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O'Harra Bus Lines, 1938-1948

Pioneer Alaska Bus Companies

    In 1938, Kenneth F. "Ken" O'Harra started operating a bus between Fairbanks, Alaska, and Livengood, a mining camp 82 miles to the north. By the time O'Harra Bus Lines went bankrupt 10 years later, it was the largest bus operation in Alaska, with runs extending into the Yukon Territory.

    In 1938, the Livengood Stage Co., operated by Bliss Harper, was providing twice-weekly service to and from Livengood for the 250 miners working the placer gold operations. There were also a few men working for Fred Crane, who was trying to develop a cinnabar mine. Ken O'Harra bought the company with its one bus, and opened his first bus depot in the Red Cross Drug Store on Cushman Street. The ad above and to the right appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on September 10, 1940.

    In 1939, Ken O'Harra bought 2 more buses to operate charters and special excursions. When construction of Ladd Field (Ladd Army Airfield) began that year, O'Harra started scheduled service between downtown Fairbanks and the project. While keeping the the Livengood Stage name for that service, the Ladd Field service was done as Ken O'Harra Bus Service. The ad to the right appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner on June 14, 1940.

    In June 1940, the commanding officer at Ladd Field, Col. Dale E. Gaffney, told O'Harra that a bus service was urgently needed in Anchorage for workers who had started construction of Elmendorf Field on June 8th. O'Harra flew to Anchorage with Bill Lavery (Star Air Lines) in one of his 3 tri-motor Stinson Model A aircraft.

    O'Harra found Anchorage roads to be an almost impassable sea of mud, and workmen were either walking to Elmendorf, or paying 50 cents to ride in the back of a pickup truck. O'Harra sent one of his Fairbanks buses to Anchorage, and bought another one from Pioneer Bus Lines, who was running between Anchorage and Palmer. The first Air Corps personnel arrived on August 12th, and O'Harra soon had 5 buses working in Anchorage, operating 65 round trips each day. The bus terminal was at 4th Avenue and C Street.

    Ken O'Harra told Fairbanks Daily News-Miner writer Charley Mayse in 1973 that on military paydays, buses ran continuously and every one was full, with 37-42 people sitting and up to 20 more standing.

    As well as scheduled and contract bus services, O'Harra also ran special excursions out of Fairbanks. On June 20, 1940, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner said about their Midnight Sun Excursions:

    At 8:30 o'clock tomorrow night, Friday, the first of the Midnight Sun Excursions will leave Fairbanks for Cleary Summit. The excursions are sponsored over the week end by the Ken O'Harra Bus Service.
    Excursion trips will be conducted from Fairbanks to the summit each evening of this coming week end, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. All of the departures at Fairbanks for the summit will be from the Pastime Stage Depot near First Avenue on Cushman at 8:30 o'clock.
    Cleary Summit, one of the most beautiful scenic spots of Interior Alaska, is a little more than 20 miles from Fairbanks. From Cleary Summit one can see rich mining camps at the base of majestic mountains.
    At Summit Roadhose located at the top of the summit, excursionists on the Ken O'Harra trip will enjoy midnight lunch and dancing while the sun shines at midnight. Others on the trip will hike and picnic while the busses wait.
    The trip back to Fairbanks will begin at 1 o'clock in the morning. Reservations for any one of the three trips can be made by phoning any time of the day or night, the number, East 390. The charge for any one of the 8:30 trips from Fairbanks and return is a nominal one.

    As the business grew, so did the company's inventory and busses, buildings, and other equipment. On November 5, 1940, The Alaska Miner reported:

New Bus Home And Apartments Are Under Way
    Construction of a fine new garage and apartment building is well under way at Fourth and Lincoln streets. The building is being erected by Kenneth O'Harra, bus line proprietor. It will accommodate three buses and have a large work room on the lower floor. On the second floor will be two large, modern apartments. The ground dimensions will be 32 by 34 feet.
    The framework is now up, and John Strait, contractor, expects to have the building ready for the buses within two weeks. The apartments will be finished soon afterward.

    Following the declaration of war against Japan by the United States on December 7, 1941, the military presence in Alaska expanded rapidly, and O'Harra Bus Lines expanded with it. As well as the military contracts, they supplied school buses in Anchorage and hauled mail from Fairbanks to Big Delta. The Fairbanks bus terminal had moved from the Red Cross Drug Store to larger quarters in the Nordale Hotel on Third Avenue.

    Less than a year after the declaration of war, on December 5, 1942, Ken O'Harra was drafted into the army. Although he got stationed at "Fort Rich", anything needed by the bus company had to be done on his time off. Paul Port was hired as manager.

    Ken got one good 15-day break from his regular Army duties. He and another driver brought a new 32-passenger Beck bus up to Fort Richardson from Sidney, Ohio. O'Harra told Charley Mayse that:

Five days travel time was required to Edmonton; six days from Edmonton to Fort St. John, a distance of some 500 miles over unimproved roads that were mostly mud. But from Dawson Creek on, all was serene and the run from there to Anchorage required 39 hours, with Charley Porter and O'Harra doing the driving. They slept in the new bus as it rolled along and did alternate tricks at the wheel.

