Every Monday morning, Joe Kipp would walk over to the Wentworth Street offices of the Hamilton Street Railway “looking for an opening as an operator”. It was the mid-1970s and Joe was in his mid-20s.
At the time, the HSR would only hire men older than 25 years of age and they had to be married. “That’s just the way things were then”, Joe says.
It took months of showing up before he was hired, even with “two references who did me well”. His references were Norm Keopke, a senior HSR operator, and a Hamilton Police Sergeant.
Joe started training on June 17, 1978.
After nearly 40 years behind the wheel of a HSR bus, Joe retires tomorrow at 11:57 a.m.
“Full training in those days took about a year to complete”, Joe says. At the time, the HSR ran trolleys, “suburban runs”, and inter-city Canada Coach Lines service.
It was the trolleys that “enamoured” Joe with the HSR. He started operating as a “spare board” operator, filling in for vacation and sick days. He first “signed” work was a late night 2-Barton. Next board, Joe signed work on the 1-King and never looked back.
For the next 20 years, with a few exceptions when he did overtime, Joe stuck to the 1-King. Where most operators moved to suburban routes once they had seniority, Joe loved operating the trolley buses on King.
Even now, nearly 40 years later, when Joe volunteers for extra work, he tries to stay to the old trolley line routes of 1-King, 2-Barton, and 3-Cannon.
Joe, A People Person
It’s a cold Wednesday morning when I joined Joe Kipp last week for the start of his shift. Joe leaves his house just after 3:45 a.m. to get his morning bus to work.
The HSR is truly a 24/7 operation, between end of service at 2:45 a.m. and resumption of service at 4:30 a.m., the HSR operates shuttle buses to get bus operators to and from the Mountain Transit Centre.
Joe used to walk to work when the HSR was at Wentworth Street and King Street, where he started in the 1970s. When the HSR moved in 1989 to 330 Wentworth Street North, he continued to walk to work. It was the late 1990s when the HSR moved to its present Mount Hope location on Upper James Street near the airport and Joe started riding the shuttle.
Joe walks 1.5 kilometres from his house to get the pickup bus at Wellington Street and Main Street. The walk is quiet, other than the odd car and one Liquid Air vehicle, the City’s streets are abandoned at this early hour. Even the local Tim Horton’s is closed.
This morning, Joe’s the first operator waiting for the bus. Shortly after arriving at the stop, a few other operators emerge from the dark to join Joe waiting.
The shuttle arrives shortly after 4:15 a.m, Joe boards and the shuttle operator greets Joe with a “Hey, got any candy for me today!”. There are about a half-dozen operators on board at this point, and the good natured conversation starts immediately.
Joe is the centre of attention as other operators ask who will give out candy when he retires.
Joe has three signatures on the King, waving at nearly everyone, his bubble machine, and the candies he’s handed out over the years.
The pick-up shuttle travels up the Claremont Access, at Upper James and Mohawk Road, more operators board, making about a dozen and a half drivers on the bus.
Camera shy, nobody sits beside Joe this day, but one asks Joe what candy he has today. Quickly, like a movie character selling watches on a New York City street, Joe flashes his jacket to look at his inner pocket. A miniature candy cane is exchanged for a smile.
Candy and Bubbles
One of the guys jokes “Hey Joe, you never have candy for me!”, Joe hands him a candy and with a smile shares a lesson he learned early in his career handing out candy “guys just don’t like getting chocolate from other guys”. Joe adds more advice, “colder weather is better for chocolate”.
“At Main and Ottawa eastbound years ago, there was a young girl on her way to school every morning. She quizzed me once about why she never got candy”, Joe says he told her that he need her parents permission. “The very next morning”, Joe says with a great deal of emphasis, “the young girl emerged from a car parked near the stop with her mother in tow … the youngling had candy for the rest of grade school”.
Joe says over the years, he’s enjoyed driving generations of Glen Brae students to their East End school, saying they are “always extra polite and friendly”. (In a playful move of banter to your reporter’s high school origins, Joe says “I’m not too sure about those Glendale students”)
At 4:30 a.m., the pickup shuttle arrives at the Mountain Garage and a steady stream of operators flows into the building. Just inside the entrance, two dozen of them squeeze to swipe in for the day, pickup their transfers and slips for the day.
An ironically placed sign overhead says this is a “Quiet Zone”, as report operators await an HSR Inspector to assign them buses for the day. For the next few hours, this zone is organized chaos as dispatchers scramble with the daily operator shortage to figure out which buses will or will not be on the road that morning.
A retired operator on report this day, Ken Goobie, sees Joe. “Where your bubble toy Joe?!”, Ken says with a giant smile. A few others operators join in, joking Joe should launch bubbles in the Quiet Zone. Joe’s says he’s still searching for a replacement after his most recent one broke.
Joe is well known for the bubbles flying out his bus window while stopped at various locations, especially McMaster University.
Joe started with the bubbles for the kids at the hospital.
The 1A-King end of the line was the front of McMaster Children’s Hospital for nearly 20 years, and Joe would sit their daily. “One day I spotted a bubble machine in a department story, and I had an idea. I’d start blowing bubbles out the front door of the coach”.
“Drum days were replaced with smiles”. Officially, blowing bubbles out the window something the HSR frowns, but as one HSR mid-manager told me, even they smiles seeing Joe’s bubbles flying.
“In hindsight, I should have wrote a book” Joe says sharing stories of the past nearly 40 years.
