Secrets of the Blue Ridge: Taking the Bus

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Getting around by bus on the primary highways of central Virginia during the 1940s and ‘50s was easy and convenient. Virginia Stage Lines, a.k.a. Virginia Trailways, made eight daily scheduled stops (four eastbound and four westbound) at 11 locations from Charlottesville to Waynesboro. Photographer Hubert Gentry was on hand to capture this busy stop at The Square in Crozet one Saturday afternoon in 1951.

Susie Pearle Rea of Greenwood recalled, as a girl in the late-1920s, riding Julian Belew’s bus from Greenwood’s Country Store to the big city of Charlottesville. On Belew’s return trip west, he routinely stopped for lunch at his own house in Crozet while his passengers waited on the bus. That day, impatient riders convinced young Susie Pearle to “pull that string” which ran along the ceiling above the bus windows. Unknown to her, it was attached to the horn to provide a signal to the driver when a passenger wished to disembark. Fearing an emergency of some sort, Belew raced out of the house to see what was wrong. Childhood life-lesson learned: what not to do (and who not to listen to) when using public transportation.

Life across these United States changed forevermore with the spread of railroads. For central Virginia, that occurred in the late 1840s with the approach of the Virginia Central Railroad. Seemingly overnight, places one might only have read about in books and newspapers became possible destinations for those who could afford to set aside enough spare change to purchase a ticket to ride.

Clarence W. Belew’s Charlottesville-Hillsboro Bus Line serviced a dozen locations along its route between Yancey’s Mill and Charlottesville. Along with their father Robert Belew (1866–1944), Clarence (1889–1978) and his younger brother Julian (1903–1986) had come of age working as chauffeurs for the competing livery stables at Crozet. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb.

Just as quickly, the slower means of transportation of horse-drawn stagecoaches, buggies and spring wagons seemed a bit blasé. Problem was, the railroad trains were few and mighty far between. Shipping points grew up along the rails, however, and as villages grew around them, business travelers and passengers were enticed to step off the train at more and more locales, visit for a spell, and spend some money.

Savvy blacksmiths at those rail points began to quarter a few extra horses and buggies for hire, and knew where a chauffeur might be found on short notice. Life for travelers became a bit less unpredictable.

It was not until the early 1900s that motor cars began to appear, especially outside of the cities. Within a decade or so, better roads were being demanded for America’s newest favorite pastime: driving around. For many, the cost of automobile ownership still outweighed their actual need to own a private vehicle. The era of public bus transportation had arrived.

P.F. Lawrence and R.T. Davis, based at Boonesville in 1947, operated a fleet of three buses that carried workers from northwestern Albemarle and southern Greene County to jobs at various plants in Charlottesville. Russell Davis assumed complete ownership in 1948. Independents such as Davis Bus Lines relied on Virginia Stage Lines’s garage for parts and major repairs. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamb.

Susie Pearle’s older sister Margaret recalled her first “school bus” ride, c.1916. “Allie Critzer drove the wagon—it was a covered wagon—to Greenwood School when we lived up at Critzer’s Shop,” she recalled. “Coming back to [US Route] 250, there’s a long hill coming up through there. When there was snow on the ground or it was raining and real muddy, everybody had to get off at the foot of the hill and walk to the top of the hill, and then get back on the bus. “I rode [five miles] from up there at Critzer’s Shop to Greenwood School,” Margaret remembered, “with a blanket over my lap and a lantern sitting under there to keep my feet warm.”

With the opening of the improved state highway between Charlottesville and Crozet in 1921, two livery operators from Crozet joined forces to start a motor bus route between the two locations. Earnest L. Sandridge (1881–1951) and Levi P. Maupin (1893–1971) made two round trips each day, allowing their passengers 1½ hours or seven hours, depending on their choices of arrival and departure, to shop and take care of business downtown before their return to Crozet. Timberlake’s Drug Store included the Crozet Bus Line in their advertising, reminding their patrons of the “comfortable rest room” inside their establishment.

By the mid-1920s, multiple independent bus services were operating in central Virginia. Crozet’s Belew brothers Clarence and Julian had established a bus route between Greenwood and Charlottesville. In the Shenandoah Valley, John Fisher and son Norman transported passengers between Waynesboro and Staunton. In 1930, they proposed to ferry their Valley passengers across the mountain to Albemarle to connect with air travel at Dixie Flying Service’s recently dedicated Wood Field on Garth Road.

Julian B. Belew, a driver for Virginia Stage Lines, in the parking lot of E.L. Sandridge’s Esso Filling Station on Rt. 240 in Crozet. Established in 1925, Virginia Stage Lines changed its business name to Virginia Trailways when it joined the Trailways family in 1938. Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images.

As bus ridership grew, rail passengers declined. The Chesapeake and Ohio cited in 1925 “motor bus passenger service” for the discontinuance of some of their schedules, including two local routes between Newport News and Richmond.

Samuel Jessup sensed yet another business opportunity to go alongside his Charlottesville Pepsi-Cola franchise and Monticello Dairy operation. In 1926, he purchased Virginia Stage Lines, and, in ensuing years, absorbed a number of the independent bus lines operating around the region. The routes that Jessup’s buses served were many and far-reaching. Lettering on that group’s buses announced Charlottesville, Lynchburg, Warrenton, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York.

Leonard W. Sandridge Sr. (1904–1981), a son of Crozet bus pioneer Earnest L. Sandridge, played a noteworthy role in the beginning days of Virginia Stage Lines. “My father told me on several occasions that he drove the first run of Mr. Jessup’s bus service from Charlottesville to Richmond,” said Leonard Sandridge Jr. “Dad was very precise in describing it to me. He actually took Rt. 33 into Richmond. I’m not sure how long he did that run.”

In 1938, the Jessup family’s Virginia Stage Lines joined with Trailways, and changed their operating name to Virginia Trailways. A 1940 Virginia Stage Lines Timetable illustrated a breadth of routes extending up and down the eastern seaboard. Even Shenandoah National Park’s Skyline Drive was serviced, with twice-daily scheduled stops at entrance points and visitors’ centers.

Clarence Belew’s 1920s ticket prices for bus transportation between western Albemarle and Charlottesville ranged from 15¢–80¢. Courtesy of Phil James Historical Images.

Boonesville storeowner and entrepreneur Russell Davis proved that the end was not yet at hand for the local independent in an underserved area. In 1947-’48, with post-war businesses booming in Charlottesville, he built up a clientele of bus riders throughout the Blue Ridge foothills of northwestern Albemarle and southern Greene County. He transported them to work and back home with a fleet of three buses, modest by some standards, but outstanding for a small village like Boonesville. Counted among Davis’s crew of drivers was Alease Walton Bruce, who fearlessly navigated her passenger bus along narrow, twisting mountain roads and through crowded city streets.

Those who qualify for chauffeur licenses and badges take on the great responsibility of transporting human souls, be they precious children to a new day of school, vacationers heading cross-country, or any who are unable to drive for whatever reason. They deserve our respect and utmost consideration for their good service. 

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