WEST GLACIER – With the turn of a key last Thursday morning, Bruce Austin helped 89 years of oily and noisy history roar back to life.
As Glacier Park Transport Company Cadillac No. 155 idled in the morning sun – its red paint gleaming just like it did when it first arrived here nearly nine decades ago – people took snapshots and selfies with the vehicle. While an 89-year-old vehicle is certainly an impressive sight, it doesn’t normally draw this much attention, especially when surrounded by the stunning peaks and clear waters of Glacier National Park. But old No. 155 isn’t your normal vehicle.
Eighty-two years ago this month, No. 155 cemented itself in Glacier Park history when it was selected to carry the 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. On Aug. 4-5 last week, Austin and other historic “Red Bus” enthusiasts led a tour through the park that retraced part of Roosevelt’s journey.
Roosevelt was touring the West in the summer of 1934 when he and the First Family arrived at West Glacier on Aug. 5 in the president’s private rail car. From West Glacier, Roosevelt took a ride on the newly constructed Going-to-the-Sun Road. At St. Mary, the presidential party stopped for lunch before continuing on to Two Medicine, where Roosevelt addressed the nation via radio.
“Today, for the first time in my life, I have seen Glacier Park,” the president told the nation. “Perhaps I can best express to you my thrill and delight by saying that I wish every American, old and young, could have been with me today. The great mountains, the glaciers, the lakes and the trees make me long to stay here for all the rest of the summer.”
After dinner, the First Family headed to East Glacier to get back on their private train car to head to their next stop, the Fort Peck Dam. Once the president left, Cadillac No. 155 went back to its regular duties of hauling VIPs around Glacier Park.
Eventually, No. 155 and the seven other Cadillacs built for Glacier in the 1920s (all of them were used to transport VIPs) left the park. Years later, No. 155 popped up at an auction in the Midwest and it caught the eye of one of Austin’s friends. The friend took some photos of the vehicle and sent them to Austin in Montana. As soon as he saw the number, he recognized the historical significance of the car and wanted it in his collection.
Austin, who lives in Nye, grew up in Montana and visited Glacier and Yellowstone parks as a kid. Austin was always interested in the red (or yellow in Yellowstone) buses that plied the parks’ roads but he never got to ride one. Later in life, though, he purchased an historic bus and has been collecting park vehicles ever since.
“My friends joke with me that I had to buy one of these buses to actually ride in one,” he said. “It’s basically a hobby that has gotten out of hand.”
After purchasing the vehicle five years ago, Austin restored it to how it looked in the early 1930s. On one side, the original logo has been maintained, albeit weather-beaten from years of exposure, whereas on the other side a new replica logo has been applied so people can see what it looked like new. Even the cigarette lighter that is tethered to the dashboard and can be handed off to someone in the back seat still works, although Austin says, “There’s no smoking in this vehicle.”
In 2005, Austin created the Jammer Trust, an educational organization whose mission is to maintain vehicles like No. 155 and use them to tell the story of national park touring buses. The trust also helps historic touring vehicle owners obtain new parts to keep their buses in running condition. Sage Olson, another member of the trust, owns Red Bus No. 64, a White Motor Company vehicle built in 1925 that hauled FDR’s press contingent during the 1934 visit. No. 64 was also part of last week’s tour through Glacier.
Austin said the goal of the Jammer Trust is to make sure future generations can experience the Red Buses not as static displays but as operating museum pieces.
“I want people to be able to touch, feel and smell this history,” Austin said as he looked over No. 155’s old Cadillac motor. “We want these vehicles to be experienced, not just looked at. When they go to museums they tend to just be looked at behind glass.”