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Greyhound and the Northwest Service Command

on the Alaska Highway

Bus & Motorcoach History: Alaska, the Yukon, & Northern BC

    In the history of every company there is usually some event or series of events that can be picked out and pointed to with pride. Greyhound had many such things in its corporate history that were commendable - providing people in isolated areas the opportunity to reach towns and cities, and the millions of accident free miles that distinguish the records of its drivers are but two examples. Nonetheless, when discussion turns to achievement and pride of accomplishment, early employees always remember the Northwest Service Command.

    The early war years had not been difficult for the company since travel was not restricted and a fairly large number of people were still travelling. In fact, the number of service personnel in training around the country and the establishment of new military bases in the west resulted in a good deal of leave travel for enlisted men visiting their families or, conversely, for families visiting them. At some places in the west where Greyhound lines served military bases, it needed to put on extra schedules to handle all the additional travel being generated. Jack Rajala, driving on the Kingsgate run during the early war years, remembers the number of military wives he carried who were going to visit their husbands based on the west coast. Trying to save money, they travelled by bus rather than train, only to find that Canadian money was worth less than its American counterpart during the U. S. part of their trip.

    The prospects for the company began to change in November 1941 when the wartime transit controller announced the imposition of gas rationing. The number of routes and/or amount of service on each route had to be seriously examined and, in some instances, eliminated. A further order the following spring prohibited the operation of buses for sightseeing purposes or the supplying of charter service of an unessential nature. But it was to be an amendment to this last order, effective November 15, 1942, that was most significant, for it restricted bus companies to operating passenger services only fifty miles in any direction, the objective being the conservation of gasoline and rubber for the war effort. The restriction, subject to special consideration in cases where no other form of public transportation existed, affected Greyhound seriously.

    The company obtained special permission to run main routes such as Calgary-Lethbridge and Calgary-Edmonton but even in the latter case the trip had to be done in two parts on two different days with passengers overnighting in Red Deer. In other instances the regulations could be stretched by one driver driving the bus to the fifty mile limit and then turning it over to a new driver. Eventually the less important routes began to suffer and there was soon a surplus of equipment and drivers. Fortunately for the company, just when it looked like it was going to be seriously affected, relief came in the form of a directive from the Greyhound Corporation headquarters.

    By agreement with the Canadian government, in 1942 the United States embarked on building the Alcan Highway to shore up the continent's northern defences against the threat of Japanese attack. The United States Army Corps of Engineers, Northwest Service Command, was going to accomplish the amazing feat of building a basic but passable road 1,574 miles long between Dawson Creek, British Columbia and Fairbanks, Alaska in eight months. When they began the task the Engineers immediately ran into problems transporting both military and civilian personnel. The drivers assigned to troop truck transport were unfamiliar with the hilly, muddy and icy road conditions on the graded-out road northward from Dawson Creek. As luck would have it, Ralph Bogan, one of the participants in the Mesaba Company which spawned the Greyhound Corporation and now one of the Corporation's chief executive officers, had been commissioned as a Colonel with the Engineers and had been appointed as an aide to the commanding officer of the project. Bogan contacted Fay in the fall of 1942 and asked him to take on the job, since Greyhound's American equipment wasn't designed for the rugged landscape nor were its drivers familiar with the conditions that would be encountered.

    At the time, Fay was beginning to worry that some of Greyhound's underutilized buses might be appropriated for wartime purposes, as there was a shortage of good transportation equipment in the country. He was therefore very interested in the opportunity the Northwest Service Command presented, as it was intimated that if a system using Greyhound men and equipment could be worked out, the U. S. Army would be willing to enter into a contract. Greyhound immediately took the steps necessary to have itself legally registered in both the Yukon Territory and Alaska and on December 23, 1942, agreed to a temporary contract with the United States government to operate on the Alcan Highway on a trial basis.

    The contract specified that Western Canadian Greyhound would make available at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, twelve of its "37-passenger standard Greyhound motor buses" and enough drivers, mechanics and dispatchers to ensure the operation of these buses in scheduled service. The buses, assigned special Northwest Service Command numbers, were subject to inspection by the contracting officer, the military official charged with ministering the agreement.

    Those to be transported in the area covered by the contract, Dawson Creek to Fairbanks, included "personnel of the military forces of the United States of America, civilian employees of the United States of America, and workmen and others employed by the United States of America and/or its contractors and agencies." In return, the company would receive fifty cents per mile per bus per day with a minimum payment of $80 per day for each bus guaranteed. As well, the government would provide suitable housing and mess facilities for the company's employees, office space for administrative and clerical employees, gasoline, oil, tires, the parts necessary to keep the buses operating, and shop facilities for storage and maintenance.

