From Point A to Point B With a Pickwick Stages System Bus Schedule, Effective 25 June 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As a prior post here noted, the Pickwick Corporation expanded by leaps and bounds during the Roaring Twenties, when nearly inexhaustible enthusiasm for growth drove the American economy, though its excesses also drove the financial system into the depths of the Great Depression at decade’s end and into the dire Thirties.

The earlier post specifically concerned the short-lived Pickwick Airlines, but it was part of a transportation empire, led by Charles F. Wren, that rocketed to success during the 1920s through the spectacular growth of a bus (stage) line that developed from humble regional origins into a nationwide system.

Monrovia News, 18 November 1915.

Our highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is a condensed schedules card, issued by the company and effective as of 25 June 1928, that concerned the route from Los Angeles to San Diego and utilized U.S. Route 99, which, in the 1950s, became Interstate 5. There were eight stops along the 132-mile journey, including Norwalk, Anaheim, Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano, and San Clemente in greater Los Angeles, as well as Oceanside, Encinitas ad La Jolla in San Diego County.

There were thirteen trips south from the Angel City and fourteen up from San Diego, with meal stops for the 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. coaches, with, for some reason, the southbound 5 p.m. bus having a stop, as well, with the meals either at San Juan Capistrano or Santa Ana. There was also the special Observation-Buffet Car that left both at 9:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. and arrived at their destinations 4 hours and 10 minutes later, 1 hour and 15 minutes earlier than the rest, and which cost 50 cents more to ride.

Los Angeles Express, 20 December 1919.

On the flip side was a “Nationwide Travel” statement, noting that, beyond its Pacific Coast coverage, Pickwick had two transcontinental routes, one from Los Angeles through Phoenix to El Paso and then northeast to St. Louis and the other from Sacramento through Salt Lake City Denver and Kansas City to St. Louis. From there, the line went straight to New York with side routes to Chicago, Memphis and others planned to Detroit, Cincinnati and Washington, D.C.

Such was what was hailed on the card as the “World’s Greatest Motor Stage System,” but most of the transformation was within just the past few years. As mentioned above, the company began in 1911-1912 with A.L. Hayes one used Ford plying a route from the Pickwick Hotel at San Diego to Escondido and back. There was some moderate growth and a merger with another local firm so that the Pickwick Stage Line emerged in 1917 operating at Hill and 6th streets next to what soon was renamed Pershing Square.

Los Angeles Times, 18 January 1920.

Wren, who came to Los Angeles about the time that Hayes began his little business in San Diego, developed a stage route from the Angel City to Santa Monica (his father lived at the National Soldiers Home in Sawtelle, on the route). He slowly expanded, as well, first with some local lines, but then with one going all the way north to San Francisco. At this point, Hayes and Wren joined forces with the former operating the Pickwick’s southern division for routes from Los Angeles to San Diego and the latter handling the northern section.

The station in Los Angeles that Wren established became, in 1919, the Union Depot for the several lines operating in the region. Under Wren’s overall leadership, growth continued apace through the first half of the Twenties, including the acquisition of other companies and the establishment of new routes, including as far north as Portland, Oregon.

Los Angeles Record, 1 July 1921.

In 1920, Wren told the Los Angeles Times that about half the customers on about 1,350 miles of route were Canadians heading (like its birds) south for the winter. He also noted that the company’s fleet of Packards and Pierce-Arrows carried between 27,000 and 35,000 passengers monthly, which about 20-25% more of that traffic undertaken on the southern division’s buses. Accompanying photos showed vehicles with three rows and carrying under ten passengers.

In February 1921, stock was transferred from Pickwick Stages to Pickwick Stages, Inc. and, in October, approval was given by the California State Railroad Commission, which oversaw all utility operations in the Golden State after a 1911 reorganization and later became the California Public Utilities Commission. The entity handled approvals for rate changes and stock issues, the latter of which was aggressively pursued by what soon was reorganized, in 1922, as the Pickwick Corporation.

Express, 1 August 1924.

Amidst the steadily increasing expansion of business, there were occasional problems with state regulators and licensing, fending off competitors using state-approved routes, and occasional accidents. In late June 1922, a Pickwick bus plunged down a steep grade on a sharp curve and three persons were killed. A widow of one of those who died tried having the driver charged for manslaughter and he spent a month in jail awaiting a hearing, but the complainant had to be forced to appear and then changed her story to the extent that the charge was dropped, though she later was awarded $15,000 from Pickwick. A month later, a vehicle overturned near Salinas and eleven persons (the buses, of course, grew in size) were injured.

