A Bumpy History of Northwoods Buses

Mar 17, 2021

A Greyhound bus turns onto a snowy street.
Credit Wisconsin Historical Society

Today, travel in and out of the Northwoods can be accomplished by private automobile or airline.  In prior decades, people had multiple options for traveling, including that most mundane of all modes, the bus.  

Buses are often ignored in the history of transportation because they have an image problem.  While they are the cheapest form of public transportation, they are also the slowest.  They are not as glamorous or romanticized as passenger rail or airlines and are often associated with underprivileged groups.  Yet buses were essential to the development of the tourist industry in the Northwoods.

Early roads and vehicle limitations in the first decades of the twentieth century made bus travel to the Northwoods an impossibility.  After the First World War, however, things began to change.  The first charter bus service giving Chicago residents a tour through the exotic Northwoods of Wisconsin began in the early 1920s.  Vehicles of the Gray Bus Line each carried 18 passengers and gave travelers a unique way of viewing the famous lakes of the Northwoods.

Scheduled passenger service in and out of many Northwoods communities began in the mid-1920s.  This included service via the Inter-State Motor Coach Company, the Land-O-Lakes Bus Company, and the Northland Transport Company.  The Greyhound Bus Lines of Minneapolis acquired the Northland Transport Company in 1929, and from then on Greyhound became the major carrier serving the Northwoods.

Elmer C. Martin began driving for the Orange Line between Stevens Point and Madison in 1925.  He became a Greyhound driver after the 1929 merger and served the Ashland to Madison route till he retired in 1960.  According to his own estimate, he drove more than two million miles during his career.  Almost all of it on Route 51.

Martin remembered the early years of bus driving in the Northwoods as particularly challenging.  The only stretch of highway that was paved back then was between Stevens Point and Plover.  The rest was dirt or gravel.  In dry weather the road was a washboard.  In wet weather, bus drivers had to contend with springs and soft spots in the road.  In winter, the bus line operated till the first big snowstorm then tied up till spring.

In later years, as the roads and plowing improved, the bus traveled regularly in winter.  However, during the winter season the route north terminated in Rhinelander, and Martin would stay overnight in the town.  During the rest of the year, Martin’s bus pulled into Rhinelander around noon and would stop at Onson’s Café on Brown Street for lunch.

After 1960, Wisconsin-Michigan Coaches, which became part of the Trailways system, also offered bus service to the Northwoods.  Simultaneously, passenger rail service was in decline largely because of the increase in private automobile usage, and this was not good for interstate bus carriers.  Ridership in the Northwoods sank in the 1970s, and companies like Greyhound and Trailways began pulling out of rural communities.  By the mid-1980s places like Minocqua lost daily bus service.

Buses continued coming to Rhinelander, but fewer passengers were willing to ride the bus.  After September 11, 2001, people became afraid of public transportation, and companies like Greyhound, which were already bleeding red ink, pulled the plug on rural communities like the Northwoods.  Charter buses continue, but the last scheduled bus service left Rhinelander in August 2004.