Melvin Baker

(Paper presented to the Fourth Atlantic Oral History Association Conference, held in September 1982 at Memorial University of Newfoundland, and printed in Report of the Fourth Annual Meeting of the Atlantic Oral History Association: 1982, compiled by Shannon Ryan, 1982)

This paper combines both documentary and oral history sources in studying the bus service provided by private entrepreneurs from 1948 to 1957 in the city of St. John's. In particular, emphasis is placed on company-employee relations and on the nature of the daily work routine in a bus driver's life. For this paper the documents consisted of local newspaper accounts which provided considerable information on the activities of the bus service as well as public criticism of it. It was not possible to consult City Council minutes and records for the 1940s and the early 1950s because such records are simply not legally available for research for academic and historical purposes. Their inaccessibility is because under existing city legislation records for such purposes are only available for the period prior to 1925. After 1925 City Council public minutes are in principal available but, because they are bound with Council's special minutes, the city has decided, one civic official has noted, not to allow the historian to examine the public minutes after 1925. (1) Consequently, oral history is an indispensable research approach for anyone attempting to understand the growth of municipal services at mid-century in St. John's..

Oral interviews conducted with several persons connected with the bus service were invaluable in filling the void caused by the lack of documentation for the period under study. While some drivers were very co-operative in discussing the bus service and their involvement with it, several others who were part of a bus strike in 1949 were not. Only one of the strike leaders who was contacted was willing to discuss the strike; however, this person did not wish to be interviewed with a tape recorder but did agree to meet me. Mr. Brown (a pseudonym) also did not want me to use his name, but jokingly commented that it would be obvious to anyone familiar with the events who he was.(2) Another strike leader, a Mr. White (a pseudonym), refused to talk to me but, in a telephone conversation with him to request an interview, he did provide some useful information on the nature of the bus service in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This 75 year-old retired former street car conductor and bus driver was eager to discuss generalities, yet he was reluctant to provide specifics. What he did have to say was of a critical nature of the mechanical problems with the various buses in service on St. John's streets. (3)

Between 1939 and 1948 St. John's had two public transportation systems in the form of a private street car service and a private bus service. The former had begun operations in 1900 and was owned by the Newfoundland Light and Power Company of Montreal. (4) The latter was a system commenced in 1939 by a Nova Scotian owned company named Golden Arrow Coaches Limited. (5) While the street car operated at a deficit for many years, (6) the bus franchise appears to have been profitable for its Nova Scotian owners although its annual profit margin is not known. (7) Both systems operated within an atmosphere of informality in relation to their daily passengers. In 1945 St. John's was a small city of approximately 44,600 residents who lived mainly in the congested area bounded by Water Street (the city's main business thoroughfare which ran east-west and was parallel to the harbour) to the south and Le Marchant and Harvey Roads to the north. Its smallness and informality can best be seen by the fact that the most popular men in the city, several residents have recalled, were the street car conductors and bus drivers who knew most residents at least on a first name basis. Indeed, the informality was such that a bus driver, for instance, on many routes would know who to pick up each morning during the busy work hours and if that person was late the bus driver would wait a few minutes for that person to arrive. (8)

Of the two transportation services, the bus service was the one considered by local authorities best suited in meeting the projected future transportation needs of St. John's, which after 1945 was experiencing rapid suburban growth to the north of the city in an area later known as Churchill Park. For there to be an extension of the street car system to a distant suburb like Churchill Park, for example, both city and Light and Power Company officials found that there would be a substantial capital investment required to widen streets, lay new track, and purchase new street cars and other equipment since much of the existing rolling stock had greatly deteriorated during the war because of the difficulty in acquiring new parts. The argument in favour of expanding the bus service was strengthened in January, 1947, by the release of a report Council had commissioned from a Toronto consulting engineer who had been hired to examine the city's traffic problems. His recommendation was for St. John's to adopt one city-wide transportation system under one management. Although the franchise of the debt-ridden street railway had already terminated in 1946, the street car had been kept running until a resolution of the future transportation system had been settled. In 1948 City Council gave an exclusive transit franchise to the Golden Arrow Company on the condition that it offer an expanded service. (9) On September 15, 1948, the street cars ran for the last time in St. John's.

