in 1891, was very instrumental in developing interest in the mountainous region that we now call Glacier National Park. The Great Northern Railroad built their principle line from the Great Lakes Region to the Pacific Ocean in the 1890s. His son, Louis Hill, took over as president of his father’s railroad company in 1907.  In just 5 construction seasons after Glacier Park was designated a national park in 1910, Great Northern Railroad built 8 Swiss-style chalets and 2 luxury hotels in Glacier Park.

They ran their “See America First” promotion to lure the affluent people in the eastern part of the US to travel by rail and visit Glacier Park rather than going to Europe. They promoted Glacier Park as being the “America’s Alps”. These easterners would climb off the train in East Glacier where they were met by “Glacier Indians” (Blackfeet Indians) who guided them by coach to these extravagant chalets and luxury hotels. From there, they were taken on guided saddle-horse trips lasting weeks, traveling from chalet to chalet.

White Motor Company 1925 Red Bus model in Glacier National Park
White Motor Company 1925 Red Bus model in Glacier National Park

Early touring transportation in Glacier Park was by saddle horse or by horse drawn 11-passenger stagecoaches. As the roaring 20’s arrived, so did the use of motorized travel. In 1920, almost half of the visitors to Glacier Park arrived by automobile. Glacier Park touring vehicles also became motorized and the horse drawn stagecoaches were replaced with 1925 White Motor Company 7-passenger touring buses.

By 1930, 9 out of 10 visitors were arriving by automobile and rail travel to Glacier Park declined. The Going-To-The-Sun Road had been under construction since the early 1920’s. This created increasing interest in Glacier Park which equated to increased visitor numbers, and a greater need for more, and larger, touring buses was necessary.

The western national parks used a variety of styles and types of touring buses.  By the mid 1930’s, the National Park Service decided to standardize the touring buses used in these parks. Standards were set and the Park Service evaluated buses from several manufacturers – White Motor Company submitted the winning proposal.

Count Alexis de Sakhoffsky, a famous industrial stylist of the time, designed the Model 706 touring bus for White Motor Company – a 17-passenger bus. They were designed with a rollback canvas top – perfect for visitors to get full views of Glacier Park’s stunning mountains and vertical scenery. In addition to the 2 front seats, the buses were designed with 4 rows of seats, each row with it’s own door for easy passenger access. All the side windows could roll down – intended for enjoying the fresh mountain air and clearer visibility.

Glacier National Park Red Buses

Over 500 hundred White Model 706 buses were manufactured for the western parks (Bryce Canyon, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Mt Rainier, Yosemite, and Zion). Each park made minor configuration changes to the buses for their parks as well as adopting their own color scheme. Glacier National Park adopted a red and black color scheme – the red color was to match the color of a ripe Cascade Mountain Ash berry.

Visitors to Glacier National Park enjoy a ride on Red Bus Number 107 in 1938.

With Glacier Park visitation up 70% over 1935, Glacier Park received 18 of the Model 706 White Motor Company touring buses in 1936 at a cost of $5,000 each. They received additional buses in 1937 thru 1939 for a total of 35 touring buses. Each bus was given a number according to when they were put into service in Glacier Park.

The buses served the parks well but after World War II, visitors preferred driving their own vehicles through the parks and the buses started to disappear from the parks – except for Glacier Park. By the early 1950’s, the buses had disappeared from all the other parks. The Going-To-The-Sun Road is credited for the buses continuing operation in Glacier Park. Because of the stunning scenic views and breathtaking drop offs, many people were afraid to travel the road in their own vehicles.

The “Reds”, as they were affectionately called, became a favorite way to tour the Going-To-The-Sun Road. Some of the more noted riders of the “Reds” were Clark Gable, Carol Lombard, William Randolph Hearst, then-Vice President George H. Bush, the Queen of the Netherlands, and Robin Williams.

Red Bus Number 93
Red Bus Number 93

The “Reds” are also referred to as “Jammer Buses” acquired this name from the days of standard transmission.  The drivers would jam the gears when they double clutched as they maneuvered the “Reds” up and down the steep terrain of the Going-To-The-Sun Road. The drivers of the “Reds” were affectionately called “Jammers”. Even though the buses now have automatic transmission, the buses and drivers are still referred to as “Jammer Buses” and “Jammers”.

