CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

100 Years on a Dirty Dog: The History of Greyhound

Getty Images
Getty Images

Greyhound has been busing Americans around for a century. It's hard to believe that after all these years, the company is still riding high.

As careers go, Carl Eric Wickman’s stint in the car business was less than auspicious. In 1913, the immigrant drill operator paid $3,000 to open a Goodyear Tire/Hupmobile car franchise in Hibbing, Minn., not far from the world’s largest open-pit iron mine. Unfortunately, Wickman was even worse at selling cars than he was at picking car makers—so the enterprising young Swede abandoned his dealership dreams soon after making his one and only sale … to himself.

Realizing that most iron miners were too poor to afford their own vehicle, Wickman decided to start transporting workers between Hibbing and Alice, a mining town two miles away. Cramming 15 passengers into his eight-seat “touring car,” the 27-year-old charged 15 cents a ride. On his first trip, in 1914, Wickman collected a grand total of $2.25. But 100 years later, that modest sum has grown into nearly a billion dollars in annual revenue.

Wickman, it turns out, pretty much invented intercity bus travel—which for most Americans equals Greyhound, the company that emerged from that long-ago Hupmobile ride. “Greyhound has become generic for bus travel,” says Robert Gabrick, author of Going The Greyhound Way. “Like Kleenex for tissues.” Indeed, this classic American business icon—which, as it happens, is now owned by a British conglomerate—today has more than 7,300 employees, with estimated yearly sales of $820 million and 2,000 buses serving 3,800 destinations in 48 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces. “I’m amazed at Greyhound’s brand recognition,” says DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman, an authority on intercity bus travel. “It’s an American success story.”

But Greyhound’s journey to bus-industry dominance was far from smooth, not least because U.S. roads were god-awful bumpy when Wickman started out. Indeed, Uncle Sam’s first serious stab at building a quality national road system was the Federal Highway Act of 1921, which by coincidence was the same year that the first intercity buses rolled off assembly lines.

Yes, Wickman invented the bus business before the bus was invented.

But that wasn’t his only challenge. Wickman’s “Snoose Line”—“snoose” was Swedish for snuff, which local miners snorted to stay alert—also faced competition from other car owners who saw money-making possibilities in hauling people to work. So in1916, Wickman and his two partners merged their company with a rival outfit operated by a 19-year-old mechanic and Studebaker-owner named Ralph Bogan. They called their new company Mesaba Transportation Co., and the deal became a template for the future, as Wickman expanded his bus empire across America by acquiring hundreds of competitors over the years. In fact, Greyhound was for decades really just a collection of regional bus lines united under a single brand—Great Lakes Greyhound, Florida Greyhound—connected by sophisticated timetables and transfers. Even Greyhound’s corporate history reflects a slick transfer. The company officially traces its lineage to Wickman’s Hupmobile, but he actually sold his stake in Mesaba in 1922 and invested in another Minnesota operator soon after. In 1925, that company merged with a Wisconsin bus line operator to form Northland Transportation, which was Wickman’s first stab at interstate bus travel. It was also—for anyone still trying to keep score—the official birth (following a couple of name changes) of the modern Greyhound Corporation.

But first, a railroad big shot had to see something hiding in plain sight.

Early in the 20th century, Americans generally took trains when they needed to travel between cities. But after World War I ended in 1918, train ticket sales started to decline, a development that prompted railroad executives to attack bus companies—whose fares were cheaper—by accusing them of ruining America’s roads and failing to pay their share of repair costs. Then, in 1925, Great Northern Railroad president Ralph Budd decided to actually study the matter. Surprisingly, Budd’s investigation showed that passenger traffic on trains declined even when there was no route competition from buses. The real culprit, his research showed, was Henry Ford, whose introduction of the assembly line into car-making in 1913 resulted in drastically lower car prices: The railroads were losing business to Model T’s, which many former train riders could now suddenly afford. Those unlucky folks who couldn’t—or those who didn’t know how to drive—still traveled by train, unless they were too poor to afford a ticket, in which case they took a bus.