    In that commentary, Fort St. John and Dawson Creek are reversed, but from Fort St. John to Anchorage in what I think was early 1944, it would have been almost 1,600 miles of gravel, so doing the trip in 39 hours is impressive.

    In early 1944, O'Harra Bus Lines started suppling transportation for the men upgrading the Glenn Highway and building an airfield at Gulkana. That was soon expanded to scheduled service, and then the run was extended to Valdez. Service from Valdez to Fairbanks and on to Circle was quickly added. To offer reliable overnight accommodation at Gulkana, O'Harra took over the Santa Claus Lodge (seen to the right), which had 23 rooms in the main building and another 10 in an annex.

    In the Fall of 1945, O'Harra added 26 Mile - later called Eielson Air Force Base - to his schedules, and that service expanded rapidly.

    The Alaska Highway was the route that O'Harra really wanted to expand onto, and in early 1946, he started scheduled service beween Fairbanks and Whitehorse. To serve passengers on that route, O'Harra leased a small lodge at Tok to offer meals and emergency overnight accommodation, and bought the Army camp at the highway's White River crossing.

    The ad to the right, promoting O'Harra's Alaska Highway service, appeared in the Chicago Tribune on February 19, 1946. On September 16, 1946, the Chicago Tribune published an article by William Strand about the O'Harra run from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, and beyond by British Yukon Navigation bus. Prior to 1948, only essential traffic was allowed on the highway (that is, no tourists, except on buses). On February 13, 1948, Canadian Resources Minister J.A. Glen announced in Ottawa that due to great improvements in tourist facilites along the Alaska Highway, travel restrictions had been removed. A 56-page guide to the Yukon that was published by the Canadian government in 1947 provided this information about the bus services:

To facilitate maintenance operations and for the benefit of travellers without automobiles, bus services are operated on the Alaska Highway between Dawson Creek and Whitehorse by the British Yukon Navigation Company, and between Whitehorse and Fairbanks by O'Harra Bus Lines. The present schedule calls for trips in each direction three times weekly, and overnight stops at lodge-type hotels are being provided at Fort Nelson and Lower Post, British Columbia, approximately 300 miles apart. In addition, Yukon luncheon facilities have been opened mid-way between overnight stops, and rest-stop facilities are also available at intervals of 50 to. 75 miles. Bus passengers, and those utilizing aerial transportation, do not require permits.

    On September 12, 1946, O'Harra Bus Lines expanded their Whitehorse bus services by starting service to Haines and Juneau. On August 5th, O'Harra had been declared the winning bid to purchase, for $105,000, the former Army camp known as Chilkoot Barracks, near Haines. At the end of September, however - two weeks after announcing the Haines bus service - that award was overturned. See The Founding of Port Chilkoot for more information. To reach Juneau from Whitehorse, the buses were put on flatcars of the White Pass & Yukon Route railway from Whitehorse to Skagway, then by water to Juneau. The first "ferry" to serve Skagway arrived in 1949, after a dock was built to serve Chilkoot Motorship Lines, which had purchased the MV Chilkoot, an ex-Navy landing craft, the year before.

    In May 1947, O'Harra signed an agreement with Greyhound to connect with their buses to Whitehorse, allowing Greyhound passengers to easily continue on to Alaska points (see newspaper article). A lengthy report on a 30-day tour of Alaska in August 1947 includes some interesting commentary about the section of it done on an O'Harra bus.

    "Doing Business in Alaska", a chapter in the book Kiplinger's Personal Finance, published in November 1947, includes a note about O'Harra: "Kenneth O'Harra became famous as the 'richest corporal in the American Army' when, still in uniform, he established the O'Harra Bus Lines to serve Fairbanks, Anchorage, Valdez and Circle. Today, he owns a fleet of 30 high-powered buses and operates all the way to Whitehorse on the Alcan Highway."

    In early April of 1948, O'Harra Bus Lines and their Santa Claus Lodge appeared in many newspapers across the United States, in a full-page advertisement for Zoom whole wheat cereal.

    In the summer of 1948, O'Harra Bus Lines' rapid expansion, combined with the increasing number of their passengers buying their own vehicles, brought an end to the company On August 9, 1948, this brief article appeared in the Daily Sitka Sentinel:

Anchorage Bus Line Files Receivership
    ANCHORAGE, Aug. 9. - (AP - The O'Harra Bus Lines, largest company of its kind operating throughout Alaska, has filed a petition for voluntary bankruptcy in the U.S. District Court at Anchorage.
    Among its properties is the Santa Claus Lodge on the Richardson Highway.
    Ken O'Harra, the owner, continues to operate the firm as receiver. The case has been transferred to the Fourth Division District Court.

    On October 1, 1948, Montana's Great Falls Tribune reported that:

    Application of O'Harra bus lines of Anchorage for permission to carry passengers, express and mail between Great Falls and Sweet Grass was dismissed by the interstate commerce commission and the Montana railroad commission today. The application to operate between Great Falls and Sweet Grass, serving no intermediate points, was understood here to mean O'Harra planned extension of bus service along the entire route of the one-time military route and through principal Alberta cities to Great Falls, roughly paralleling the air route used by the military air transport service.

More about O'Harra Bus Lines: