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CHARLOTTE TRANSIT HISTORIC RECOLLECTIONS

by Earl Gulledge

EQUIPMENT

City Coach Lines officially assumed Charlotte's bus operations from Duke Power sometime in the first half of 1955. Duke buses had been gray with a black stripe. City Coach introduced their new colors - white with a green stripe - on a shipment of GM TDH 35-foot models in the summer of that year. Numbered 1021 through 1034, these were 41 passenger models with single seats on the driver side for more standee room. They were notable for the "GM Air Ride Coach" lettering above the standee windows on each exterior side. Numbers 1035 through 1042, which were 45-passenger models of the same length, supplemented these buses.

City coach also introduced the first 40-foot models, which were 102 inches wide and carried 51 passengers. These were numbered 1001 through 1014 and were assigned to the highest density lines: Route 7, Biddleville - Second Ward, and Route 1, Mt. Holly - Providence Road. City Coach quickly disposed of all non-GM equipment, which by that time was limited to Ford "cracker box" buses. They carried no more passengers than some of the uptown shuttle buses of today. By then they ran on peak hour only routes such as 15A, South Tryon - Burton Street. City Coach continued the Duke practice of assigning the same buses to each route. Each driver drove the same bus daily except when maintenance work necessitated a substitute.

Duke buses always displayed advertising placards on the interior upper sides of its buses. City Coach soon tapped into the revenue potential of exterior advertising as all buses carried side, rear, and front placards as soon as new paint was applied to each coach.

My father drove number 791, a 32 passenger GMC, about 1950. Prior to the general availability of hydraulic transmissions about 1948 Duke ordered a variety of coaches. Afterwards it purchased GMC (known as Yellow Coach until 1943) models only. The 680 series were 36 passenger manual transmission coaches some of which I rode to school in the fall of 1961. Duke apparently ordered one consecutive numerical series for its entire system. Charlotte had number 550 but I recall no other numbers until about the 670 mark, excepting the Ford buses. The gasoline models continued through at least 830, which served the State Street route with 828 and 829. The first diesels were put in service in early 1950 and were numbered 844 through 855 - 32 passenger models. The next order carried from 856 through 889 - 36 passenger models.

In the early 1950's Duke also ordered its first 35-foot, air ride models - 890 through 899. My father drove both 892 and 897 which served the new high density Route 16, York Road - Double Oaks. Numbers 912 and 913, also 35-foot models but without air ride, also served Charlotte. The missing numbers apparently went somewhere else in the Duke system.

SCHOOL TRANSPORTATION

Both Duke and later City Coach had a large commitment to busing school children. Many children of the 1950 -70 period were bused - but on public transit. I rode regular route Number 2 to Ashley Park School. Many schools, probably high schools but perhaps some others, had regular school hours only routes assigned. At least 5 or 6 buses were assigned to Harding High School when I attended there. Duke had tickets for school children. The older buses would always draw the school assignments. The ridership was significant. In 1961 City Coach transferred about a dozen  Mack buses from its Jacksonville operation. They were used as I recall only for school routes.

The last of the GMC "old look" buses finished there service in the school pool in the 1970's, by then equipped with side mounted stop lights similar to school system models. City Coach made other significant changes. Gone were the electric fare boxes which drivers periodically emptied by automatically sorting change. In their place were new sealed and numbered units, which were emptied by authorized personnel at the end of the day. New too were the telephones at the "end of the line " locations from which drivers had direct lines to the garage and through which they reported passenger loads.

ROUTE SYSTEM

My earliest memories of the Duke system were that my father drove the South Tryon - Elizabeth Route about 1950. The South Tryon end of the line was at the top of Cliffwood just a block off Tryon. That route turned at the Square. Its successor route, Number 6, Elizabeth - North Charlotte which ran until about 1957 also turned at the Square. To eliminate the turning movement Elizabeth was paired with Oaklawn and North Charlotte paired with Selwyn Avenue.

Some routes during the early 1950's had peak hour service at ten- minute or less intervals. Routes such as Number 4, Park Road - Belmont were supplemented by Route 4A, Parkwood - Avondale during peak hours. As ridership declined during the second half of the 1950's some routes were dropped while others were added. The chess game of bus route changes reflected our changing city. Number 13, Smallwood - Cumberland became Cumberland - Wesley Heights (extended into Ashley Park during its peak hours only run). The later years "Charlottetown" route is a successor of the "Cumberland " route. Green Street - Oakhurst, Route 2, and became Coliseum - Green Street. Later the Green Street was exchanged for Ashley Park. In 1950 Route 12 was North Tryon - South Boulevard. By October 1953 it swapped numbers with 11, South Boulevard - Hutchinson Avenue. The State Street - Midwood Route 10 disappeared by 1959. Likewise, Number 9, Wilmore - Eastover become the new Number 10, Midwood - Wilmore as Eastover was dropped for peak hour service by Route 1 (At that time Eastover ridership consisted mostly of domestic workers so peak hour service was entirely adequate). At one time Routes 1 and 8 followed the same path but from opposite directions on the west side.  Interestingly, Route 1 – Mt. Holly and Route 11 – North Tryon have the same designations as they did 50 years ago.

