Today’s modern I-26 highway between Johnson City and Asheville is a far cry from the narrow winding old highway 19/23 of yesteryear.
John Hughes, a retired Johnson City bus and truck driver drove a Queen City Trailways bus across this treacherous mountainous terrain daily between 1946 and 1948: “I began my route in Bristol each morning around 8:00, traveling through Bluff City, Dead Man Curve, Bullet Hollow, Elizabethton, Johnson City, Unicoi, Erwin, Ernestville (traveling across a single lane bridge), Flag Pond and Mars Hill (stopping for a 15-minute break), before arriving in Asheville some five hours later. My pay was a little over $73 a week for a six-day work week. No one every tipped me; that just wasn’t done then. I wore an impressive looking dark beige gabardine uniform with maroon stripes, tie with pin and a cap with a bill.”
John said that it was commonplace for people to get motion sickness during the long curvy jaunt: Initially, I had to detour up a gravel road to Spivey Mountain and back across Tilson Mountain. Meeting another vehicle on this narrow road meant stopping to allow one to squeeze past the other. Passengers wanting to depart the bus signaled me by pulling a buzzer cord located along each side. My job responsibilities included carrying a rate book, figuring people’s fares, cutting tickets, taking money and dispensing change. Best I remember, it cost about $1.75 to ride from Johnson City to Asheville.”
John chuckled when he recalled stopping near Flag Pond to pick up a young boy and girl sitting on the side of the road. The youngsters, dressed in Easter outfits and carrying a basket, handed him a dollar and asked him to take them down the road to Aunt Louise’s house for an Easter egg hunt.
Hughes said that he failed to return home only once in his three years of service: “The bus got through ice and snow pretty well because it was heavy and the engine was in the rear. There was a small hand ax mounted next to me on the side of the bus for the purpose of beating out windows and freeing passengers should the bus turn over on the door side.”
John stated that his vehicle occasionally became so full of passengers that the company had to run a second bus, a Fitzjohn, following behind as a double: In the early days if the bus had a flat tire or developed engine trouble, I had to flag down someone on the road and ask them if they would locate a phone and call the company to request a service crew. After dropping off my passengers at Asheville’s large busy terminal, I had about four hours of unpaid time before starting my return route. Trailways rented rooms for us at the nearby Earle Hotel. I left Asheville shortly after 5:00 and got back to Bristol usually around 10:20, making for a long day.”
In September 1984, John retired and was recognized for working 54 years without having a single accident. Asked how he accomplished this amazing feat, the seasoned driver answered without hesitation: “The good Lord above looking down on me and the drivers down here dodging me. The Lord had it all planned that way.”