    Even while the contract was being negotiated, Greyhound men and equipment were on the scene. On November 20, 1942, on coming in from their respective runs, four of the company's best drivers, all unmarried men, were informed that they were to be prepared to go to Alaska immediately. Bill Brown, driving the MacLeod-Kingsgate run, Walt Hyssop, on the Lethbridge-Calgary service, Jack Tait and Don Luck were told to bring one suitcase and a sleeping bag and take the next bus to Calgary. Here they watched as two 37-passenger buses that had been specially outfitted by chief mechanic Joe Kirk, including fender skirts and a particularly strong heater, were loaded on C. & E. flatears. Then, joined by mechanic Bill Broderick and superintendent of maintenance and transportation Lorne Frizzell, the four drivers boarded the train for the long rail trip to Dawson Creek, the jumping off point for the Alcan Highway.

    The Northern Alberta Railway north of Edmonton was jammed with military and construction personnel, but the crew and buses arrived in Dawson Creek without incident. On unloading the buses, the crew found a large number of personnel waiting to go up the highway, which had been closed to troop trucks because of problems they were experiencing with three bad hills between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson. At the same time the aircraft usually flying up the highway were grounded because of bad weather. Laden down with tool boxes, sleeping bags and other paraphernalia, a telephone crew piled into every available space, and the buses set off over what was basically a bulldozed track through the bush towards Whitehorse, almost a thousand miles distant. In the hilly section between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson the evidence for their need was there for the drivers to see. At the bottorn of the hills the sides of the road were littered with the remains of trucks where the drivers had bailed out when they lost control. At one place they passed a yard with 700 wrecked vehicles in it! Nor was their own situation particularly rosy since on several occasions the crew and passengers had to get out and push the buses up a slippery hill or chop grooves in the ice at river crossings so the vehicles could get traction. Spelling each other off, the drivers pushed onward and arrived at Whitehorse in 65 below zero temperatures after a fifty-five hour non-stop trip.

    At Whitehorse, the military authorities did not know what to make of the buses as they had not been informed that Greyhound was coming. Regardless, they were quite willing to use the opportunity that had presented itself, and after the buses were repaired and gassed up they were immediately ordered to make the return trip, It proved to be equally difficult and Frizzell determined that the buses were not geared low enough to handle the demands being made on them. While the other five drivers bunked in at the Dawson Creek Hotel, he returned to Calgary to go to work on the problem. A couple of weeks later a new lower-geared rear end arrived for one of the buses with instructions from Frizzell to install it and try it out on another run.

    Because the Greyhound operation still lacked official status, the second trip turned out to be as problematical as the first. Fuel was not supplied and several times the drivers were forced to stop and suck gas out of nearly-empty abandoned gas barrels. At one camp where nothing else was available, they were able to get a half barrel of gas, but it turned out to be diesel fuel that made the engine smoke, although the bus kept going. Nevertheless, the new rear end worked and the project now seemed feasible.

    The original crew was soon joined by a few others and they spent much of early 1943 bunked in at the hotel while they waited for further orders from Fay in Calgary. He was now trying to get the United States government to sign the contract that had been negotiated in December so that the service could officially begin. Those waiting in Dawson Creek did not know their two buses would soon become their accommodation when a dynamite shed across the street from the hotel caught fire and exploded, killing twenty-two people. The drivers were lucky not to be badly hurt, even though Jack Tait was blown right out of the room in which he was staying into one across the hall. He emerged from the hotel unscathed carrying two children whom he had had the presence of mind to scoop up on his way out, Bert Wilson, another driver who had come up to join them, standing on the railway station platform 200 feet away, was hit by a flying timber which broke his leg. He was evacuated to Edmonton by air that night with the other injured and, after receiving $2,000 compensation for his injury, decided not to go back. Bud Armstrong happened to be walking past the office that Greyhound had set up under Norman Lord's direction and was hit in the head with Lord's typewriter when it came flying through the window. Greyhound personnel shared the space available in the buses with other Dawson Creek residents for several days until alternate accommodation could be arranged.

    Although it took much longer than anticipated for the contract to be signed (the Secretary of War ratified it on April 16, 1943), in February the Greyhound operation got underway regardless. At his office in Calgary, Fay soon was getting glowing reports of what it was accomplishing. For example, on February 19th he received a letter from Tom Kirkham, who had put the knowledge he gained as a Greyhound ticket agent to work at Trans-Canada Air Lines as supervisor of passenger agents:

    I took the CNR out of Edmonton Wednesday night to Winnipeg. There must have been 200 US Army and US contractors employees on board.

    I asked quite a few of them who had been working on the Alaska Highway if they had seen anything of the Greyhound Lines up there and they all answered yes. The answers varied but the consensus of opinion was that there were no finer buses or drivers anywhere and that it was one outfit that "sure knew what it was doing" or "they could teach a lot of our guys how to run things efficiently."