Budd quickly understood that train and bus operators should be allies, not enemies. Bus routes could replace money-losing rail runs, while also feeding passengers to trains when it made sense. And so, in 1925, Great Northern Railroad bought 80% of Northland, transforming Wickman’s company from a cash-strapped regional operator into a well-financed national company. This deal, as much as anything, allowed Wickman and his colleagues to expand, not to mention survive the Great Depression and emerge with a national brand: Greyhound, the name of a small bus line Northland Transportation bought and decided to use for the whole shebang.

Columbia Pictures

Good thing, too, since it’s tough to imagine people writing crowd-pleasing lyrics about “Northland Transportation.” Greyhound, on the other hand, has turned up in songs ranging from Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” to Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” to the Allman Brothers’ “Ramblin’ Man.” But the free product placement that truly turned Greyhound into a cultural icon was the 1934 movie It Happened One Night. A huge hit, the Columbia Pictures comedy starred Claudette Colbert as a spoiled heiress on the run and Clark Gable as a reporter chasing her, but third billing should have gone to the Greyhound bus featured prominently in the action. Company officials credited the film for spurring interest in bus travel, and 12 years later Greyhound was still inspiring silver screen romance: The 1946 musical No Leave, No Love, featured the hit “Love On A Greyhound Bus” (a song that won’t be confused with the less romantic 2003 Sara Evans country hit, “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus). Eleven years later, Greyhound launched another improbable cultural touchstone: Lady Greyhound, whose 13-year career as company “spokesdog” began on The Steve Allen Show in 1957 and included chairing the “pet division” of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, not to mention her own canine fashion show at the New York World’s Fair and dozens of fans clubs around the U.S.

It was during these decades—from the 1930s through the 1950s—when Greyhound was among a small group of U.S. firms that helped America reimagine itself. Mostly movie studios, automakers and large consumer product companies, these firms painted a picture through their ads and products of a country whose future was only exceeded by the gumption of its citizens and the bounty of its natural resources. Greyhound’s self-selected role was as unofficial tour guide. “Greyhound invested time and financial resources in advertising its ability to transport passengers all over the U.S.,” says Margaret Wash, an intercity bus historian. “They suggested it was fashionable to take bus trips.”

Image courtesy of eCrater

Starting in the 1930s, Greyhound’s national ad campaigns emphasized (or exaggerated) bus travel’s excitement (“Now I Know How Columbus Felt!”), low cost (“Spend less … and have the best vacation ever!) and killer app: someone else at the wheel (“Leave the Driving to Us”). But the real stars of these ads were America (“Roaring Cities, Calm Countryside”) and family (“Rolling Home”). “These campaigns made bus travel into a business of aspirations,” says Robert Gabrick, author of Going The Greyhound Way. “They idealized their passengers and the country they lived in.”

Greyhound was especially enmeshed in the fabric of American life during a crucial period in the nation’s history: World War II. From 1941 to 1945, the company aggressively adopted a patriotic mission, even going so far as to outline its priorities in its 1942 annual report to shareholders. Through its ads, meanwhile, Greyhound told consumers what it saw as its primary wartime function: transporting troops and other crucial personnel around the country (“This Army Moves By Greyhound”); after that came educating the public about efficient travel (“Serve America Now So You Can See America Later”), which mattered a lot now that fuel and rubber were being rationed.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

Before and after the war, though, Greyhound spent much time, money and effort on forward progress. In 1930, company headquarters relocated from sleepy Duluth, Minn., to wide-awake Chicago. Ten years later, Greyhound became the first bus line to launch a national chain of depot restaurants—Post House—aimed at riders who didn’t like greasy roadside diners. (Ask your grandparents.) The next year, Greyhound bought 10% of the Canadian bus builder Motor Coach Industries (it later acquired the rest). And, of course, Greyhound was for years at the cutting edge of bus design, with models that still enthrall a large community of collectors: 1939’s Super Coach (first bus with an all-metal body and rear-mounted engine), 1953’s Highway Traveler (picture windows, power steering, air shocks) and 1954’s Scenic Cruiser, which debuted the year Wickman died and gave the world a gift for the ages: on-board bathrooms.