“I have young passengers today whose parents, and in some cases grandparents, also rode my bus”.
Like many of his passengers, Joe has lived in Central Hamilton his entire life. He grew up only a few blocks from his present home near General Hospital, he regularly walks from his house to visit his mother.
“There was a time a few decades ago when we were having some ongoing problems at night from certain shaddy characters” Joe tells with a look of reminiscence. “The HSR resorted to hiring off duty policemen to ride the bus”. One night, an off-duty police office saw a suspect he knew with a warrant and made a gunpoint arrest on Joe’s bus, “I’ve had tense moments on the buses but never really felt for my safety”.
Joe had two buses catch fire on him over the years.
In the early-1990s, he was driving bus #8501 westbound on Queenston Road passing the Zellers Plaza at Nash Road. “Passing cars were blowing their horns at me, trying to get my attention”, Joe says with a smile. “After stopping one driver yelled out ‘your bus is on fire!’, I didn’t even know”. He got the “seven or so passengers” off the bus and went to the nearest house to call for assistance.
By the time the Fire Department arrived “the fire engulfed the rear of the bus”. Joe explains the floors were made of plywood on this model of bus and the fire spread along the floorboards.
While one fire truck’s crew fought the fire, which Joe says caused black smoke that stopped all traffic on Queenston Road, the “young lad” who lived in the house came out “in rubber boots, a red plastic fireman’s hat, and the garden hose” to try to assist the fire department. The engineer of the second pumper on scene gave the child a full tour of the truck.
The bus was a write-off for passenger service, the frame was salvaged and the City’s first Dental Bus was built on it.
“I lost my favourite driving glasses in the blaze”, says Joe.
About seven or eight years ago, Joe had his second bus fire. Driving down the Red Hill around 4:45 a.m., Joe noticed flames in his rear view mirror. His “0600 series” bus was shooting flames out the rear tire well. Joe suspects the regenerative breaking system was at fault. The back of the bus was a write-off when the fire was put out.
The Future of The HSR
Joe’s trained hundreds of operators over his career, including the HSR’s first two female operators, and gives them simple advice.
“Never assume anything, treat people with respect, if you are a hurry and pressed for time, bad things may happen (good things never result from hurrying)”.
Back at the garage at 4:30 a.m., Joe continues to get ready for the day. Officially, his bus pulls out of the garage at 4:55 a.m., but Joe always makes sure to be on his bus no later than 4:40 a.m. to give extra time for checking the bus. If he finds a problem with his assigned bus, it gives him time to get another and still be on time for his 5:15 a.m. departure as the third 1-King bus out of the GO Centre.
Joe enters the driver’s lounge after swiping in and getting his papers for the day. He quickly chats with some of the younger operators, including Cindy who recently filled-in on Joe’s work during his summer vacation.
As Joe nears retirement, he looks at the current HSR crisis as a “temporary bump for the company” (The HSR’s full name is The Hamilton Street Railway Company), “I know Cindy quite well, she has passion and is representative of the upcoming operators who will be here after I and others are long gone”.
“She often covered my work when I’m on vacation, my regular passengers often had nice things to say about her and others”.
As for filling in for Joe, you can’t be Joe, just ask “Friendly Frank, The Singing Bus Driver“. Joe had medical leave last year and Frank Palin operated Joe’s bus for the month of May and June.
Frank is one of the HSR’s most popular operators, so much so that a GoFundMe organized earlier this year by McMaster students who regularly ride his 51-University to thank him raised over $1000.
On driving Joe’s bus, Frank says “as the weeks go by, passengers would still board each day with either a ‘When’s Joe back’ or ‘Still no Joe?'”.
Frank took it in strive, “It was nice because drivers tend to get a bad rap, to see how beloved Joe is, it restores my faith in the system”.
Frank says Joe was one of the first operators to welcome when he was hired, and he looked forward to seeing Joe on campus at McMaster for the bubbles flying out Joe’s window, “It always made me laugh”.
On this day, due to the ongoing Transit Crisis, many retirees are in the lounge on “report” as the HSR scrambles to fulfil scheduled serve after Council slashed hiring early in 2017. Among the those awaiting assignment is former Amalgamated Transit Union Local 107 President Kim Cheeseman who led the union during the lengthy 1997/98 winter transit strike.
“I owe him and those who came before him for the good job I have today, for my kids education”.
“I consider myself fortunate to be able to obtain a good paying job with good benefits that went a long way for me and my family”, Joe says as we hustle out of the lounge to the garage.
Joe is especially proud that he job “enabled my children to get a good education and start on their own careers”. His eldest son is an aircraft mechanic, his daughter is a child care administration overseeing a large number of Early Year Centres, and his youngest son recently graduated from the physiology program at McMaster University.
It’s now 4:40 a.m., most of Joe’s passengers haven’t even awaken for the day, but he’s fully alert as I struggle to keep up. Joe cuts in between a row of buses positioned so tightly together that an extra layer of winter jacket wouldn’t fit. Movely quickly, as we pass the third column of buses, Joe turns around with a smile “Watch yourself, I’ve torn many a jacket over the years”.
At the front of the garage sits the bus Joe will drive on this day, he gets on board and starts his routine of starting up the bus, positioning his candy on the dashboard, and punching transfers.
Joey Coleman / The Public Record permalink
Joe Kipp walks around his entire bus to complete his circle check. Lights, tires, even the emergency engine cut-off compartment all get checked with his flashlight. Here he checks the tires are properly bolted to the vehicle.