Preserving the Highway Post Office Bus

The bus being pulled from the garage in Chicago
Removing the bus from the garage in Chicago

The Highway Post Office bus, manufactured by the White Motor Company in 1941, has had an interesting history before becoming part of the Smithsonian’s collection in 1968. Its important history in helping move America’s mail made it a popular artifact to be displayed and loaned to other institutions for many years. When the bus needed a new storage location in 2007, there was no space for such a large artifact in the National Postal Museum’s (NPM) storage facilities. NPM was able to work with the United States Postal Service (USPS) to find storage for the bus in an enclosed garage in Chicago, Illinois. NPM staff made annual trips to inspect the condition of the bus, but were always looking for space to store it closer to the museum. Then in 2014, NPM acquired more storage space and was finally able to bring the bus back to the DC area!

The bus being loaded onto the tractor trailor
Loading the bus onto the tractor trailor

On November 17, 2014, NPM’s Conservator and Collections Manager stood on a Chicago street assisting USPS employees using tow trucks to carefully move the bus from the garage to the street to prepare it for transport to DC. The work was slow and the streets had to be blocked off to protect both the artifact and the people working with it. Once the bus was out on the street, it was loaded onto a large tractor trailer for its long drive back to DC. The trailer had an open top to accommodate the size of the bus. The bus arrived safely on November 19th at the museum’s storage facility in Maryland. The bus was unloaded with the assistance of the Smithsonian’s Metro Support Services Branch and NPM staff began planning for the next phases to clean and prepare it for long-term storage.

Two museum staff inspect the bus and make notes in the condition report
Creating the condition report

Seven members of NPM’s Collection and Preservation staff descended upon the bus two days later on November 21st to conduct a condition report (a report that carefully details every aspect of the bus’s physical condition, inside and out) and to wash the bus because it had gotten very dirty during its two-day drive in the open-top trailer. The staff used buckets of clean water and damp lint-free rags to wash the bus. When a rag got too dirty, they just got a new one and replaced the water in the buckets as much as possible. The inside of the bus was dusted using static-cling cloths. The process took several hours, but the bus looked amazing when they were done.

Two museum staff cleaning the outside and the inside of the bus
Cleaning the outside and inside of the bus
Museum staff cleaning the outside of bus
Cleaning the outside of bus

The next step for preparing for storage was to get the bus off of its wheels so they would not deteriorate under the weight of the vehicle. NPM’s Preservation staff contacted the Smithsonian’s Transportation Services department for guidance on purchasing the right type of jack stands for the vehicle’s excessive weight and its irregular axles. After extensive measurements and communication between the departments, NPM had finally found the perfect jack stands by August 2015. The Smithsonian’s Transportation Services employees used air pressure jacks to lift the bus and place it on the new jack stands. The process was so gentle it did not seem like the bus moved at all. Today the wheels are comfortably a few inches off the ground and the axles are sound.

Museum staff placing the bus on Jack Stands
Placing the bus on jack stands

The last and final step was to cover the bus. The old cover from when the bus was in Chicago was filthy so a new RV cover was ordered. Even though the storage space is a clean space, there is always a risk of dust, the cover will prevent any unwanted dust or particles from getting on or in the bus. A team of five staff members went out to cover the bus on August 25th. It looked very cozy when it was covered up. We know that the bus is safe and well preserved because of the many steps for constant care that the Smithsonian has taken since 1968, and the steps taken in the eight-month period over 2014-2015 will carry the bus in good stead for years to come.

Museum staff putting a cover on the bus
Putting cover on the bus
Bus shown covered and ready for storage
Bus covered and ready for storage

Thank you to the United States Postal Service and the Smithsonian’s Metro Support Services Branch and Transportation Services for all their help to keep this part of postal history preserved!