Northville Maintained Coach Line for Nearly 40 Years
Historic bus scrolls provide memories of Detroit bus rides.
The letters on the black scrolls speak volumes...at least for those of us who have a history with Detroit. Not the “suburban Detroit area,” but the city.
The city that once boasted a burgeoning population, where hockey was played at Olympia Stadium and baseball at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. The city that once was a destination for businesses ranging from Wonder Bread to General Motors (which, thankfully, still maintains its corporate headquarters downtown), and was a mecca for restaurants, culture and retail.
For the past month, I have considered the framed scrolls in the new LimeLight Emporium, an artists’ market housed in Northville Square. The white letters against a black background make for intriguing graphic pieces (I admit to an attraction to “letter” art). Nevertheless, it’s the words that provide the emotive element in these works.
These framed art pieces are canvas copies of bus scrolls that graced the front of City of Detroit buses from the 1940s through 1960s. There were 60 alphabetized street and location names on each scroll that were displayed on the front panes of city buses.
Offered by artist Patti Kay, who was featured at this month’s First Friday opening at the emporium, the scrolls have been separated at the seams providing a list of eight to nine bus stop locations per framed artwork. The bus stop combinations range from Fenkell, Ferry Park, Ford, Highland Park, Ford Rouge...to McNichols, Jos. Campau, Meyers, Grand River, Michigan...
I am on the lookout for West Grand Boulevard (Kay said she is considering customizing the scrolls for buyers who have a connection to specific locations).
Though I grew up in the suburbs, my grandparents and my great aunt lived in Detroit until shortly after the 1967 riots. My grandparents lived in North Rosedale Park, my aunt in the historic Boulevard Temple Building on West Grand Boulevard.
My aunt did not drive, so the city bus was her primary mode of transportation. Visits with Auntie Mae nearly always included a ride on the bus...whether going for ice cream puff sundaes at Sander’s counter or spending the day at Hudson’s.
The bus was an adventure. Its expansive windows offered a view of the city rarely seen from the back seat of our family station wagon. My aunt would ply me with sticks of Juicy Fruit to ward off the occasional motion sickness, while pointing out the city’s countless landmarks.
The city was big and bustling. At each stop, I had to hold my aunt’s hand for fear of getting separated on the crowded sidewalks. It seemed we rarely waited more than a few minutes for the bus to arrive, the hiss of the door welcoming us aboard.
I had not thought about my city bus travels until viewing the bus scrolls at the LimeLight Emporium. I am now wondering what became of Northville’s bus fleet...and the scrolls that graced each vehicle’s front panel.
After the demise of Northville’s interurban — electric streetcar — in 1927, two bus lines tried, and failed, to start motorbus transportation in Northville. Success with bus transportation finally came in 1932 with Tunis Biddle’s Northville Coach Line.
In a 1997 article published in the Mill Race Quarterly, the newsletter of the Northville Historical Society, longtime resident and local historian Fran Gazlay noted that the Northville Coach Line drove to Detroit every hour on the hour. A “full trip was 70 cents and less for part of the trip.” Pickups were made anywhere along the route with passengers just holding up a hand.
Gazlay, who rode the bus for 20 years to teach at Cooley, Redford and Cody high schools, noted that a typical bus schedule started at 6 a.m. from the station at Seven Mile and Maxwell roads. The last bus left Detroit at 9:30 p.m.
The first buses were four 1928 Lincoln eight door “stretch” passenger cars. From 1940 to 1970, the busses were surplus from the City of Detroit. Employees —including bus drivers — were local. At one time, there were 12 employees.
The bus garage and office were in an old Sinclair gas station at Northville and Maxwell roads. Tunis’ son Quentin purchased the coach line from his father in 1954, and expanded the business.
By 1970, the influx of automobiles rendered the bus line obsolete. C. Thomas Sechler purchased the Northville Coach Line bus station on Seven Mile in 1970. It was replaced by the Tack Room Restaurant, and then was sold to Chuck Muer, who renamed it Northville’s Charley’s. It is now Rocky’s.
That Northville retained a successful bus service for nearly 40 years is a credit to Tunis and Quentin Biddle. The fleet most likely was auctioned or sold after the coach line was purchased.
Early photos show us that some of the buses had destination panes. If we only knew what happened to the scrolls.