For at least a year prior to September 15, 1948, there was considerable resentment towards the termination of this service both by the public who were angry over this impending lost and by the street car conductors who feared the worst in that they would be put out of work because of an expanded bus service. For many of the conductors, future employment with the bus company seemed at first dubious since most of them never knew how to drive a motor vehicle. Eventually, most of the conductors, according to one bus driver who had been given the job of teaching them, were hired by Golden Arrow. (10) Moreover, the resentment felt by many conductors was also due to a generational gap between the bus drivers and them. As one former Golden Arrow driver recalled, the conductors were older men close to retirement who had worked the streets for many years and considered the younger bus drivers to be "just a bunch of brats who thought they owned the city." This driver, furthermore, noted that there were often incidents on the streets where neither the street car nor us would give each other the right-of-way on some intersections and consequently came close to ramming each other of the street. In fact, there was one instance he remembered where a bus just knocked a street car off its track and continued on its way to keep on schedule. (11)

As part of its agreement in July, 1948, with City Council to provide an expanded bus service, the Golden Arrow Company consented to import into Newfoundland ten used buses to immediately replace the service that had been offered by the street cars prior to September 15, 1948, and also to bring in new buses once Council had paved Water Street. (12) This pavement was needed since Golden Arrow was reluctant to operate new buses on the rocky streets St. John's had. As Newfoundland in 1948 was in the midst of a national referendum process to decide its constitutional future, (13) City Council during the remainder of the year was unable to float the necessary bond issue for the paving work. Consequently, Golden Arrow succeeded later in 1948 to persuade Council to allow it to import additional used buses instead of immediately acquiring new vehicles. Once Water Street in particular was paved, Golden Arrow promised to bring in the new buses in accordance with its agreement for bus service extension. The extra used buses were subsequently bought from the Toronto Transportation Commission which, Golden Arrow claimed, wanted to sell the buses so that they could be replaced by newer vehicles with a larger carrying capacity in Toronto. (14)

According to both newspaper reports of the day and to two former Golden Arrow bus drivers, Mr. Brown and Mr. White, the buses brought in from Toronto were not suited to St. John's which is a very hilly city in comparison to Toronto which has a more level landscape. Moreover, the buses had many mechanical flaws. Mr. White told me that in Toronto people had waged a ten-year battle to have the buses taken off the streets there because they were not fit to be used. (15) One of the major problems St. John's drivers found with the buses was that the air tanks controlling the braking system frequently failed leaving the drivers and their passengers in various precarious situations. For instance, Mr. White remembers driving down a hill when his brakes failed him; somehow, he found a way to stop the bus safely. (16) There were plenty of minor accidents involving buses, Mr. Brown recalled, but none were of a serious nature. One major accident, he noted, was miraculously avoided when a bus and its driver went over a twenty-foot embankment causing only minor injuries to the driver. Another example of brake failure, according to Mr. Brown, occurred on Forest Road when a bus driver lost control of his vehicle and plowed into a tree in the Anglican cemetery. Again, nobody was seriously hurt. The buses also lacked sufficient power to travel the city's many hills where on some occasions, if a bus had a full capacity, some passengers would have to get out to enable the bus to make the hill with a reduced load. Often on these hills, too, the buses would have to back up rather than go head up because it was only in this way the buses could generate sufficient power, the reverse gear being better to use than the first gear. Moreover, not only did the bus doors open on the wrong side into oncoming traffic - at this time in Newfoundland vehicles were driven on the left side of the street - but sometimes there was great difficulty in opening them. (17)

In 1949 the Golden Arrow Bus Company was pressured by both its workers and the City Council to improve the bus service. On the one hand, in May the company forced a showdown with the bus drivers' union, the Transport and Other Workers' Union, which apparently was formed in 1947 with the assistance of Newfoundland agents of the American Federation of Labour. (18) Apparently, Golden Arrow gave the union president an ultimatum to either resign from the union by a certain date or else consider himself dismissed from the bus company. Faced with a dismissal, the union president immediately spoke with all of the other bus drivers as they returned to the bus depot from the streets and succeeded in persuading all of them to walk out on strike with him. (19) It is not known why the bus company chose to issue the ultimatum at this particular time, although it is most likely Golden Arrow wished to break the union. Not only did the drivers want their president reinstated, but they also put forward other demands on Golden Arrow that included a salary increase and better buses to operate. (20) In doing so, they strongly rejected company demands that drivers return to work on their day off and work for the regular daily wage rather than receive overtime pay. (21) During their strike, which was to last until October, the union received substantial financial and moral assistance from the other labour organizations in the city. Moreover, the bus drivers in their strike action had the widespread support of the public which had been greatly annoyed by the poor service and buses provided by Golden Arrow. (22)

