Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
Buses bound for Pittsburgh pause on the old Lincoln Highway west of Stoystown.

Buses bound for Pittsburgh pause on the old Lincoln Highway west of Stoystown.
Library of Congress, 2017861354

Most photographs from World War II document industries or overseas military activities. Rarely do we get a look at daily life on the home front. One young woman who was documenting ordinary lives at that time was Esther Bubley (1921–98), who became known for taking intimate photos of people despite lugging around a large camera. There’s no better example of that than a story from her niece Jean Bubley, who told me, “My Aunt Esther came to visit when I was a baby, and my mother was thrilled that the famous photographer would take pictures of me. But she didn’t seem to be photographing me, and my mother was getting annoyed. Finally my mother asked, ‘Aren’t you going to take pictures of the baby?’ And Esther replied, ‘I’ve already taken 40.’”

Bubley’s ability to melt into the background was a perfect fit for an assignment in 1943 with the U.S. Office of War Information (OWI), a propaganda agency educating the public at home and abroad about the war and its mobilization. Only 22, Bubley spent a month traveling by Greyhound bus to document the effects of rationing. Not only was gasoline sparse, but rubber had become impossible to acquire from Japanese-controlled Asia. Bubley used her journeys to show the effects of the shortages.

As her bus loaded in Washington, D.C., that September, the driver started punching tickets at the back of the crowd where Bubley had been waiting, so she got a front seat. She wrote in an essay about her trip, “Across the aisle, two boys of about twelve and fourteen were hoisting their bags onto the rack. A middle aged woman came in and sat down with me, then turned toward the back and started asking her daughter if she would like trying the front seat. ‘We’re going sightseeing in Gettysburg,’ she explained, ‘and I don’t want her to miss anything.’ Daughter had discovered a soldier, however, and was quite satisfied with a seat near the back.”

The bus headed to Baltimore, then north into Pennsylvania, where it turned westward to Pittsburgh. From there, Bubley worked her way onward to Columbus, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, Louisville, Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga and back to D.C.


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Bubley wrote of the people, “Most passengers, traveling a long distance, seemed to be on vacation. Several were just ‘seeing the country.’ A large share of the vacationing people were going to or from Army camps to visit sons, boyfriends and husbands.” She added that there was also a lot of local traffic: “Children ride the bus from farms and small towns to school, people living in the country and working in town hail the bus on the highway daily.”

Only a few photos were taken on the road to Pittsburgh, but from them we can surmise that the bus followed U.S. 30 and the old Lincoln Highway rather than the Pennsylvania Turnpike so that it could stop in small towns along the way. We recognize Gettysburg and an overlook at Stoystown, Somerset County, but other shots remain unidentified.

It was at Pittsburgh’s bustling Greyhound station where Bubley documented much more than passengers, capturing mechanics and cleaners, dispatchers and baggage handlers, and drivers at work and at rest. Women are seen behind the scenes, filling jobs while men are off at war. Many of these services were new to bus stations, bringing the word “terminal” into more common usage. The Pittsburgh terminal was large enough that it faced both Grant Street and Liberty Avenue, each a major thoroughfare. It served countless passengers for two decades, yet almost no photos survive beyond the few dozen taken by Bubley.


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Pittsburgh’s Greyhound station was part of a revitalization effort at the southeastern edge of downtown. Grant Street, today a major boulevard, had been diverted into a zigzag road in the 1880s to make way for the Pennsylvania Railroad’s freight station. By 1930 Grant was being made whole again and a surge of construction created three fashionable Art Deco buildings (Koppers Building, Federal Reserve Bank, and Gulf Tower) along with a massive Neoclassical post office and federal building, all extant. Their new neighbor for 1937, the Streamline Moderne Greyhound terminal — clad in buff brick with blue trim — replaced an old, informal Greyhound depot and parking lot.

