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Remembering a time when Newmarket's bus drivers knew your name

In this week's Remember This, History Hound Richard MacLeod recalls the early days of Newmarket’s first transit system

Let’s go back in time to learn the story of Newmarket’s first bus transit system and the two men who made it happen. Many of us have memories of riding the town bus as a youth before we had wheels.

The story begins with two Larry Needler and Earlby Ruthven, who were the owners of the Newmarket Taxi Co. Limited. But they had a dream that included creating Newmarket’s first local bus service and, thankfully, they were able to make it work.

They named it Travelways Bus Lines Limited and on May 7, 1948 at 6:30 a.m., they started to roll. The plans were for a 30-minute service in two directions, one to service the east side of town and one to cover the west side of town.

They chose the King George hotel, west side and in front of Steadman’s on the east side as their home base. Two buses served each direction of a circular town route with a 30-minute frequency. Initially the service ran from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday and 7 a.m. to noon Saturdays. There was no service on Sundays back then.

Cash fares were adults 10 cents or three tickets for 25 cents, while children were 5 cents or three rides for 15 cents (there was no senior fare).

Some of the early drivers at that time were George ‘Red' Wilkins, Earl Thompson, Stu Dow, Ken Mount and Wilf Needler.

On July 1, 1959, the contract moved over to Bob Stackhouse, who renamed the company the Newmarket Town Bus Service. He operated it until Sept. 20, 1967 when it was sold back to Needler and Travelways. Then the bus service was replaced in the early 1970s by Newmarket Transit, operating under a government subsidy on contract to the Town of Newmarket.

Service on some of the routes was then provided until midnight, with 15-minute service provided on trunk routes (55A, 55B) during rush hours. 

There were two female drivers at this point, A. Shurbert and part-timer Carol Arens.  Added to the driving crew were Charlie Yates, Carson Robinson, Len Salmon, Peter Brown and Irv Rose, George Smart, Frank Hopper, Harold Hutchinson, Stan Allen, Cliff Scott, Al Alsterhout, Bernard Smith, Doug McGuire, Morn Mason, Roy Wingrove, Ed Watson, Barry Shambrook, Bob Cripps, Len Villeneuve, Harvey Williams, and Harry Bennett.  As children, we all knew the drivers and more importantly, they all knew us. 

James Barber, who held the title of administrative coordinator at Newmarket Transit, was a mainstay with the service for over 33 years, guiding it along and watching it grow. Kudos to Mr. Barber for making the whole system work as well as it did.

The problem back then was that operating costs were constantly going up and thus there were to be numerous increases in the fare over the years. I have an ad from September 1983 indicating that fares were about to increase to 55 cents per ride for adults, 40 cents for students and 30 cents for children and seniors. There was a family fare of 90 cents. It also informs us that we will need exact change as the drivers will no longer be making change. Passes were now available for purchase, $12 for 20 rides (adults), $9 (students) and $7 (seniors). This was to increase again two years later to 60 cents for adults, 45 cents for students and 35 cents for children and seniors.  

But there were some interesting promotional tricks introduced back then. A bus pass, which was sold for $3 for 20 rides, was issued by the town and co-sponsored by McDonalds Canada, wherein the purchaser would get a free Big Mac at their Yonge Street restaurant with the pass.

Originally Newmarket Transit operated only four routes, routes A, B, C, D, all running from the downtown terminal behind Loblaw’s parking lot. Those routes were later re-numbered 11, 22, 33 and 44. 

Route 55, a trunk route from the Newmarket Bus Terminal to the 404 Plaza was eventually added and included two branches - 55A via Davis Drive and 55B via Gorham and Eagle streets which were interlinked during late evening and weekend service. 

As the town expanded, routes 66 and 77 were added to service the new developments west of Yonge Street (route 66) and southeast of Mulock Drive (route 77). Routes 22 and 33 would be cancelled in mid-1990s, with the remaining routes adjusted slightly to partially compensate for the lost services.

Figures for the year 1991 indicate that the serviced population was 40,000 and the fleet had nine buses.

In 1998, Newmarket Transit restructured its routes to provide direct service to the several new destinations added by amalgamation and rapid growth.

Route 55C was added to provide direct service on Mulock Drive between Yonge Street and Leslie Street. Routes 11 and 77 were combined into a single route 77/11, which provided one-way circular service on major streets in the eastern part of Newmarket. This route was later extended to the south on Bayview Avenue to connect with Aurora Transit. 

Routes 44 and 66 were restructured to provide service in the southwest and northwest parts of the town. While the routes were interlined and the schedule listed them as '44/66' and '66/44', those in fact remained two separate routes.

On Dec. 1, 1981, a new special needs van was added to the fleet at a cost of $20,000. It was fully equipped with a hydraulic lift and held five people in wheelchairs and three attendants.

On Sept. 4, 1999, Newmarket Transit assumed the responsibilities over the public transit system in the town of Aurora, restructuring the old circular route into two community bus routes: A1 and A2.

At the time, Aurora had an existing private bus operator called the Aurora Bus lines, owned by Ronald Farquharson from the 1960s.

Then in 2001, Newmarket Transit was merged with York Region's other services to form York Region Transit. Wanting to assume greater responsibility for regional public transportation in York Region, the existing systems operating in Markham, Newmarket (including Aurora), Richmond Hill, and Vaughan were amalgamated.  

The formal launch of the new system was Feb. 1, 2001, but the existing contracts were continued with the existing parties.

On Sept. 4, 2005, YRT launched a rapid bus service called Viva operated by the York Region Rapid Transit Corporation on behalf of York Region. The first segment of the busway opened Aug. 18, 2013. As of 2015, the operating contractors were now Tok Transit in Newmarket and Aurora.

In a future article, we will examine the GO Yonge bus operations from Finch subway station north to Newmarket and beyond.

As a youngster, I rode the local transit system continuously and it surely encapsulated the character and people of my town. I remember David Daly following the bus throughout town on his bike or camping out in the bus, bringing his lunch, as I recall, and seemingly riding the entire route repeatedly.  One could always count on encountering David when you took the bus in Newmarket. 

I hope you have enjoyed my look back and that you will share your memories about taking the bus with us all.

Sources: The Newmarket Era, The Viva Website, Wikipedia Website - Old Ontario Transit Systems, Various Newmarket Community Guides Over the Years, The Canadian Public Transit Discussion Board – York Region Transit, Transit History of Ontario, A Brief History of Public Transit in Ontario, The Memorable Merchants and Trades 1950 – 1980 by Mr. Eugene McCaffrey, Oral History Interviews conducted by Richard MacLeod


Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.