Pickwick also had its own coach and body works and repair shop by the early Twenties, first at Los Angeles and 13th (renamed Pico Boulevard) streets and then on 7th Street east of Alameda. In June 1923, the company announced plans for a fleet of a half-dozen “semi-Pullman” buses, costing about $12,000 each, that would be on a Pierce-Arrow chassis, seat 14 passengers on heavily upholstered chairs like on steamships, and ply the northern route to San Francisco.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 14 Septebmer 1925.

In August 1924, another landmark was established when the company opened its own depot on Los Angeles and 6th streets (later expanded east to Maple) and a reception and dance was held to celebrate. The $300,000 structure, including company headquarters, was promoted as “one of the largest stage coach terminals on the Pacific Coast,” and Warren Libby, who was legal counsel, secretary and treasurer, told the assemblage that Pickwick then operated 187 coaches on some 3,000 miles of road from the Mexican border to Portland.

At the same time, the firm publicized its first major public stock offering and, in its advertisements, it stated the passenger numbers grew from about 90,000 in 1919 to over a quarter-million the following year. In 1922, usage topped 300,000 and jumped to about 422,000 the next year, but it was anticipated that there would be nearly 1.2 million passengers in 1924, a staggering 180% increase. Operating profits were $19,000 in 1919, double that two years later, well more than twice that in 1922 and it was estimated that there’d be a tripling, to about $325,000, in 1924.

Times, 18 February 1926.

The literal drive for growth continued with the introduction, in September 1925, of what was likely the “semi-Pullman” bus mentioned above and dubbed “The Apache,” sometimes also known as a “parlor-buffet car.” The Los Angeles Record of the 14th described “this Leviathan of the highways’ called The Franciscan and, of course, soon headed on its maiden voyage to the city of that name, saying that it had “within its luxurious coach every convenience except a bathtub.” Actually, it’s first road trip was for the press and the ride was to San Diego with it called “a revelation of comfort and convenience in stage travel.”

The unidentified scribe wrote that the journey to San Francisco would take two hours less because it was virtually a non-stop journey. There were five compartments with the driver separated from passengers from a sliding glass partition and separate door. Behind him was the ladies’ lounge with a dozen armchairs that reclined to allow for sleeping and, at the back, was a smoking area and observation compartment. On either side of the coach was a buffet, for preparing and serving means, and a lavatory—hence, no reason to stop except for refueling and disembarking and taking on passengers.

Record, 13 August 1927.

Photographs in several newspapers showed the vehicle, including some interiors of the ladies’ section and the buffet, where a steward worked on those meals. Also visually documented was the presence of film star Mary Pickford, who christened the vehicle with the customary bottle of champagne, though one wonders if she actually held the vessel high for the cameras and then found another way to break it or it was then opened for toasts! One ad from 1926 showed that the daily excursion, leaving Los Angeles at 7:15 a.m., cost $26.50 round-trip or $15.85 one-way.

In February 1926, Wren announced that a 99-year lease was arranged for property at 6th and Maple, next to the current Los Angeles depot and that, not only would the latter facility be expanded, making it the largest bus depot in the world, but an eight-story hotel would be erected atop it. The official told the Times,

The Southland’s growth, together with our having acquired lines [in Arizona and New Mexico] giving us a through system from El Paso to Portland, with connecting lines through the great Northwest to Vancouver, has forced upon us the necessity of this expansion.

In October, the railroad commission authorized additional stock offerings to the public to pay for additional equipment for the Pickwick system and another application by the company in February 1927 specified that $300,000 more in stock would provide funding for eight 14-passenger stages at $64,000; eight 18-passenger vehicles at $72,000; nine observation (with seating on a second level) cars seating 18 to 22 people at $99,000; a half-dozen 22-passenger regular stages at $60,000; ten 26-passenger buses at $105,000; ten 33-passenger buses at $125,000; and five 18 and 20 passenger parlor-buffet cars at $75,000.

Times, 28 October 1927.

As the company more aggressively advertised its stock as it sought the monies to accomplish its ever-accelerating goals, it stated in a late June ad that net operating profits in 1926 were 78% higher than the prior year. A couple of days later, Pickwick announced that the parlor-buffet cars were to be used on trips to San Diego, as well those to San Francisco.

