Despite her 24 years as a museum curator, Brooke Childrey was stumped when she first learned about one of the newest additions to the collection at Mount Rainier National Park.
It won’t fit in a file cabinet with important park papers. It certainly won’t sit on a shelf with artifacts uncovered during archaeological digs within the park. Including it among the exhibits at the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center, or any other visitor center, just isn’t possible.
“In all my years with museums, I’ve never had an item like this,” Childrey said. “I’ve had really old documents, but this is my first bus.”
What does one do with a 40-foot gleaming red 1937 Kenworth Motor Touring Coach?
Childrey and other park staffers are still working on the answer.
The coach was one of five built by Kenworth that year. It was used by the Rainier National Park Co. to bring tourists to the park from the Winthrop Hotel in Tacoma and the Olympic Hotel in Seattle. The coach made its last run to the park in 1962.
Since being donated to the park on July 20, by Gig Harbor men Art Redford and Frank Pupo, the coach has been on display at the old gas station at Longmire, which houses a transportation exhibit.
Pupo and Redford bought the coach in 1984 after finding it in a trash heap off McKinley Avenue. They spent $60,000 to refurbish the vehicle.
Long-time supporters of the park, Pupo said giving it to Mount Rainier was an easy decision.
“We’re happy that it’s here,” he said.
With the park’s busy season now over, the staff realized it had no place to store the bus for the winter. So they turned to the LeMay Museum for help. The museum has agreed to store the bus until the winter’s rain and snow have come to a likely end.
“Whether or not they have it on display depends on them. That would be nice if they could,” said Randy King, acting park superintendent.
Among the decisions to be made is where to store the coach long term. King said the park will order an awning to protect the vehicle while it is on display during the summer. But the winter elements would quickly damage the canvas roof of the coach, making finding a winter home for the coach a priority.
King said the coach likely will be displayed at Longmire. The red antique vehicle made quite a sight this summer for visitors en route to Paradise.
“It seems to fit well there at the transportation exhibit,” he said.
It also served as backdrop for many a photo.
“You see people taking a lot of pictures of themselves in front of it,” King said.
It’s also possible you might see the coach at future events, such as the upcoming Eatonville centennial parade.
Before that can happen on a regular basis, however, King said the park needs to develop a small cadre of trained drivers.
Those chosen might want to consider a few trips to the weight room, recommended Delmas Zirkle. The Orting man drove the coach during the 1960 season. He described the steering as “arm strong,” meaning you needed plenty of muscle to turn the steering wheel.
“The first one I took up, the steering locked as I went around a hairpin corner. It just drove right into a parking lot,” Zirkle said.
“I just hauled on the wheel with both arms. I got it unstuck and drove right out of the lot without stopping.”
Just maintaining the vehicle will present some unique challenges. One focus will be to keep the vehicle in operating condition.
But Childrey has the job of preserving the coach’s historic character while meeting Park Service mandates.
There are times, she admitted, those two goals might conflict.
Adding to the coach’s value is its unique nature.
It is one of only three still in operation. One is in Sitka, Alaska, and the other is in Montana.
“It’s something we weren’t expecting and we’re trying to figure out how to preserve it,” Childrey said.
As the park staff has wrestled with how to protect and best display the coach, King said there have been no discussions of using the bus on a routine basis within the park.
As park staff looks to increase the use of shuttle buses, King said he would hope the coach could be used as a prototype for a new vehicle.
“One of the neat things about Mount Rainier is its history. Those (buses) were used not too long ago. It had a long period of service,” King said.
“It reminds people of the park’s history. That’s what makes the park so great. It’s not just the mountain, it’s the people, it’s things like the coach. You have an immediate connection when you see that vehicle. Besides that, it’s a gorgeous vehicle.”
DRIVE DOWN MEMORY LANE
John McGinnis agrees with King’s assessment. The Tacoma man was at Longmire in July when Redford and Pupo brought the bus to the park.
“I used to see the bus leave from in front of the Winthrop growing up as a kid in the ’50s,” McGinnis said. “You would always see the bus downtown every summer. I always wanted to take the bus to the park, but my mom drove us.”
A car buff and former board member for the LeMay Museum, McGinnis admitted he had hoped the museum could obtain the coach.
“But I think it’s good that it will be here. This is a neat deal,” he said.
Roger Andrascik, acting deputy park superintendent, said the coach is already a favorite with park staff.
“The bus fits into the character of the historic landmark district and road system,” he said. “Having it here is a chance for future generations to see how past generations used to travel to the park.”
Another person who drove the coach is Otis Hay. The 86-year-old used to work for Rainier National Park Co. on his days off from his job as a Tacoma firefighter.
“We used to call them Red Racers. We’d go up and down Pacific Avenue, and after 112th Street there were no obstructions so you just put it in overdrive and went,” he said.
Although he lost his vision six years ago, Hay had the chance to reacquaint himself with the coach when he attended the reopening of Paradise Inn in May 2008. Redford and Pupo brought the coach to the inn for opening weekend.
“It felt like coming home,” Hay said that day.
Driving for the company from 1952 to 1966, Hay remembers being behind the wheel of “old Number 79.”
In the early days, most of the riders were on tours.
“They were Easterners or from the Midwest. There were few from the West Coast. They were all happy to be here and excited to see the sites of the Northwest,” Hay said. “They were interested in the history of the Northwest, in fishing, in logging.”
In addition to driving, Hay also had to serve as tour guide. He remembers the company giving drivers a 10-page manual of facts to pass along to visitors.
“Somebody was always thinking of some good question to ask,” he said.
Hay remembered losing his voice after spending one day with one tour because the riders asked so many questions.
The people traveling with this particular tour company were notorious for not being good tippers. He finally got them to Seattle and was ready to leave, but he was told to wait.
“They passed the hat around and I got about 50 bucks for a tip. That was in the early 1960s, so $50 was a lot of money,” Hay said.
Driving the coach also meant dealing with some peculiarities.
Hay said they would unsnap the canvas roof when they got to the Nisqually entrance so people could see the tall trees and see the mountain.
“When we got to Paradise we would put the top back on because the sun there would expand the canvas, making it easier to stretch it back out and snap it back on. Otherwise you would need two or three other guys to help get it snapped on,” he said.
Hay said he was happy to hear the coach was again a part of the park. He hopes it has a role in the future as well.
“I think it would be ideal if the park could use buses like that if they made people park their vehicles outside the park,” he said.
Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640