BUS SERVICE IN ST. JOHN 'S, NEWFOUNDLAND, 1948-1957
(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.
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.
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.
7. Interview with Mr. Brown, September 20, 1982.
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.
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.
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.
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.
36. Evening Telegram, November 5, 8, 1982.
37. Interview with Patrick Gallagher, August 27, 1982.
38. Evening Telegram, November 15, 1957, September 24, 1958.