The Brewster bus back-story: 125 years of history in the Canadian Rockies

If you’ve ever travelled the Icefields Parkway between Jasper and Banff, you’ve undoubtedly seen those ubiquitous blue Brewster tour buses rolling along the road (see photo below right). But did you know that this iconic transportation company has been shuttling tourists around the Banff area for over 125 years — and that the company played a major role in opening the Canadian Rockies to tourism on a global scale?

Brewster bus on the Icefields Parkway. (Photo: Brewster Travel Canada).

I discovered just how deep Brewster’s historical roots run during a recent visit to the Banff Springs Hotel. Awed by the grand old structure and its long history (the hotel was built in 1888), I took a self-guided historical tour, the first stop of which was the hotel’s Heritage Hall. Amid a collection of old photographs and informative displays, I found myself drawn to two photographs of horse-drawn Brewster carriages taking hotel guests on sight-seeing tours as early as 1903. I was surprised to learn that Brewster was up and running at this time, and that, only a few years later, the company began working in partnership with the Canadian Pacific Railway to promote the Canadian Rockies as a prime tourist destination for well-to-do travellers from around the world.

Intrigued, I went home and did some digging. It turns out that today’s blue Brewster buses can trace their origins back to 1892, when two entrepreneurial young boys set the wheels rolling on what would eventually become the tourism and transportation company that we now know as Brewster Travel Canada.

The Brewster story

In 1886, enterprising Ontario-born pioneer John Brewster followed the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) west to Banff, where he settled with his family and established a dairy business. The Banff Springs Hotel, established in 1888 and owned by the CPR, soon became Brewster’s largest customer.

In 1892, John Brewster’s eldest sons — Bill, aged 12, and Jim, aged 10 — began offering hotel guests guided tours of local fishing spots and scenic viewpoints. The boys had grown up exploring the countryside and visiting the hotel with their father’s dairy service. They knew all the best spots and became an instant hit with the hotel’s wealthy clientele.

Eight years later, in 1900, Bill and Jim added an outfitting component to their sight-seeing enterprise. They opened the Brewster Trading Store in Banff and offered guiding, horse packing and livery services in an area that stretched north and east to Lake Louise and Field, BC. In 1901, the brothers signed a contract naming them as the exclusive outfitting provider for the CPR in the Canadian Rockies region.

This image of a Brewster “tally-ho” 12-passenger carriage, taken circa 1903, hangs in the Fairmont Banff Springs Heritage Hall. (Photo: courtesy Fairmont Banff Springs)

By 1903, the brothers’ various business ventures were thriving. One photo in the Banff Springs Heritage Hall (shown at right) depicts a Brewster “tally-ho” 12-passenger, four-horse carriage rumbling down a dirt road with the hotel in the background. The carriage is filled with hatted ladies and nattily attired gents on a sight-seeing tour to Lake Minnewanka.

Around the same time as this “tally-ho” photo was taken, the Brewsters began collaborating with the CPR to help draw tourists to the Canadian Rockies. Joint advertisements encouraged travellers from around the world to take the train to Banff, stay in the CPR’s Banff Springs Hotel, then embark on Brewster sight-seeing excursions to remote and breathtaking locations not reachable by rail. A 1906 CPR ad titled “50 Switzerlands in One” features a drawing of the “tally-ho” photo at right and proclaims the Canadian Rockies as “the most charming locality for a holiday on the continent of America,” with “excellent train service and splendid hotels.”

Brewster motor coaches, like this one operating under the Grey Line franchise, provided Banff tourists with an immersive sight-seeing experience. (Photo: Brewster Travel Canada)

By 1916, the Brewsters owned and operated a fleet of 70 horse-drawn carriages. That year, perhaps anticipating the future, Jim Brewster purchased five new overland motor coaches — complete with removable glass roofs — thus ushering in the era of Brewster bus travel that we know today. The motor coach fleet subsequently grew, and it was not uncommon to see a dozen or more Brewster buses lined up alongside the CPR track at Banff Station, ready to collect passengers as they disembarked the train for their Canadian Rockies vacations.

In 1920, Brewster obtained the Grey Line franchieses for Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. The highway between Banff and Lake Louise opened a year later, with the highway between Banff and Jasper following suit 20 years later.

Brewster Travel Canada is now owned by Viad Corp. and includes branches for sight-seeing, transportation and hospitality. The company’s website states that it welcomes 1.5 million guests and employs 300 people annually.

The next time you see a Brewster bus on the Icefields Parkway, take a moment to tip your proverbial hat its way, for that blue bus’s forebears have been travelling these roads and trails much, much longer that we have.

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One thought on “The Brewster bus back-story: 125 years of history in the Canadian Rockies

  1. Pingback: A Shared Love of Canada’s Rocky Mountains – Part I | Vissi d'arte

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