Column – Trailways once would pick you up at your house

Published 7:10 pm Tuesday, April 9, 2024

One of my earliest recollections is of a Trailways bus stopping in front of our house on a summer day, probably around 1949 or 1950.

I had walked down the lane with my mother, a Surry County native, to greet a couple of her nieces who were coming for one of the many visits back and forth that occurred each summer between our farm and the farms of her siblings in Surry. 

Having a bus stop in front of the house was an extraordinary event to my young mind, but it was not, in reality, an unusual event. Back in those days, commercial bus service remained a key mode of transportation in rural areas and our farm certainly qualified. Located on what was then known as Red Point (now Benns Church Boulevard) directly across the road from today’s Taco Bell, it was indeed rural. There were only 10 farms — and little else — between Battery Park Road and the Benns Church intersection in 1950.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Traffic on Red Point Road was so light that, when I was old enough to venture out on a bicycle, I could ride all the way to Benn’s Church without being overtaken by more than an occasional car. 

Carolina Trailways, later merged into Continental Trailways, was the primary bus service in Smithfield in those days. Prior to World War II, though, Greyhound had been the dominant service. A quick search of old Smithfield Times shows Greyhound actively promoting its service during the 1930s up until World War II. Trailways was first mentioned in a newspaper ad in 1943.

Many families didn’t have cars in the 1930s and 1940s, and during World War II, even if you had one, you often couldn’t get gasoline or tires to keep it rolling. Buses would get you to Richmond or Norfolk and points in between, and would do so economically.

In 1950, a few years after it began serving Smithfield, Trailways advertised that its fare from here to Richmond was $1.75. That wasn’t cheap. In today’s dollars it would be about $22. But it was dependable.

In the mid-1960s, when my generation headed off to college, the military and other points, many of us still didn’t have automobiles, and we continued to rely on buses. And the fares hadn’t inflated too much. A trip from Richmond to Smithfield in 1967 was $2.55.

Of course, there was always your thumb for young men if you were particularly poor that week and felt lucky. One of the most miserable days of my young life was trying to thumb rides from Ferrum College to Smithfield. I finally got to a bus station and used what money I had to get to Suffolk, and from there called home, begging a ride the rest of the way. I had to use a pay phone for that as well.

One thing that didn’t change for decades was the local bus stop. It was located in Turner’s Pure Oil Station at the corner of Main and Church streets, which was also the junction of U.S. Route 258 and State Route 10. Everybody knew where to catch the bus and most anybody could recite the bus schedule from here to Norfolk or Richmond.

Bus service was so important during World War II that the owner of the Smithfield Theatre, who also owned the newspaper, ran an ad saying that the theater was scheduling movies around the bus schedule so that anyone coming to town by bus could be assured they would see an entire movie when they got here.

As late as 1960, a business group called the Norfolk Hospitality Council was advertising in The Smithfield Times to attract customers on a “Shopping Safari” to the big city. Back in the early years of the 20th century, Smithfield residents had ridden the steamboat to Norfolk and back. Now, they could take a Trailways bus, do their shopping and return later in the day aboard a return bus.

Trailways shut down its Turner bus stop in the 1970s. The company briefly reopened a local stop at the Country Store (where Ringo’s Donuts is today), but it didn’t last too many years. In 1987, Continental Trailways was purchased by Greyhound.

There is still long-distance bus service offered by Greyhound, and Virginia has established an across-state service known as Virginia Breeze that’s designed to serve rural areas. It only operates north to south at present, but there are plans to establish a route between the Shenandoah Valley and Hampton Roads this summer. It’s an effort to begin reducing long-distance car travel, and it’s gaining popularity, but it’s not intended to be the regional network that got us here and there a half century ago.

In the 1930s, there were too few cars. Today, there are just too doggoned many of them. And as Isle of Wight and Smithfield continue welcoming residential development, there will be a lot more. There will probably come a point when we wish we once again had some regional travel alternatives. Unfortunately, our enlightened plans for the future have never included an alternative to a glut of cars. 

One thing you can bet on: Other than a yellow one bound for school, there’ll never again be a bus picking you up at the end of your lane.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is