Photos by Greg Keysar, courtesy RM Sotheby’s.
Ironically, while Alexis de Sakhnoffsky’s designs emphasized streamlining and speed, the 14-passenger bus he drew up for White to sell to tour operators in Yellowstone—one of which will cross the auction block this fall—was intended for a far more leisurely pace.
Until 1916, visitors to Yellowstone National Park had just two options for getting around the vast space (other than horseback, of course): private automobiles and horse-drawn coaches. As Robert Goss at GeyserBob.com points out, “the mixture of the two foreign modes of travel proved incompatible,” so after the end of that season, park officials declared that horse-drawn coaches would no longer be allowed to operate within the park.
That suited Harry Child just fine. Or, more appropriately, park officials’ decision to eliminate all but one of the transportation companies—ostensibly to further reduce chaos on park roads—suited him just fine. Child owned the Yellowstone Park Transportation Company, one of the coach operators before the ban, and was able to transition to automobile-based transportation rather easily by purchasing 100 3/4-ton open-top White TEB buses, 17 White seven-passenger cars, and several support trucks.
Aside from a handful of Lincolns, Child—and his son-in-law, William Morse Nichols, who succeeded Child upon the latter’s death in 1931—stuck with Whites over the next 20 years when updating their fleet. That fleet, however, started to get a little long in the tooth by the mid-1930s, so Nichols—along with his counterparts at other western national parks—formed a plan to modernize their buses and allow White to bid on the contract along with GM, Ford, and Reo.
Whether the other three companies included it in their proposals, the fully removable canvas top that Sakhnoffsky included in White’s pitch—a feature already implemented on the White Model 614s that Yellowstone Park Transportation Company had used since 1931—surely figured into White winning the contract. After all, when touring a national park out West, the urge to look up is nearly constant.
White’s proposal called for a Model 706 chassis—normally its transit and intercity go-to chassis—the flathead 94-hp 318-cu.in. 16A flathead six-cylinder gas engine, and a body with the aforementioned canvas roof and blanket chest behind the rearmost seat built by Bender, a Cleveland-based coachbuilder that typically handled White’s school buses.
For 1936, Nichols ordered 27 of the buses from White, followed by 41 in 1937, 20 in 1938, and 10 in 1939. White built about 500 park buses in total, however, selling them to tour operators in Glacier, Zion, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Mt. Rainier, and Rocky Mountain national parks.
The buses ultimately became the last of their kind. As Goss wrote, World War II severely curtailed travel to national parks, and after the war more and more visitors to national parks insisted on driving themselves:
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.
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.
With all these changes the fleet of hundreds of historic vehicles to cart visitors around the park was no longer needed.
While other park tour operators held on to their Whites—Glacier’s still operates 33 of its original fleet of 35 “Red Jammer” buses—Yellowstone Park Transportation Company sold off its fleet sometime in the Fifties. Xanterra Parks and Resorts, a successor company to Yellowstone Park Transportation Company, has since bought back eight of the buses and modernized them by placing them atop Ford E-450 chassis.
Yellowstone bus No. 402 wasn’t one of the re-purchased Whites, but it has gone through some modernization in the form of a Ford 300-cu.in. six-cylinder engine, automatic transmission, power steering, power brakes, 12-volt electrical system, and an electric fuel pump.
RM Sotheby’s, which will offer No. 402 at its Hershey auction, has yet to release a pre-auction estimate. A fully restored Yellowstone bus, No. 427, bid up to $150,000 but didn’t sell at last year’s Mecum Monterey auction.
The RM Sotheby’s Hershey auction will take place October 5-6. For more information, visit RMSothebys.com.