History Streetcars before the bus boom

Published on June 12th, 2020 | by AberdeenMagazine

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The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round ‘Til They Fall Off

Public Transportation in Aberdeen.

For about Aberdeen’s first 70 years, there was a lot of interest in private public transportation—that is, moving many people within the city for a profit. Through the 1950s, about a dozen private companies tried to operate streetcar and bus lines, and all had one thing in common: failure. Not enough people wanted to pay the price for a ticket to ride.
Before we board this glimpse of Aberdeen’s transportation history, a couple caveats. First, taxis—horse-drawn or automotive—have moved people around Aberdeen since its earliest days. The focus here is on larger people movers, however, so taxis aren’t really part of the story. Except when they are.

Second, the history is hard to piece together. The library has newspaper clippings going back more than 100 years, but not surprisingly, they don’t always tell full stories. Online newspaper indexes help fill in gaps, but it seems the stories weren’t there. After all, none of the companies have operated in nearly 70 years. So this might be more hodgepodge than history. (Also, the expense account didn’t cover weeks of microfilm viewing.)

Riding the Rails

Streetcars came first, and since 1886, Aberdeen wanted them, first offering franchises to a couple out-of-town firms, which didn’t pan out. A local group attempted to start up, but the depression of the early 1890s intervened. A hard to imagine scheme to link streetcars in Aberdeen and Huron also fizzled. Finally, in 1909, a headline announced, “Local Capitalists Will Build Street Car System in Aberdeen,” and the Aberdeen Street Railway Company (the first of a few names by which it was known) launched successfully in 1910. The “capitalists” viewed it as a public service, hoping it would promote growth. Wisely, they didn’t expect profits.

The company laid more than five miles of tracks and ran three routes around town, basically covering the downtown corridor from Northern to what is now Presentation College and ultimately including Wylie Park and St. Luke’s Hospital. Electricity delivered by overhead lines powered the streetcars, which were operated by a motorman who drove the car and a conductor who took tickets and kept the stove burning in winter. The first cars ran on Thanksgiving Day, 1910, carrying perhaps 5,000 people.

The twelve years of streetcars produced more interesting newspaper stories than subsequent transportation efforts. Just a few months after the line opened, its president asked schoolteachers to talk to students about “boys—and sometimes girls” “doing foolish things,” such as jumping on the steps of moving streetcars or standing on the tracks playing chicken with an approaching car.

A July 4, 1911, story reported that passengers packed the streetcars’ aisles and rooftops because of the “big Redfield-Aberdeen game” at the baseball park and events at Wylie. In 1913, a streetcar crashed into a milk wagon pulled by a horse blind in one eye. Neither horse nor milkman saw it coming. Ahead of their time, perhaps, or maybe addressing World War I labor shortages, the company hired women and, said in a headline, “Women as Motormen Prove Satisfactory.” The women received the same wages as the men.

It was not a lucrative business, however. Already in 1911, the company was considering dropping the service. In 1918, despite carrying 374,000 passengers, more than 1,000 per day, it still lost money. The City controlled fares, and when it allowed an increase, the finances didn’t improve. Weather has always been an enemy of transportation, and snow consumed the company’s summer profits. Cars didn’t run for days as crews cleared tracks after blizzards. The early 1920s economic downturn forced the line to close on July 31, 1922. In addition to lack of customers, the demise of streetcars was accredited to “Fords and friendliness”—people transported themselves in their own automobiles and then picked up friends waiting for a streetcar. Rails were removed from streets in stages over several decades, into the 1960s.

Burning Rubber

For much of the three decades after the streetcars’ demise, buses served the city, operated by one company after another, each losing money until it shut down. And then along came another. Repeat.

The bus era started auspiciously, maybe even brashly, as the Aberdeen Daily News reported on the day streetcar service ended, “An auto bus made its appearance on the street today offering transportation to fill in the gap when the street cars quit running tonight.” Jerry Smith, “a taxi cab man,” planned to offer transportation to Wylie Park for dances and possibly add more routes “if there is patronage.” This would not be the last link between cab companies and buses.

By early August, Smith advertised bus routes, but things ended abruptly. He soon posted notices in the paper that the city routes were discontinued until further notice. At least one cancellation notice appeared the same day as an ad promoting the service. Smith sought City approval and in October drove a bus to City Hall to show the Commissioners. In the end, perhaps due to red tape, no bus line materialized. Or perhaps due to the would-be patrons.

