Rebuilding Glacier National Park’s ‘Reds’

Despite pandemic-related challenges, Xanterra is busy rebuilding the park’s iconic fleet of red buses.
GNP Red Jammer
Posted at 8:07 AM, Mar 17, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-18 11:36:13-04

COLUMBIA FALLS — Inside a nondescript garage south of Columbia Falls sits one of the most beloved fleets of historic vehicles anywhere in America. Dave Eglsaer, the man responsible for the fleet, said keeping them inside this time of year is key because the moment they park one outside, people stop to take pictures and even ask for tours of the shop.

The object of their fascination and affection are the iconic “Red Buses” of Glacier National Park, the oldest and most intact fleet of passenger vehicles anywhere in the United States. At one point, the White Motor Company “Model 706” bus was a common sight throughout the national park system (Yellowstone’s were painted yellow), but today, of those original park fleets, only the Glacier fleet remains in service.

Now, almost 90 years after the first ones were built, Glacier Park’s concessioner, Xanterra Parks & Resorts, is in the middle of a major effort to keep the buses on the road for decades to come. While the effort has been delayed due to pandemic-related, supply-chain issues, officials with Xanterra said the vehicles that have been rebuilt over the last four years are performing well, hauling happy tourists throughout the “Crown of the Continent” during the busy tourist season, usually from May until October.

Glacier National Park was the first in the United States to offer motorized tours back in 1914. Prior to that, the Great Northern Railway, which had the contract to provide lodging and transportation within the park, worked with a stagecoach company to move people around the park.

But the stage coaches were often slow and late. In one instance, railroad president Louie W. Hill had to trudge through the mud with his family because no stage was available to take them to their accommodations. That experience was still fresh in his mind when Walter White, president of the White Motor Company, approached Hill about using buses within the park. Hill jumped at the opportunity, and the new vehicles soon arrived, painted in a vibrate red (inspired by ripe mountain ash berries). Not long after, the stagecoach company lost the contract to work in the park.

In the 1930s, the White Motor Company created what it dubbed the “Model 706” to serve in national parks across the country. The vehicle was rugged enough to handle the rough and tumble roads of the national parks but also stylish, thanks to industrial designer Alexis de Sakhoffsky, who had previously worked for the Packard Motor Car Company. Hundreds of 706 touring buses were built in the late 1930s, including 100 for Yellowstone National Park and 35 for Glacier. The first ones arrived in Glacier in 1936.

The buses had a double-clutch transmission that could be hard for drivers to master. As a result, it was common to hear drivers jamming the gears up and down the Going-to-the-Sun Road. As a result, the drivers were nicknamed “jammers” or “gearjammers.” (It’s a common misnomer that the “Jammer” name applies to the bus itself.)

Over the years, many national park touring companies replaced their 706 buses. But the Glacier ones endured into the 21st century, along the way becoming synonymous with the park itself. Today, 33 of the original 35 buses remain in service (one was wrecked and another has been preserved in its original condition by the National Park Service).

The vehicles were almost taken off the road for good in 1999 when, after dropping off a load of passengers at the Lake McDonald Lodge, the front axle of one of the buses suddenly broke. The vehicles were immediately sidelined and inspections found that nearly all of the buses had cracks in the chassis. The Ford Motor Company rebuilt the entire fleet for less than $7 million. As part of that, ownership of the vehicles was also transferred from the concessionaire to the federal government. The buses reentered service in 2002.

Since that last rebuild, many of the buses have put more than 200,000 miles on the odometer. As part of the most recent concessionaire contract, the National Park Service has required Xanterra Parks & Resorts to put aside 2.5% of its revenue to rebuild the entire fleet. In 2018, Xanterra and NPS announced an ambitious rehabilitation program that would see the buses getting new engines and chassis, among other improvements. Legacy Classic Trucks of Driggs, Idaho, was selected to do the rehab.

The first rebuilt bus arrived in late 2019, but subsequent work was delayed by pandemic-related, supply-chain issues. For example, in 2020 and 2021, Legacy Classic Trucks struggled to secure the correct chassis, so five returned with new engines and other upgrades but the old chassis. When the remaining buses are rebuilt in 2026 or 2027, those five will return to Idaho for the new chassis. Eglsaer, Xanterra’s transportation director, said it will be a relatively straightforward switch.

As of early 2024, 11 buses have been completely rebuilt and four more are expected to return to Montana this spring. Most of the improvements (like the new engine, chassis and wheels) will probably go unnoticed by drivers and passengers, although there have been a few cosmetic changes inside. The dashboard has been replaced with one that is more historically accurate and there’s now a cup holder for the driver.

“The drivers are especially happy about that,” Eglsaer said.

A more effective heating system has also been installed in the vehicle (one for the driver and two for the passengers) and more modern LED lights have been installed on the brake lights and turn signals. The original halogen headlights with the yellow tint remain the same. Eglsaer said it all results in a better vehicle that should last for another 200,000 miles.

“We aim to improve these vehicles, but we never want to change the visitor experience,” he said. “A rider in 2024 should have the same experience as a rider in 1936 had.”

It’s a sentiment shared by historian and author Ray Djuff, who has written two books about the park and is publishing a third this spring about the buses called “Glacier’s Reds.” He said it’s conceivable that the buses will be able to run for another 80 years, but it’s also possible that replicas would eventually have to be used for regular tours to preserve the originals. What matters most, Djuff said, is that the visitor experience remains the same.

“The thing I love most about the red buses is they let visitors tour the park in the same way their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did decades before — at a leisurely pace, in a relaxed manner and with gearjammers providing their informed and often humorous commentary,” he said.

As for the present, Eglsaer and his crew are staying busy at the shop in Columbia Falls, making sure the buses are ready for another season on the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Eglsaer likes to say that “during the summer we make them safe, but during the winter we make them perfect.”

Eglsaer started as a jammer himself and has worked with the buses since the early 2000s when they were rebuilt by Ford. He said while it can be hectic keeping the oldest fleet of passenger vehicles on the road during the busy summer months (each one puts at least 10,000 miles on the odometer every summer), it’s a rewarding job.

“When the first bus hits the road for the season, I still get a kick out of it,” he said.
Red Bus tours in Glacier Park begin on May 11. Visit Xanterra’s Glacier National Park Lodges website for more. 

CORRECTION: This story was updated on March 18, 2024, to clarify that the Glacier “Reds” are the last original fleet of “Model 706” buses remaining in park service. The yellow buses in use in Yellowstone National Park, according to Xanterra, were bought in 2006 from the Skagway Streetcar Co., which had purchased them from around the country for tours of an Alaskan mining town.

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