Balsa Wood Buses and a Man Cave Model S

Model bus guru Mark Hart of the Old Pueblo Trolley and Bus Museum talks about the history of Tucson transit and how air conditioning is overrated

click to enlarge PHOTO BY EMILY DIECKMAN
Photo by Emily Dieckman

Mark Hart is surrounded by buses, and that’s the way he likes it. He works at Old Pueblo Trolley and Bus Museum, where he spends his days either giving guided tours of the place or building intricate models of buses and trains. The museum houses dozens of historic buses and streetcars in various stages of restoration—including a 1948 Spartan Model S, which Hart lives in and describes as a “man cave.”

“It’s soundproof, comfortable, and it don’t take much to heat it,” he says of the bus, which was formerly owned by Navi-Hopi Tours and went between Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. “Of course, that’s in the wintertime. In the summer, I don’t fool with air conditioning. I live with the hot weather.”

I interrupt him to make an incredulous clarification: “You don’t have air conditioning? You just live in a metal bus?”

“It has air conditioning that was in the bus, but I don’t use it,” he says. “I don’t like air conditioning myself.”

So, you can tell early on that Hart, who goes way back with the Old Pueblo Trolley Company’s founder Gene Caywood, is a little otherworldly. He’s part Native American, and he tells me his Indian name is “Running Barefoot.” This is fitting because he hates socks almost as much as he loves buses. The toenails peeking out of his sandals are painted green, and one toe on each foot is adorned with a gold ring.

Hart grew up in Tucson, and has lived here his whole life, save for a brief stint in the army. His interest in buses started when he was just a kid and the bus biz was booming—in 1931, Tucson Rapid Transit replaced electric streetcar routes with gas-powered buses. In the 1940s, gas rationing sent bus ridership through the roof, and then post-war growth hit made the enterprise even bigger. The options for getting from Point A to Point B were changing rapidly, and it was a thrilling time. Right in the middle of that, young Mark started building model buses.

“The idea was if I can’t have a big bus, I’ll make a model of it,” he says.

Hart is proud that he never uses assembly kits to create his models, but taught himself how to do everything from scratch. He’s made a chunk of change over the years from people who commission them. (There’s an old comment on the museum’s Facebook page that calls Hart “a true artist or craftsman… If he had a website I’d need a 2nd mortgage on my home for sure.”) From 1958 to 1978, he also drove buses, starting with Tucson Rapid Transit Company and continuing when the city bought the company and renamed the system SunTran. On the wall of the office where he builds his models, he has a framed paycheck for $126.60 from Tucson Rapid Transit, dated March 27, 1959.

These days, he spends his time making models while he listens to music or watches movies on a miniature DVD player. He also gives tours of the museum. The trolley and bus facility where he lives and works is just one division of Old Pueblo Trolley, along with the Street Railway Division and the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum. Its current location was dedicated in October 2016, formally named the “Jones-Brogan Building.”

He loves to tell guests about how they’ve got a new greyhound bus scenic cruiser, and how rare it is that this 40-foot bus still has all its original seats. He’ll tell you about the bus strikes of the 1960s, which dragged on for over a month before Tucson Transit Corporation demanded everyone report back to work by midnight. Hart was one of only three people to come back, but that was enough to get things back up and running.

“I was what they call a scab,” he laughs.

The museum is fascinating and a little eerie to visit—a warehouse of old buses that used to be full of people heading to work, heading home, heading to a party. They served the people of Tucson, and now the crew at the museum is lovingly servicing them. But needless to say, Hart is the real highlight of visiting. It feels nice to be in a space that someone is so devoted to, and, in fact, to meet any person who is so devoted to one thing.

“This place here is the place keeping me alive, keeping me active,” he says. “I enjoy what I do here. The only disadvantage is I can’t call in sick because I live here.”

Old Pueblo Trolley and Bus Museum is located at 2530 S. Fourth Ave. Hours are 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays. It doesn’t hurt to call ahead to make sure Mark Hart will be there to show you around: 520-400-7319.

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