Pressure on Golden Arrow to improve the bus service also came from the City Council which in June, 1949, had paved Water Street and now demanded that the bus company supply St. John's with new buses in accordance with its 1948 agreement with Council. However, Golden Arrow had no intention of acting on this demand from Council until there was a satisfactory end to its labour dispute with the bus workers' union. (23) Consequently, in late August Council passed a resolution giving itself authority to revoke the exclusive franchise of the Golden Arrow Bus Company if the city so desired (24). While correspondence was subsequently opened with several potential operators for a new bus service, Council was at first reluctant to revoke Golden Arrow's franchise until the city was certain that Golden Arrow would live up to its 1948 bus agreement once the labour strike had ended. (25) The length of the strike, the disruption of public transportation resulting from the strike, and the refusal of Golden Arrow in late September to allow city officials to inspect the buses, finally prompted City Council in October to revoke the franchise belonging to Golden Arrow and to seek alternate proposals for providing a city bus service. (26)

While Golden Arrow's bus service had been stopped between May and October by the bus strike, public transportation in St. John's had been provided on an ad hoc basis by jitney bus drivers. The jitneys consisted of both buses operated by non- John's residents and any large car, station wagon, and van owned by city residents that could be used to transport people. In this "catch as you can " system, at least one ambulance and one hearse were used as "buses." (27) The jitney drivers operated as they wished, not following any scheduled routes and going anywhere in the city at a moment's notice and whim to pick up prospective passengers. On one occasion, one resident has recalled, a jitney driver was going east on Water Street when he stopped and asked some residents where they wanted to go; when they said Craigmillar Avenue, the jitney driver just turned around and went in the opposite direction. (28) This bus system proved to be a paying concern for its operators and was consequently condemned by the city's taxi drivers who quite naturally saw the jitney drivers as an infringement upon their business. (29)

In December, 1949, City Council moved to provide St. John s with a more organized bus system. A six-month franchise was subsequently given to the locally owned Transit Limited Bus Company which consisted of about twenty independent bus owners who had joined forces to get the franchise from Council. Under this agreement, the franchise could be cancelled by Council by the issue of a forty-eight hour notice of termination without the need of providing any reason for cause. (30) While Transit Limited provided a more regular schedule and serviced the growing Churchill Park suburb, the co-operative bus company was not a fully integrated transportation system with sufficient capital as far as Council was apparently concerned to provide for an expanded service consisting of the latest available buses. (31) Consequently, in early 1950 City Council reached an agreement with financiers in Montreal and Toronto for the operation of an exclusive bus franchise in St. John's for a period of twenty years. (32) The name of the new company which began operations in December l, 1950, was the Capital Coach Lines Limited.

While Capital used some of the buses belonging to the defunct Golden Arrow Company, it also brought a substantial number of new buses to St. John's. According to one retired bus driver, Mr. White, some of these buses were poorly built with a bus frame being fitted over a truck chasis which was extended a couple of feet by attaching some wood to it. The Capital Bus Company was, it would seem, ill-prepared to commence operations in St. John's. The service was started in a hurry and for the next few years bus drivers experience many inconveniences. The depot chosen for the storage of the buses was a lot behind the Newfoundland Hotel. This depot had no facilities where buses could be kept indoors during the winter. Thus, during the winter the first thing a driver had to do was to shovel snow away from his bus, then fill it with gasoline from a nearby truck, there being no gas tanks available in the depot. On the cold winter mornings, it took at least two or three hours for the bus's heating system to work. (33)

Many of the Golden Arrow drivers as well as several from Transit Limited were hired by Capital Coach Lines. The uniforms worn by Capital bus drivers were grey while those worn by Golden Arrow drivers had been dark blue. While Golden Arrow drivers had paid for their uniforms, Capital drivers had to pay only twenty-five percent of the cost. Under Capital drivers continued to work a a "long and a short" in a six-day work week. By this term drivers meant they worked on one day from 7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. and from 6:15 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. The following day they would commence work at 12:30 p.m. and finish at 6:30 p.m., a pattern similar to that followed by the Golden Arrow Bus Company. (34)