Greyhound was the official bus line at both the Chicago (1933-34) and New York (1964-65) World’s Fairs. But nothing at either of those fantastical expos matched the company’s 1943 application to the Civil Aeronautics Board, which outlined a plan for “the integration of air service and bus service”—a.k.a., a helicopter-bus! Sadly, this crazy-genius idea was not to be. Just four years later Greyhound told annual report readers that “it will be some years before the development of a helicopter with sufficient capacity for economical capacity” to make the idea a reality. But if Greyhound failed to lift bus travel to new altitudes, the company did manage to usher America into other strata of uncharted territory. During WWII, for example, Greyhound replaced many of its drafted bus drivers with women, which was arguably the first time America confronted such a wholesale substitution of traditionally male authority figures.

Birmingham News/Landov

Two decades later, Greyhound found itself in the middle of another cultural shift, when civil rights activists known as “Freedom Riders” rode Greyhound (and then-rival Trailways) buses into the Deep South to protest segregation. Until then, intercity bus drivers followed a common practice when crossing the Mason-Dixon line, asking black passengers to sit separate from whites in the back of the bus. But within a few months of the Freedom Riders campaign, Uncle Sam outlawed segregation in any facilities or vehicles involved in interstate commerce.

Greyhound's overall record on race-relations was mixed. On the one hand, Greyhound had a history of hiring blacks; on the other hand, most of those jobs were menial. The good jobs—drivers, managers, mechanics—generally went to white men. This was especially galling to many because African-Americans always accounted for a disproportionately large percentage of intercity bus passengers. 

Throughout this country’s two “Great Migrations”—during and after each World War—millions of southern blacks moved north and west in search of better lives. More often than not, they rode Greyhound for their big move and also for trips back home to visit friends and family. So it was no coincidence that in 1962, as the Civil Rights movement heated up, Greyhound strengthened its ties to black Americans. Joe Black, a former Brooklyn Dodger who was the first African-American pitcher to win a World Series game, was hired as full time director of Greyhound’s outreach program. “The intercourse between Greyhound and blacks is one of the happier aspects of the company’s history,” writes Carlton Jackson in Hounds of the Road, a corporate history.

Still, by the time Black was hired, there were other trends bubbling that had greater consequences for bus travel. In 1956, Congress passed the Interstate Highway Act, which created the Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Eisenhower was president at the time, but that’s not why his name is on America’s largest public works project to date. In an earlier career, while saving the world from Adolf Hitler as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, Ike noticed that Germany had a superb highway network, which was helpful when moving trucks and tanks around. He came back to the U.S. pretty well convinced that his home country needed its own system of high-quality roads.

But as much as drivers today love cruising I-4 through I-99, America’s expanding highways were a mixed blessing for Greyhound. Better roads meant quicker travel and fewer repairs, but they also encouraged the growing ranks of car owners to drive themselves on business trips and vacations. As any farsighted executive could see, this development, coupled with the increasing affordability of air travel in the 1950s and 1960s, spelled trouble for the bus industry. So Greyhound started buying all sorts of companies in all sorts of non-bus industries. That’s how Greyhound’s stable of businesses came to include such diverse businesses as Burger King, Dial Soap, Purex bleach, a package delivery service, and even a skin bank for burn victims.

Depending on whom you ask, this strategy was either the beginning of a decades-long loss of focus that ate away at Greyhound’s soul or a smart strategy for diversifying profits and protecting shareholders. “Greyhound was generating massive amounts of cash that probably wasn’t best invested in a slow-growth business like bus travel,” says Craig Lentzsch, Greyhound’s CEO many years later (1994-2003). “Shareholders did very well during those years.” On the flip side, it was during this time that Greyhound’s core business started to weaken: Buses started deteriorating, terminals became seedy and dangerous, and workers grew unhappy. “There were economic and cultural forces at work but Greyhound also lost sight of what made bus travel successful,” says Gabrick, the author. “It became a business of low aspirations.”

Getty Images

Whatever the verdict, where once the giant company was known, at least somewhat affectionately, as “The Hound,” consumers soon enough started calling it “The Dirty Dog,” with absolutely no affection at all.  “It was pretty bleak,” says James Inman, a comedian whose book about a 1995 cross-country trip, Greyhound Diary, captures the zeitgeist of the Dirty Dog from the late 1970s until the mid 2000s. “It was a lesson in America’s class divide: broke people, unpleasant buses, rude drivers, horrible terminals. There was no romance of the road at all.”