    Buoyed by such reports, Fay decided to inspect the operation personally, Accompanied by Lorne Frizzell, Bob Borden and Joe Kirk, he arrived in Dawson Creek in early March. Using a Greyhound Packard sedan, and carrying a letter of introduction from the commanding officer, the party took a tour of inspection along the highway.

    By the time he returned from the trip, the Army Engineers were already requesting Greyhound to make more buses available. Unfortunately, there were no more to spare and the United States governmĂ©nt began to buy its own to supplement the company's fleet. Greyhound agreed to provide drivers for these in a new contract which Fay had been negotiating for some time. Dated June 15, 1943, it had a major improvement over the first one insofar as Western Canadian was guaranteed a small profit. The contract estimated total monthly operating expenses at $59,130 and agreed that the government would pay a "Contractor's fee" of $1,304 per month over and above these costs. As well it would pay a rental fee of $40 per vehicle per day and would, as in the past, reimburse the company on all direct expenses for fuel, supplies, equipment and services.

    By the summer of 1943 the Alcan service was in full swing with the buses being driven around-the-clock in the continuous summer light. As the drivers worked in pairs, usually two drivers at a time were notified that they were to go on the highway detail and a bus would be picked up in Calgary, driven to Edmonton and then loaded on the railway for shipment to Dawson Creek, just as the first two had been. The twelve buses used were built by Fort Garry Motor Body in 1941 and were equipped with Hall Scott horizontal, opposed-cylinder "pancake" engines. Once the bus was unloaded the drivers worked a relay up the highway. They would pick up a load of passengers in Dawson Creek and share the driving up the first leg of the highway to Fort Nelson, where they would then hand the bus over to another pair of drivers who would take it up the next leg to Whitehorse. All the driver teams worked on the first-in, first-out basis, the crew that brought the bus in handing it over to the crew who had been first in who drove it up the next leg.

    As the number of buses and crews working the highway increased, the Dawson Creek-Whitehorse section was broken into three legs, each about three hundred miles long, with relay points at Fort Nelson and Watson Lake. Drivers worked their way up the highway through the three legs and then drew the assignment of running a transit service that operated between Whitehorse and the various military and civilian construction camps that stretched some ten miles out from the city. This assignment might have seemed a bit of a respite after the gruelling drive up the highway, but it was not, as each driver worked it for eighteen hours from 6 a.m. to midnight. After this fourth leg, the men got a lay-over and then were assigned to start back down the highway or to go on the two northern relays, Whitehorse to Tok Junction and Tok to Fairbanks. Very few of the drivers ever got to Fairbanks as there was only about one trip a day north of Whitehorse compared with three or more a day coming into the city.

    Dealing with the vagaries of weather and the almost unbelievable road conditions left a strong impression on many of the men who drove the Alaska Highway. While many remembered the inevitable mishaps that occurred with buses sliding off the road, they also recalled that there were no serious accidents or injuries in over a million miles of operations. Several drivers vividly remembered the arrival of groups of negro soldiers from the American south who were completely unaccustomed to the frigid weather. The soldiers often had to get out of the bus and push it up a slippery hill or out of a mudhole, suffering terribly from the cold in the process. One driver remembered an occasion when he stopped his bus at the Robison River because of uncertain ice and it had to be pulled across by cable. His fears about getting across safely were not greatly relieved when at one point he looked down through the crystal clear ice and twenty feet of water to see a brand new bulldozer sitting on the bottom. Others remembered that sometimes the roads were so bad they were closed to all vehicles except the buses, which were required to carry on. The fact that the remains of planes caught in bad weather which had tried to use the road as a landing strip could be periodically seen littering the bush along the roadside did nothing to increase their confidence.

    Despite these situations, most drivers took the job in stride. The road was constantly being improved throughout 1943 and in winter conditions it was ploughed as frequently as possible. One of the reasons they had been chosen for the job was their experience with winter driving and when the road was icy they could stay between the snowbanks by keeping at least one wheel in a rut. Oddly enough, the worst conditions were encountered when the temperature warmed up a bit in February and March and rain occasionally fell. The wet ice that resulted was the dread of every driver for it mattered not how adept he was, there was virtually nothing he could do in such conditions.

    If the men on the Northwest Service Command were required to put in long hours in often less than ideal conditions, they were certainly well taken care of. Each man had to swear an official U.S. government oath of secrecy when beginning the job and he was then issued with a military-style uniform with khaki pants and a sheepskin overcoat for cold weather duty. At the end of a leg the crews were put up in military dormitories, or, if they were full, in a hotel. In fact, at Fort Nelson they even had their own barracks built. In camp they were awarded all the privileges of an officer, and many recalled the great meals they received in the mess hall or the 25 cent cigars they could purchase for 2 cents. While they were seconded to the project they were paid their normal! salary by Greyhound and retained all their seniority in the company. Every six weeks they were allowed passage to Edmonton to take a two week "furlough." They could either take the train, or if more fortunate could catch a lift on the armed forces aircraft. Drivers well remembered the numerous bottles of whiskey they had to produce on returning from Edmonton to ensure that those controlling the flights would find an empty seat on a "full" airplane.