For the first years of operation of the Capital Bus Company, the bus drivers were not unionized. No doubt, the result of the 1949 bus strike played a part in their decision not to form a union for, as one bus driver noted, "you couldn't expect too high of a wage increase because you never knew when the company would close its doors and you were out of a job." With the high unemployment which existed in the 1950s, although driving a bus was "no bed of roses," it was a job, one former Capital driver told me, that you could not easily give up, especially if one had a family to maintain. Working conditions were apparently an improvement over that which existed under the management of the Golden Arrow Bus Company. For the most part, the St. John's manager of Capital, C.F. McLellan, was an easy-going individual who was concerned for the welfare of his drivers and treated them as part of a "family business" in his dealings with them. For instance, if a driver wanted to buy something for his family and had no money, then McLellan would advance him the money interest free and then deduct the loan from the driver's cheque until the money was repaid. McLellan's concern was also manifested in his idea of setting up a trucking business in St. John's to employ bus drivers once they were too old to operate a bus. However, this work atmosphere changed in 1952 when the bus drivers formed a local of the Amalgamated Association of Street, Electric and Railway and Motor Coaches of America, Division 1462. The formation of this union was prompted, it seems, by the resentment some drivers felt by the favoritism McLellan apparently showed towards some drivers and not to others. With the formation of the union, | McLellan's attitude towards the drivers changed; he now regarded the bus service strictly as a business and abandoned the paternalism he previously practiced. (35)

In November, 1957, the threat of a strike by the bus drivers' union forced the City Council to act immediately to take over the assets of the Capital Coach Lines if a disruption of public transportation in St. John's was to be avoided. The union had decided to strike following an October conciliation board report that supported the union's demands for a wage increase for its members. However, On November 4 the union had decided to postpone the strike for forty-eight hours to allow Council to discuss with Capital the purchase terms of the bus company. The company, which expected to lose about $100,000 on its operations for the 1957 fiscal year, was willing to sell because it could not afford to provide St. John's with the new buses City Council had requested under its agreement with Capital Coach Lines while at the same time meeting the monetary demands of the bus union. Earlier in 1957 Capital had offered to sell its assets to the city for approximately $368,000 but City Council had rejected this figure as too high. With a strike pending in November, Capital agreed to allow itself to be taken over by the city with the purchase price to be decided by an arbitration board. When City Council accepted this compromise, the union called off its strike, (36) many of its members being apparently of the view that the city would be able to meet their strike demands. (37) On November 15 the St. John's bus service ran for the first time under the aegis of the City Council which a year later paid about $197,000 for the assets of the Capital Coach Lines. (38)


1. Statutes of Newfoundland, 1975-76, No. 72.

2. Interview with Mr. Brown, September 20, 1982, at his residence (notes in the possession of the author).

3. Telephone conversation with Mr. White, September 17, 1982 (notes in the possession of the author).

4. Evening Telegram, September 18, 1948.

5. Ibid., October 4, 1949.

6. Ibid.

7. Interview with Mr. Brown, September 20, 1982.

8. Ibid.

9. Evening Telegram, October 4, 1949.

10.Interview with Mr. Brown, September 20, 1982.

11. Taped interview with Mr. Hubert Power, August 27, 1982 (in the possession of the author)

12. Evening Telegram, January 22, 1949.

13. S.J.R. Noel, Politics in Newfoundland (Toronto, 1971),pp. 244-6.

14. Evening Telegram, October 4, 1949.

15. Interview with Mr. White, September 17, 1982.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid. See also interview with Mr. Brown, September 20, 1982.

18. Interview with Mr. Brown, September 20, 1982. See also taped interview with Cyril Strong, September 9, 1982 ( in the possession of the author).

19. Interview with Mr. Brown, September 20, l982.

20. Ibid.

21. "One of the Shanks" to the Daily News, October 11, 1949.

22. Interview with Mr. Brown, September 20, 1982.

23. Daily News, August 19, 1949.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid., August 22, 26, September 27, October 5, 1949. See also Evening Telegram, October 4, 1949.

26. Daily News, October 11, 1949.

27. Evening Telegram, November 19, December 17, 1949; and interview with Hubert Power, August 27, 1982.

28. Interview with Hubert Power, August 27, 1982.

29. Evening Telegram, November 21, 1982.

30. Ibid., October 26, 27, 1982. See also Daily News, December 19, 1949.

31. Daily News, May 6, June 13, 1950.

32. Evening Telegram, October 22, 1957.

33. Taped interviews with Mr. Hubert Power and Patrick Gallagher, August 27, 1982.

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. Evening Telegram, November 5, 8, 1982.

37. Interview with Patrick Gallagher, August 27, 1982.

38. Evening Telegram, November 15, 1957, September 24, 1958.