From 1914 through the 1970’s, all Red Bus drivers were college-aged men, mostly in Pre-Law or Pre-Med. Today, some of those early “Jammers” have retired from their careers and returned to drive the “Reds” over the Going-To-The-Sun Road. Time and use took it’s toll on the Red Buses and in 1989, they were fitted with automatic transmissions, but metal fatigue and mechanical problems still remained an issue.

When touring Glacier Park during the 1990s, it was not unusual to see one or more of the “Reds” stranded on the side of the Going-To-The-Sun Road due to a mechanical problem. The visitors on the Red Bus would wait for another “Red” to come so they could continue on their tour of the Road.

After being in service for over 6 decades, in 1999, due to old age, metal fatigue, safety issues, and liability, Glacier National Park Red Buses were retired from service. At this time, they figured each Red Bus had traveled over 600,000 miles with the oldest Red Bus having been on the road for more than 64 years. The “Reds” were believed to be the oldest fleet of touring buses in the world. They were replaced with contemporary 15-passenger vans.

But there was a lot of interest in returning the Red Buses to service in Glacier National Park and after public comment, Glacier Park management decided the experience of touring Glacier Park on the Red Buses should continue as part of the Park’s heritage. In October 1999, the Red Bus Team was created to explore ways to bring the “Reds” back into service. They faced many challenges, especially the economics of restoring the historic buses.

Restoring the Red “Jammer” Buses

Ford Motor Company participated in the regional workshops hosted by the National Park Service in 1999 and 2000. These workshops were set up to explore alternative transportation technology partnerships with other agencies and private industry. Here Ford learned about the issues of Glacier National Park Red Buses. Ford visited Glacier Park in 2000, became part of the “Proud Partner of America’s National Parks” program, and took on the Red Bus restoration project. They partnered with Transportation Design and Manufacturing and the two companies had a singular goal – to return the Red Bus experience to Glacier National Park.

Restoration of Red Bus Number 98 at Ford Motor Company
Restoration of Red Bus Number 98 at Ford Motor Company

Later in 2000, Red Bus Number 98 went to Inkster, MI and the restoration process began. Work on Number 98 was complete in June 2001 and it returned to Glacier Park. Over 300 people attended the celebration of the return of Red Bus Number 98 to include Dr. Robert Wise – one of the original “Jammers” of Number 98 in 1936.

Taking what was learned from the work done on Red Bus Number 98, a plan was put in place to restore the entire fleet except for 2. These 2 Red buses were left in their original configuration for historical purposes. The plan included:

  • a new Ford E-450 chassis modified to fit the Red Bus body
  • a new fuel-injected 5.4L V8 bi-fuel engine capable of running on either gasoline or LPG (propane)
  • a new production 4-wheel disc ABS brake system
  • a new exhaust system
  • a new-concept isolation “sled” to insulate body from chassis noise and vibration
  • refurbished ergonomic, fire-retardant seats for the driver and passengers
  • lighter-weight rear door and body reinforcements
  • upgraded safety glass windows and external lights
  • an upgraded instrument panel
  • a new public address system
  • new running boards consistent with the original design
  • a heater

The original body of the Red Bus was carefully removed from the chassis. Damaged areas were repaired, cleaned and repainted in the original color scheme – a ripe Cascade Mountain Ash berry. New sheet metal or fiberglass components were blended into the vehicle where needed. All the door latches were replaced, and the plywood floors were replaced with a space-age (aerospace) aluminum honeycomb floor to increase strength and reduce weight.

Restored Red Buses waiting to go on tour of the Going-To-The-Sun Road
Restored Red Buses waiting to go on tour of the Going-To-The-Sun Road

The return of some of the Glacier National Park Red Buses was celebrated in a snow storm in June of 2002, which eventually moved indoors, and the rest returned in December 2002. With the return of the restored “Reds”, generations to come will be able to enjoy the thrill of crossing the Continental Divide along the Going-To-The-Sun Road on one of Glacier National Park Red Buses.

Today, each Red Bus is worth about $250,000. Ford Motor Company donated over $6 million to renovate 33 of these buses and keep them in service. Over 60,000 visitors enjoy a tour on the “Reds” each year.  If you’re planning a trip to Glacier National Park, you may want to enjoy one of the tours offered on the “Jammer Buses”.

Sources: Parallel tracks: Glacier National Park born from Great Northern Railway by Michael Jamison, reporter for The Missoulian, On the Road Again Glacier National Park’s Red Buses by Amy Vanderbilt, 100 Years of Service