    The fact that the Greyhound service had become a critical element in the construction of the Alcan Highway was attested to in an article written by Richard L. Neuberger, a former New York Times correspondent, who was serving as an aide to Brigadier-General James O'Connor, the officer in charge of highway construction, Neuberger's article "Arctic Bus Ride," originally appearing in Argus magazine, was read into the record of the 78th Congress of the United States on January 10, 1944, by Homer D. Angell, a member of the House of Representatives from Oregon, who had recently returned from Whitehorse himself:

    Night has blacked out the land by now, I fold an Army blanket over me and settle across my seat on the bus. Sleep comes quickly. We all awaken as the lights in the bus flash on, hours later. We are at Fort Nelson, where the road turns sharply westward toward Alaska. I look at my wrist watch. It is 4 in the morning.

    Two men have been driving our bus, each alternately sleeping or taking a turn at the wheel. Now two other drivers take over, E. R. Bavin, of Edmonton, and Grant Thompson, of Cranbrook, British Columbia, are replaced by Ray and Fraser Maxwell, brothers from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

    As the bus leaves Fort Nelson, its fuel truck replenished, the soldiers settle back to sleep once more. But I am wide awake; the sleep had been coaxed from me. I sit up in front and talk to Fraser Maxwell. I learn that all these drivers are men from the western Canadian division of the Greyhound Lines. They have come north voluntarily, signing up for stretches of 6 months each ... Most of them come from Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge, Vancouver and Saskatoon...

    At the Watson Lake relay station, the Maxwell brothers gave up their driving posts and wearily sought out the barracks reserved for the bus drivers. Their places were taken by Bill Cherlenko, of Lethbridge, and Fred Enns, of Calgary. It was Fred's first week on the highway, and he was still goggle-eyed at the experience of driving for a thousand miles and not coming to a single town or village. "Some wilderness," expressed his primary reaction.

    On we rolled, toward our second sunset on the road, I thought of Fred's comment. We had been travelling nearly 35 hours and averaging 25 miles an hour, yet we had not come to any settlement. Here on the North American continent was an immense forest and mountain fastness, dotted only by isolated Indian villages, Hudson's Bay stores and mounted police posts, and now by relay stations and airports of the RCAF and the American Army...

    Our bus jounced on, We cross the headwaters of the Yukon River, and looked down at the greenish torrent which would end its individuality in the Bering Sea, 2,100 bleak miles away at St. Michael. I wondered what Jack London, who had taken boatloads of Klondikers through these uplands, would have written about our bus with its load of soldiers. I am sure he would have gone back through the skein of all our lives and woven a tale to match those of the men who travelled here by dog sled and hand-hewn raft.

    Once, the building of: the highway was completed in the fall of 1943, Greyhound's services were still required to carry personnel up and down the road. By this time the highway had also become a staging route for getting Russian pilots trained in the United States into Russia. Walter Hyssop had been paired with a driver who had worked for Red Bus Lines and could speak Russian. When the Army command learned of this, the pair was assigned to carry pilots back and forth from camps at Fairbanks to the airstrip, where they were flown into Russia. Hyssop recalled one occasion, after Fairbanks had been fogged in for several days, watching 102 planes come down the runway making the flight across the Bering Strait.

    While Greyhound was involved in the Northwest Service Command project, it experienced personnel shortages in other areas of its operations. Many company men had volunteered for military service and most of the drivers and mechanics working on the Alcan Highway were those who had been turned down when they volunteered. Bob Borden was among those who volunteered but the National Selective Service Commission placed such a high priority on the Northwest Service Command that it assigned him to serve on the project rather than in the armed forces, Company personnel shortages were most severe in the head office operation itself, with Fay, Frizzell, Williams and Robertson being basically the only ones left to ensure that the company continued on course through the war.

    It was with some relief then that the Greyhound contract with the United States government was terminated in September 1944 when they began to take over the responsibility for transporting the remaining personnel themselves. During the course of the year the number of buses and drivers had been slowly cut back so here were only five vehicles left by the end. Bill Brown and Walter Hyssop, two of the drivers who had been part of the initial four-assigned to the service, were among the last-to leave that fall, helping to drive the remaining cars and buses, carrying twenty-eight Greyhound people, out as far as the Peace River.

    We do not yet know the author or source of this article. It has the feel of a company-contracted history. We received it in 1990 as photocopies of a fax received by a friend who was helping to organize an RV caravan up the Alaska Highway during the highway's 50th anniversary celebrations in 1992. Some edits have been made, most notably changing the name "North West Service Command" used by the author to the correct "Northwest Service Command".