The term "peak hour" meant the same as it does today - morning and afternoon commuter rush. Most routes even added additional buses during Saturday morning to accommodate shoppers to the uptown district. Ridership dictated the shifts of the drivers. Morning and afternoon straight shifts handled the basic day's requirements. Peak hour only drivers worked the so-called split shift while swing shift drivers (fewer in number) worked from about 10:00 AM until about 4:00 PM.

In 1955 ridership was a true melting pot of people. The post-Korean War era was just beginning and it would not be kind to public transit in most cities, Charlotte included. In 1955 many professional people rode the bus. By 1960 there was a difference. The rapid suburbanization of the city and the availability of two cars in many families significantly reduced ridership and the demographics of those who rode. In a move, which paralleled the railroad experience of a decade earlier, new bus designs and the availability of air-conditioned coaches attempted to counter the sharp decline in ridership.

Bus service in the 1950' and 60's was an integral part of one's daily life. During all of my childhood I lived directly on a bus route. I went to school on a bus, dated on a bus, and even brought groceries home from uptown markets on a bus - and so did most of my friends. In fact, one could tell time by the passing of the local bus. It was quite exciting to have attended a late evening movie and then watch perhaps 25 - 30 buses leave together from the Square at 11:30 PM. Kress, W. T. Grant, F.W. Woolworth, and McLellans offered shelter, food, and places to amble away idle time. Bus patrons could be seen carrying a variety of goods - clothing, housewares, dry cleaning, and groceries.

MISCELLANEOUS

The Duke Power bus garage (which still exists and it used for other purposes) was originally built as a car barn for streetcars. Its paint shop building, with trolley tracks still in place, today houses two 35 foot “silversides” coaches acquired by the CMHPC. City Coach moved to its new garage at Brevard and 11th Street in 1957. The residents on the corner would not sell their house and lived therein surrounded by buses for many years. That garage was demolished in 1997. Duke also had some non-direct competition in the 1950's. One, possibly more, private bus companies served specific outlying communities. Sharon Coach Company, whose two or three buses were gray/white with a black stripe, provided service to the Sharon/Pineville area. Their uptown terminus was a small, old building located to the west side of the Peace Building on West Trade. Today bus riders enjoy a sparkling transit center, which provides shelter and a variety of other amenities, duplicating on a smaller scale the offerings of the mid-century uptown. In times past folks simply awaited their rides at the uptown (downtown then) square. The last of the older mercantile establishment disappeared when Belk and Woolworth closed in 1987-88 to make way for the Bank of America Corporate Center. City Coach began maintaining both Greyhound and Trailways coaches once the new garage was open in 1957. Prior to that time Trailways serviced its coaches in a building behind and to the west of the surviving former terminal on West Trade. Greyhound actually used a small building on West Bland Street, which is still there today.

I can remember only one strike by drivers, which took place in September or October of 1958. Many drivers drove cabs during the strike, which lasted about two weeks. My father drove a black and white 1955 Chevrolet for Victory Cab Company (Yellow, Baker, and Red Top were the other cab operators). Lastly, I can recall no robberies of bus drivers either on or off duty. City Coach drivers held no fare box money but carried $100 of company operating funds. My father walked home many times at night from our neighborhood bus stop with no thought of being robbed. However, about 1955 a driver named Perry was assaulted by a man with a hatchet on the Oaklawn route. He ducked and apparently was only superficially injured as passengers wrestled the man to the floor of the bus.

NEW EQUIPMENT

The first of the "new look" GMC buses arrived in Charlotte in the fall of 1959 and were numbered 1043 through 1048. The next groups, 1049 through 1054, were the first air-conditioned coaches and were placed in service in the spring of 1960. All future equipment would be air-conditioned. The "new look" or silversides as they are sometimes called continued to be ordered by City Coach until Charlotte Transit was formed about 1976. Included were a number of 40-foot coaches, which were 102 inches wide. The new GMC "RTS" design was instrumental in drawing new riders when introduced in 1978.

In 1983 new Flxible coaches (then owned by Grumman) 136 through 175 were added to the fleet.  They were followed in the late 1980’s by Mann coaches 176 through 215, by GM RTS II numbers 216 through 225, and by Flxible coaches 226 through 266.  All were 40 foot coaches.  In a departure from usual practice, ten 55 foot articulated Mann buses were purchased from Atlanta, rebuilt and served a number of years.

2001 AND BEYOND

A renewed interest in public transit, strong job growth, and the infill of new uptown housing has placed new demands on our bus system.  Expanded routes, service to downtown Matthews for instance, longer hours of service, and cross town service have required new equipment.  In 1998 twenty new Gillig 40 foot coaches, 701 through 720, were added followed the next year by new Nova 102 inch wide coaches, 800 through 914.

The Charlotte Transit logo has been replaced by CATS – Charlotte Area Transit System while the exterior advertising of the past fifty years is gone.  Bicycle racks have been added to the front of each bus.  The Transit Center has in some ways replaced the “Square” of years ago by providing a central transfer point. As this revision goes to press CATS has begun service to several adjacent cities such as Rock Hill and Concord.  Different to meet changing demands but still a viable and necessary means of transportation.

Revised 07/03/01

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