In that same October, locals had petitioned the City to call a public vote on creating a municipal streetcar line. The idea went down in a 4:1 landslide—only half as many voted for it as signed the petition. An intense campaign had opposed it, no doubt partly driven by opposition to higher taxes. But the campaign also featured newspaper ads promising “Aberdeen will have a system of complete motorbus transportation…just as soon as the people vote against the dangerous, costly, municipal ownership scheme.” The ad quoted several business leaders from Billings, Montana. Remember that town.

Another cause of Smith’s failure may have been the Aberdeen Motor Transit Company, which announced in December 1922 that it would run buses by New Year’s Day, 1923. The prediction was about three months premature, however, and in late February, a newspaper proclaimed, “Aberdeen Adds Latest Idea in Transportation.” Described as local, Motor Transit had ties to a Billings outfit, and one could be forgiven for wondering if it was involved in the streetcar election campaign. For example, a “representative of a motor bus company” addressed the City Commission regarding the vote, suggesting a possible business interest in the city, and asserting that if Aberdeen’s streetcars had carried 380,000 people a year, “with that number of patrons, a motor bus line would pay here.” Famous last words.

Motor Transit’s buses ran all day, mostly in the general area served by the streetcars (as did future lines), for eleven years. Signs of trouble cropped up early, however. A West Hill route was dropped within the first year, and the schedule was halved from running buses every 15 minutes to every 30 minutes. In April 1934, a newspaper reported “Aberdeen to be Without Transportation First Time in 23 Years.” Motor Transit’s manager blamed lack of patronage, and the company moved to Billings.

Five months later, E.C. Olander, of the Olander Motor Sales car dealership, applied to operate a bus company. The cost of insurance made him hesitate, but he opened in 1934. Then, true to script, Olander seemed to disappear from the news, although the company may have operated for nine years.

Things get a little confusing in the early 1940s when information gets sketchier. In 1942, Mayor O.M. Tiffany urged Aberdonians to use Virgil Heathman’s Aberdeen Bus Service, partly to keep it in business, but also as a patriotic act in World War II: “Now that conservation of rubber has become so necessary, it would seem as if it would be good public policy to save rubber on our own cars as much as possible and use bus service whenever convenient.” It’s unclear where Heathman came from or if he competed with Olander. The 1981 Centennial edition of the American News also mentioned an “out of town couple” who attempted to run a bus service in that era.

At some point, Duane Hyde appeared. Operating as Hyde Hub City Bus, the owner of the Red Cab Taxi Company may have bought out Olander or Heathman in 1943. We know the start date only because 1951 stories about him closing mention his 1943 opening. In fact, those seem to be the only stories about his business. He suspended operations in May 1951, intending to resume in October after the summer ridership decline. Repeating a common refrain, Hyde said Aberdeen had never supported a bus line and echoed the streetcar complaint about competition from private cars and people picking up friends at the bus stop: “This type of competition we cannot combat.” He suggested if another bus service opened before October, he might close and focus on his Rapid City bus company.

Taking the hint, a couple weeks later, Oscar Herbold, a presumably out-of-work Hyde driver, announced plans to start a bus service with partner Arnold Travland of Watertown. Herbold and Travland expected the City to prevent Hyde from resuming, and the City approved their license and cancelled Hyde’s. The line started service in mid-June and eventually became known as Hub City Transit Company.

Plagued by high insurance costs and insufficient volume, Hub City had a difficult ride. Ultimately in 1955, Travland ended the city service, in part because the driver for his last remaining bus was arrested for not having a bus license, an arrest Travland blamed on taxi companies complaining to police. Hub City shifted to school bus service. The private companies were often used for getting students to school—as paying passengers, not a school service.

Two more bus lines were approved after 1955, one for a gas station owner in 1957 and another for the Yellow Cab Company in 1959. If either actually launched, neither had staying power because they don’t appear in the news. After that, it seems the capitalists gave up, and no other bus lines were attempted. Still give them credit for attempting to meet a perennial need for transportation, even in a relatively small town. Their lack of success in a period when more shopping and jobs were concentrated downtown, where the buses focused, points to transportation challenges today when growth has spread destinations all around a geographically larger town.

Speaking of today, the ride has been extended for the last half-century by the City of Aberdeen, which created Ride Line in 1968, Aberdeen’s longest-running bus service (that 1922 vote must only apply to streetcars). With its on demand service and initially limited focus on clientele, it’s a bus of a different color. That’s public public transportation, and that’s another story. // -Patrick Gallagher

Thanks to the K.O. Lee Aberdeen Public Library for research assistance. More detailed accounts of Aberdeen’s streetcars can be found in Sue Gates’ Looking Back: Aberdeen’s First 125 Years as well as “Catch a Car!” in Aberdeen Magazine, Volume 4, 2018.

 


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