COLUMBIA FALLS – A few years ago, after the foliage had fallen and the Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed for the season, Glacier National Park’s iconic Red Buses were mothballed for the winter in a dingy old barn in East Glacier Park.
While the old barn, built in 1919, had successfully protected the fleet of 33 “Reds” for more than 70 winters, it wasn’t a perfect home for the beloved buses. Dave Eglsaer, the man tasked with protecting the buses for the last few years, said sometimes the wind blew as hard inside as it would outside. On some occasions snow would even penetrate the cracks between the walls or under the doors, resulting in huge drifts inside the barn.
But that’s not going to be a problem this winter at the new 30,000-square-foot Red Bus barn near Columbia Falls that was completed this fall by Xanterra Parks and Resorts at a cost of $2 million.
“This is the first time since the first one was built back in 1936 that the Red Buses will be stored in a climate controlled facility,” said Eglsaer, Xanterra’s transportation director. “It’s a huge upgrade.”
Talk of a new bus barn began two years ago when Xanterra won the Glacier National Park concessions contract. Because the previous concessions operator, Glacier Park, Inc., owned the East Glacier Park barn, Xanterra needed to find a new shop and storage facility and decided to construct one along Montana Highway 206 south of Columbia Falls.
The new building includes a climate-controlled garage designed and built specifically for the Red Buses, and its footprint would cover a football field. The temperature is hovers around 65 degrees and if it dips below 55 degrees Eglsaer receives an alert on his phone, which he can also use to monitor security camera feeds.
“It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, I can check up on the Red Buses,” he said.
The buses are lined up in the order they were built, with the vehicles from 1936 on one side and the rest of the fleet, built between 1937 and 1939, on the other side. Although it’s hard to discern the vintage of the buses based on appearance, Eglsaer said a trained eye would note that the windshield windows on the 1936 models are square, whereas the newer ones have a rounded windshield. There are also subtle paint differences on some.
The White Motor Company-built buses were restored in the early 2000s and are the oldest, intact fleet of passenger vehicles on earth. Each bus currently has between 130,000 and 150,000 miles on them since their last restoration (each bus puts on an average of 10,000 miles during the season of summer tours through the park) and Xanterra is currently gearing up to refurbish them again. Eglsaer said they hope to start rebuilding the first one in the winter of 2016 and then complete four of five every year after that. Eglsaer said they plan on hiring Montana mechanics and carpenters (the doors are made of wood on the inside) to perform most of the work.