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Making Connections: The Long-distance Bus Industry in the USA

Author(s):Walsh, Margaret
Reviewer(s):Singleton, John

Published by EH.NET (February 2001)

Margaret Walsh, Making Connections: The Long-distance Bus Industry in the

USA . Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Singleton, Victoria University of Wellington.

Most of the chapters in Margaret Walsh’s study of the US bus industry have

appeared in print before, though in several cases they have done so in

journals (such as Annals of Iowa) that may not fall into the hands of readers

in the British Isles and Australasia. While there is considerable merit in

bringing these papers together in book form, much unnecessary repetition could

have been avoided if more time had been devoted to perfecting the final text.

During the second decade of the twentieth centuries, some US taxi operators

introduced regular services and acquired larger vehicles. This was the basis

for the rapid growth of bus services in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1928, a

Californian firm inaugurated the first transcontinental bus service from Los

Angeles to New York. Greyhound, which would grow into the dominant

long-distance bus operator, had its origins in the mid-West. Capital supplied

by the Great Northern Railroad and mid-Western investment bankers facilitated

the expansion of this network in Minnesota and neighbouring states. By the

late 1920s, Greyhound was taking control of firms in other regions, and in the

1930s it developed a genuine national network. The Second World War brought

new business to the bus companies, due to large movements of troops and

restrictions on private motoring. However, the war also resulted in rising

costs and deteriorating standards of service, as maintenance work was

neglected and firms were forced to persevere with the operation of obsolete

vehicles. Overcrowding and frequent breakdowns alienated the travelling

public. The capping of fares by regulators, notwithstanding rising wage and

other costs, made it difficult in the early post-war era for the bus companies

to modernize their fleets and terminals. After the war, the middle classes

deserted the buses in droves in favour of travel by private automobile, and,

later, by airliner. By the 1960s and 1970s only the poor used scheduled

long-distance bus services, though others still hired buses for special


Denied access to the central archives of the Greyhound corporation, Walsh

shows considerable ingenuity in the employment of trade journals, the records

of government enquiries, interviews, and smaller archival collections, several

of which are held privately. There are chapters surveying the rise and fall of

the bus industry, the history of the Greyhound corporation, and the course of

legislation affecting the industry. In addition, accounts are given of the

careers of Helen Schulze, the ‘Iowa Bus Queen’ of the twenties, and her more

successful contemporary Edgar F. Zelle, the ‘Mr Bus’ of Minnesota. Chapters

follow on the use of advertising, the neglected role of women in the bus

industry, and bus photography in the 1940s. Finally, Walsh appends a brief

bibliographical essay. The book is nicely illustrated with old posters as well

as evocative photographs of buses, passengers, and bus stations in the

mid-twentieth century.

Walsh’s study of the bus industry is a blend of business and social history.

The bus industry was not the master of its own destiny. It came into being

through the diffusion of a new technology, the internal combustion engine. It

went into decline when this technology became sufficiently cheap that most

households were able to afford a reliable automobile, and to travel in privacy

rather than among people who might, for one reason or another, be considered

undesirable company. Air travel also provided an increasingly popular

alternative to the bus, due to its speed, glamour, and social exclusivity. An

investigation into the racial aspects of bus travel and bus operation would be

interesting. Walsh indicates that in the mid-twentieth century blacks were

expected to sit at the back of vehicles. Perhaps there is scope here for

further research.

Walsh offers a serviceable introduction to the history of the US bus industry.

Her book is clearly not meant to be definitive, and ought not to be judged on

this basis. Many interesting avenues remain for exploration by other scholars

of the bus industry.

John Singleton is Senior Lecturer in Economic History at Victoria University

of Wellington, New Zealand. His previous books are Lancashire on the

Scrapheap: the Cotton Industry, 1945-70 (1991), The World Textile

Industry (1997,) and jointly edited with R.M. Millward, The Political

Economy of Nationalisation in Britain 1920-1950 (1995). He has just

completed the typescript for a new book, co-authored with Paul Robertson,

entitled Drifting Apart: Economic Relations between Britain and Australasia

from the 1940s to the 1960s, which will be published by Palgrave.

Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII