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The Christmas Bus
A Dayton Tradition Since 1965

There has been a yearly tradition that has been in existence for almost 35 years -- that of the Dayton Christmas Bus operated during the winter holidays.

This unique function was the brainchild of W.W. (Bill) Owen, who was the President of the privately-owned City Transit Company, the forerunner of the former Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA) and the present-day Greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (GDRTA). The MVRTA was formed to take over the operation of City Transit Company's bus and trolley routes in 1972, and the name was changed to the GDRTA in 2001.

Details as to how and when Bill came up with the Christmas trolley idea are lost forever (Bill died in January 1990 at the age of 89), but he was always the staunchest of public relations promoters when it came to public transportation. He periodically painted one of his trolleys to assist promoting downtown Dayton and other of his favorite causes, especially if he thought it would result in more ridership on his trolleys.

He was an expert on transit operations throughout the world, and may have seen during his wide travels a specially-painted and decorated Holiday Season bus or trolley in some far-away city.

Although Bill never had children of his own, he originated special events each December, via his many business connections, for young school children.

By probably combining all of these factors, he conceived the first Christmas trolley for December 1965. Painting one of his Marmon-Herrington trolley coaches bright red, along with suitable holiday salutations, it was rotated between the several trolley routes. Candy was given to passengers, especially the children. It was an immediate success.

After the holiday season concluded, the trolley was repainted in regular City Transit Co. two-tone yellow, and returned to the normal fleet. The following year, the same process was followed with yet another Marmon-Herrington, with great appreciation by the public. It had become a Dayton tradition!

Starting in 1968, one particular trolley, #561, a 1948 Marmon-Herrington TC-48, was painted red and dedicated for use only as the Christmas Trolley. After each holiday season, it was wrapped in plastic and stored awaiting the next. (By this time Bill had enough spare trolleys so he could afford to store one most of the year).

It should be noted here that there was no diesel Christmas Bus until 1980; up to that time, there were very few diesel busses in Dayton on regular routes. #561's tenure as the red-painted Christmas Trolley ended with the 1972 season.

I almost forgot--in 1968 a "chimney" was placed on the roof, with a hidden smudge pot to produce smoke. It promptly set the roof on fire, but that's another story. Needless to say, that experiment was not repeated!

After the MVRTA took over, starting with the 1973 season, Marmon-Herrington #509 was designated as the "Winter Trolley", and was painted professionally by Blommel Sign Company in a winter motif mostly blue with cartoon characters. Each December a simulated fireplace was installed in the rear end, along with a big rocking chair for Santa Claus hisself! Staffed both by volunteering MVRTA employees as well as private citizens (most notable was the late Everett Richards), a real live Santa Claus was part and parcel of the Christmas Trolley. Many Dayton children fondly remember sitting on Santa's knee, revealing to him their hopes for presents, while rolling down the streets of Dayton. By now, the Christmas Trolley was eagerly awaited each December.

For the 1977 season, the MVRTA Marketing Department, led by Ms. Virginia King, outdid themselves by creating an entirely new Christmas Trolley, #559, also a 1948 Marmon TC-48. Painted and illustrated by Blommel Sign Co., it had the fireplace and Santa seat in the rear, loudspeakers on the roof playing recorded music suitable to the season, a team of stuffed reindeer mounted on the front roof, and a non-smoking version of the (in)famous chimney. This version of the Dayton Christmas Trolley quickly became a national celebrity, due to it being probably the most photographed bus in history! In addition to its normal rotation on the several trolley routes during the daytime, it was often chartered by private groups as a nighttime party bus, complete with food and potables.

Like previous dedicated trolleys, it was stored unused for most of the year, awaiting another holiday season. It was last used in Dayton in December 1988; it was now 40 years old, very rare for a bus. The time was at hand for a replacement Christmas Trolley that was ADA compliant.

Old 559 was donated in 1989 to the San Francisco (California) Municipal Railway, where it carries on the tradition, but without ever again having to run through slush and snow. In San Francisco, like it did in Dayton, it runs only in December, and is stored the rest of the year.

From 1989 through 1997, one of the MVRTA's regular Flyer trolleys was equipped with the seasonal decoration and music system, but without a Santa Claus. The coach operator was decked out with special red clothes and cap, and passed out candy to all takers. Flyers #942 and 964 were the final Christmas trolleys, with 942 painted white for the last year of operation, 1997.

As mentioned earlier, there was only a Trolley Christmas bus, as few diesel buses were operated in Dayton until the onset of the County-Wide System in 1980. Starting in 1980, there has been a diesel powered Christmas bus in addition to the Christmas Trolley.

After the demise of the Christmas Trolley, Flyer #942, after the 1997 season, the Christmas Bus tradition has been carried on by diesel buses, each year seeing a different bus selected for the honor.

The long-running Dayton tradition of a specially decorated bus circulating during the holidays is the MVRTA's most visible greeting "card" to the community that it serves.

Now let us return to the final days of public transit in Dayton as operated as a privately-owned business -- before the onset of publicly-owned transit authorities-such as the Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority (MVRTA).

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