A mid-July feature in the Times stated that service, which went as far east as Oklahoma City, to St. Louis was expected in two months and to the Atlantic as soon as practicable. It was explained that the push further eastward was because net earnings through May were more than fourfold what they were for the same period in 1926 and over a half-million passengers were served. An August stock ad promoted the fact that Pickwick had more than 300 vehicles in service covering 800 towns and cities, that there were plans to build hotels in San Diego and San Francisco and that net earnings climbed from $145,000 in 1924, to $244,000 the following year, and to $337,000 in 1926.

Express, 9 March 1928.

In the Los Angeles Record two days later, the number of communities served was said to be 1,000 in five states, including north to Seattle and Vancouver and east to El Paso, while more than 400 buses traveled 6,000 miles of routes. The firm proclaimed that “Observation-Dining Cars Show Leadership!” while “a great organization protects you, watches for your comfort, gives helpful personal service—and saves you much travel cost!”

In September, promotion stated that the first half of 1927 saw profits 214% higher than the comparable period the previous year. The next month, yet another application to the state for further stock issues included a list of 58 more buses to cost more than $600,000 and it was reported that Pickwick stated it had over $3.3 million in assets, with a positive profit and loss balance of almost $200,000 and surplus at $45,000.

Record, 26 June 1928.

A 15 October Times article reported that Wren left for St. Louis “with the purpose of making a complete survey” of the system connecting to that city and “with the first transcontinental stage line,” if one omits the Butterfield Stage and Pony Express routes of the late 1850s and early 1860s, that is, “operating its own equipment all the way.” He was also to meet in Chicago with representatives of other stage lines to “introduce them to the latest type of Pickwick motor coaches” and to secure arrangements for Pickwick passengers to be ferried on other lines in the East. He added, noting he expected the first St. Louis bus to leave at the end of the month and take 86 hours to get there,

Our recent expansions will make Los Angeles the hub of motor-coach transportation, for we will make Los Angeles the gateway for all travel from the [Pacific] Coast to the East as well as the central division point for all western travel.

In the paper’s editorial page on the 29th, the news was shared that, at 1 a.m. that morning, service was initiated to Chicago about nine decades after the first Butterfield stagecoach made its maiden trip, but three weeks quicker. In observing that the 1850s route was an Eastern innovation and the current one was from the West, the Times concluded that it was notable that “California, still welcoming eastern capital, is no longer dependent upon it.”

Times, 27 June 1928.

On 9 December, the paper reported that net earnings for the nine months through September were two-thirds higher than in 1926 and that the railroad commission authorized yet another stock issue for still more equipment. Four days later, it was stated that Pickwick “is about to become a national institution,” not just through parlor-buffet buses traveling to New York City, but with “a complete transcontinental chain of hotel terminals” leased or owned by the company, “and a chain of eating houses similar to the Harvey chain” found along the Santa Fe railroad routes.

A problem with railroad commission developed early in 1928 when that body refused to allow Pickwick to charge a profit on equipment that it sold to one of its subsidiaries, this based on an application from the firm to issue stock certificates from the Pickwick State System for financing material, specifically buses, provided to it by the Pickwick Stages Corporation. While the company was granted a rehearing on the matter, the commission reaffirmed its decision in May.

The Express of 9 March, after stating a week or so prior that service was opened to Dallas, Fort Worth and Kansas City, reported that the company, which also improved service through driver relays and inspection and repair services along routes, expected to inaugurate service to New York City within two months, as Wren returned from the east, noting that more acquisitions of other stage firms, in part or whole, paved the way for the plans. Notably, Wren downplayed rumors that Pickwick had entered the aviation game and joined forces with the fledgling West Coast Air Transport Company, though he would welcome a link if the airline did well.

On 23 June, just two days before this schedule was issued, it was announced that Pickwick acquired the KNRC radio station, operated by a firm housed in the Los Angeles Elks Lodge #99 quarters downtown and transmitting from the auditorium at Ocean Park in Santa Monica. Pickwick already owned a station in San Diego and added another in San Francisco as part of its diversification and expansion of operations.

While there were articles on the 26th about the revision to the schedule to San Francisco, nothing was located about the changes to the one to the south, though general manager Thomas L. Morgan told the Express

The new schedule is in keeping with the policy that has made Pickwick Stages the greatest system in the world. We plan to give ever increasing service to the cities and towns on the coast highway and will add new schedules and new equipment as the demand justifies.

There is more to the Pickwick Stages story and, since the Museum’s holdings contains a photograph of the company’s depot during construction, we’ll save the story from summer 1928 onward for a post highlighting that image. Keep an eye out for that!

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