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MASS MOVEMENT: Timetables Gone By

Rare 1947 bus brings transit lessons for today

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It's hard to believe when you're squirming on a scoliosis-inducing busted seat cushion on one of the giant, rattling EBA jalopies, but bus riders used to travel in style.

 

 

Once upon a time, before the "classic car" era of the 1950s and '60s, the Golden Age of American culture and industry was reflected in sharp-looking buses -- veterans of the private transit lines that eventually became the Port Authority.

 

For the first time locally, one classic bus, a 1947 GM model from the Harmony Short Lines routes, has been restored to its former panache. Volunteers believe there's just one other like it, in California. And only this one runs.

 

At the Heinz History Center on Saturday, April 9, Pittsburghers can glimpse their bus heritage when the all-volunteer Antique Motor Coach Association of Pennsylvania debuts the fruit of several years' labor. Throughout the afternoon, they'll offer rides around the Strip, and at 4 p.m., Harmony coach 775 will make its long-delayed return trip to Harmony, Pa., where it'll lay over between public appearances.

 

The Harmony Short Lines, arguably more so than the other pre-PAT transit companies, was known for style, says Alex Demczak, president of AMCAP. Like its contemporaries, the Harmony 775 is 1940s-streamlined. Inside, they offer luggage racks overhead. Like many of the old transit lines, Harmony began principally as a freight service, hauling farm goods to market and city goods to the country. By 1947, though, the racks probably accommodated the area's growing material prosperity: "People would go shopping at Gimbels and so on and they had a place to put their packages," Demczak says.

 

The Harmonies were known for their paint jobs -- Demczak compares them to "circus wagons." With the help of two retired drivers, Bill Tole, 90, and George Herwig, 82, the original look was restored.

 

In 1922, Harmony had branched out from rail to buses in an attempt to compete with the automobile, but cars were winning decisively by the post-World War II era. The class of 1947, with five coaches, was the last batch of new buses for the Harmony lines; after that, they could only afford second-hand vehicles. In 1964, the old Harmony Short Lines routes were absorbed by the new Port Authority system.

 

Over the years, PAT has auctioned off many of these old coaches. Some became sheds and even hunting cabins, says Demczak. Most were scrapped: With largely aluminum bodies and heavy steel frames -- made in the U.S.A. for old, tough country roads -- they brought a decent price. The 775 avoided the scrap yard longer than most: "Port Authority mechanics kind of hid it," Demczak says, to preserve a bit of history. When it finally went on the block in the 1990s, seven founding members of AMCAP bought it and began the long transformation in an old industrial space in McKeesport.

 

Demczak doesn't want the bus to be "a specimen embalmed in a cave. This isn't just an old vehicle, it's about people," he says -- people like "Craig Class of '48," who carved his mark into the back of the bus. Demczak wants the bus to offer rides regularly, selling visitors and natives alike on regional history and tying together destinations by making the journey half the fun.

 

Not only did Harmony riders travel stylishly, they went further by unchartered bus than one can go today. Towns that now have no transit at all or limited service -- like New Castle, New Kensington and Butler -- were well connected to Pittsburgh in 1947. Despite conventional wisdom, transit may have made "regionalism" stronger back then.

 

"If we don't pull together," says Demczak, "we'll be the city that was."

Harmony Short Lines 775 debut: Sat., April 9, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. $12. Heinz History Center, Strip District. See www.amcap.org, 412-454-6000.

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