Northland Uncovered: Preserving History of Public Transportation

Storied Careers of Duluth Bus Drivers

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It started with horse-drawn carriages.

Now it’s a fleet of more than seventy buses serving millions of people each year.

Bus operator Don Johnson, who has been with the Duluth Transit Authority for 23 years now, remembers his father Howard, who worked as a bus driver for 36 years.

“When he started driving he drove the electric trolley bus,” Don says, remembering. “This was still in the ’60s when I was a kid, but he would come home and his hands were just black. That was from making change – ya know – they carried change right on their belts.”

Don wasn’t a lifer like his dad; he started out as a baker.

But when Howard passed away shortly after retirement in the early 1990s, Don joined the DTA.

“After 12 years of working nights it just really started getting to me,” Don said. “It was actually my uncle that talked me into coming down here.”

Duluth has had public transportation of some sort for 131 years now.

“You have to consider that during the Industrial Revolution, this was a boom town,” says DTA Director of Marketing Heath Hickok. “There were thousands of people coming here for the mining and the timber industries.”

Indeed in 1919, the Duluth transit service surpassed 45 million passengers in a year.

And over the decades that service has evolved.

In Howard Johnson’s 36-year career with the DTA, he made wooden models of all the buses that he drove.

“We used to go down to the old garage,” Don explains. “And he would walk around with a tape measure and take the measurements from the buses and go home and scale it down. Then soak the balsa would in water and make everything.”
And each of the models represents another advancement in transit technology: from the electric buses of yesteryear to the diesel monsters we’re more familiar with today.

Don holds up the last model his father ever made:

“This is a 1989 Flexible. My dad made it right before he retired,” Don explains. “They still had these when I started of course. This bus was terrible; they’re out of business; they don’t make them anymore.”

Because technology is on the advance, the city of Duluth is about to add six electric buses to its fleet later this year.

“We feel as though this is an important transition not only for our passengers, but for everyone that lives in the community,” Hickok said.

And Don Johnson knows that accepting that new technology is just part of the job something his father would probably agree with as well.

Don has a son who is currently a truck driver. He says he is working on convincing his son to switch careers to bus driving in the future.

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