Bus terminals then were a new phenomenon. Bus travel itself had only taken hold in the 1920s, with makeshift depots in places like drug stores and pool halls. Costs were low for bus companies, but the host business controlled the location and hours, plus these were not always comfortable for females and families. With Americans driving less to preserve gas and tires, as Frank Wrenick explains in his book The Streamline Era Greyhound Terminals, Greyhound seized the initiative to create a nationwide network of bus routes, with stylish streamlined buses and terminals, to make bus travel not only acceptable but appealing, even glamorous. As war preparation escalated, Greyhound also increased service to military camps and bases. Although many companies struggled during the Depression, Greyhound remained competitive and even expanded; by 1939 it had 9,000 employees, 4,750 stations, 2,500 buses, and a system covering 54,000 miles.


The waiting room at the Greyhound bus terminal in Pittsburgh displays touches of Streamline Moderne styling, including terrazzo floors.

The waiting room at the Greyhound bus terminal in Pittsburgh displays touches of Streamline Moderne styling, including terrazzo floors.
Library of Congress, 2017861585

These years were a golden age for photojournalism too, with government photography projects and magazines like Time and Life taking high-quality images into American homes. In her biography of Bubley at estherbubley.com, Bonnie Yochelson writes that when Bubley was a teen, her love of pictures by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) led her to choose photography as her career. Struggling to find work as a photographer, Bubley got a job in 1942 microfilming documents for the National Archives. Roy Stryker, head of the widely respected photographic division at the FSA, had just been moved to the OWI. Stryker hired Bubley as a darkroom assistant, and then, seeing her photography, he moved her into working on OWI assignments.

A couple months after this trip, Stryker left the OWI to set up a public relations project for Standard Oil Company New Jersey (SONJ), hiring away many of his former photographers including Gordon Parks, John Vachon and Bubley. There, she would do another bus story four years later that produced even more iconic photos of industrial and agricultural scenes and the tensions of a segregated America.

After Stryker left SONJ, he established another photographic project for the University of Pittsburgh. In 1951 he again hired Bubley, this time to document the city’s Children’s Hospital. By then Bubley was enjoying corporate assignments around the world. A decade later, however, as television replaced magazines as America’s main source of news and entertainment, Bubley left the field to concentrate on gardening and pets, publishing several books on both topics.


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Pittsburgh had changed too, quickly outgrowing its streamlined bus station. In fact, the city spent the postwar years undergoing an urban and civic revitalization known as “The Renaissance” that saw many old or outdated buildings replaced by new ones. Although the few buildings sporting restrained Art Deco survived, Streamline Moderne now looked like Buck Rogers to the Sputnik generation. In 1959 a new brown-and-gray Greyhound terminal opened a block away; the old station was demolished, without a tear shed, to make way for a plain new Federal Office Building in 1964.



Back on the road, passengers struck up new friendships.

Back on the road, passengers struck up new friendships.
Library of Congress, 2017861906

More Photographs and Further Reading

All of Bubley’s Office of War Information photos are now part of the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress, online at loc.gov/pictures/collection/fsa. This wideranging pictorial record, documenting American life from 1935 to 1944, comprises some 175,000 negatives.

For more on Esther Bubley and her photography, see The Photographs of Esther Bubley (Giles, 2010) or visit estherbubley.com, which includes Bonnie Yochelson’s “Biography of Esther Bubley.”

World War II–era bus terminals are covered in Frank E. Wrenick’s The Streamline Era Greyhound Terminals: The Architecture of W. S. Arrasmith (McFarland, 2007) and Manferd Burleigh and Charles M. Adams’ Modern Bus Terminals and Post Houses (University Lithoprinters, 1941).


Brian Butko writes books on two-lane travel and roadside culture, including Greetings from the Lincoln Highway and Diners of Pennsylvania. Look for his related article about Pittsburgh’s streamlined Greyhound station in the Spring 2019 issue of Western Pennsylvania History magazine.