There certainly wasn’t much at Greyhound HQ, which moved from Chicago to Phoenix in 1971. Sixteen years later, like Abraham casting Ishmael into the desert, the Greyhound Corporation spun off its U.S. bus operations. Newly liberated and headquartered in Dallas, Greyhound Lines returned to its roots, acquiring Trailways, its largest rival, that same year. Federal anti-trust lawyers, who take a dim view of mergers that create monopolies, might have blocked the deal in different times. But Trailways in 1987 was in financial trouble, and the government decided that saving jobs and retaining bus routes trumped other concerns. Plus, the bus business was struggling enough that few informed observers worried too much that Greyhound would try to price-gouge in the face of less competition.

How right they were. Three years later, in 1990, Greyhound faced its own financial cliff when its unionized workers went on strike. This labor stoppage, one of the longest and nastiest in American history, forced the company to drastically curtail operations, which resulted in big losses. So big, in fact, that soon after its union started picketing, Greyhound execs filed for bankruptcy protection, a move that allowed their company to keep operating during a whopping three-year strike. But that labor strife, which often turned violent, had a silver lining. In what might be called a reverse Eisenhower, this overwhelmingly awful turn of events sowed the seeds of Greyhound’s later revival.

Since 1972 Greyhound had been marketing directly to the Hispanic community, with great success, but the strike caused the company to cut many of the routes that catered to Spanish speakers. Not surprisingly, newer, smaller bus companies popped up to serve these passengers. They did very well, largely because many owners, managers and drivers spoke Spanish, which was not often the case on Greyhound. “Bus travel is a service industry,” says Lentzsch, the former president. “When you have Spanish-speaking drivers serving Spanish-speaking passengers in an English-speaking country, the experience will likely be a positive one.”

For Greyhound, though, the experience was negative, as the company struggled to get Hispanic customers back on its buses after settling its labor differences. Things got even worse as the ethnic-bus model was copied in various other ethnic communities around the U.S., resulting in the curbside buses that started popping up 10 to 15 years ago in major cities with large Asian populations like Chicago, New York and Washington, D.C. These competitors also cut into Greyhound’s business, not only among Asian consumers but also students and other cash-conscious riders, as well as travelers who simply wanted to avoid airport security and bus terminals.

Getty Images

But Greyhound, which had merged with the Canadian bus company Laidlaw Inc. in 1999, was finally getting on its feet again. The company began to revamp its fleet, part of an “Elevate Everything” program that included new looks for buses, terminals and uniforms. Then, in 2008—one year after FirstGroup of England bought Laidlaw—Greyhound finally started exploiting the enormous opportunity in the discount and curbside bus business. The company launched (on its own and with partners) three different services: NeOn, BoltBus and Yo! Bus. Amenities like free WiFi, power outlets, leather seating and extra legroom began to appear on more and more of its buses. “I think it’s fair to say that Greyhound is once again proud of its product,” says Schwieterman.

Today, the company is getting more money from more trips from more passengers than ever. The average Greyhound passenger pays $52 to travel 355 miles, and last year the Dirty Dog’s buses covered 5.6 billion passenger miles—about 2.8 billion times the distance between Hibbing and Alice, Minn.

Carl Wickman would be proud.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
arrow
History
A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
holidays
Ho, No: Christmas Trees Will Be Expensive and Scarce This Year
iStock
iStock

The annual tradition of picking out the healthiest, densest, biggest tree that you can tie to your car’s roof and stuff in your living room won’t be quite the same this year. According to The New York Times, Christmas trees will be scarce in some parts of the country and markedly more expensive overall.

The reason? Not Krampus, Belsnickel, or Scrooge, but something even more miserly: the American economy. The current situation has roots in 2008, when families were buying fewer trees due to the recession. Because more trees stayed in the ground, tree farms planted fewer seeds that year. And since firs grow in cycles of 8 to 10 years, we’re now arriving at a point where that diminished supply is beginning to impact the tree industry.

New York Times reporter Tiffany Hsu reports that 2017’s healthier holiday spending habits are set to drive up the price of trees as consumers vie for the choicest cuts on the market. In 2008, trees were just under $40 on average. Now, they’re $75 or more.

This doesn’t mean you can’t get a nice tree at a decent price—just that some farms will run out of prime selections more quickly and you might have to settle for something a little less impressive than in years past. Tree industry experts also caution that the shortages could last through 2025.

[h/t New York Times]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios