Fort Worth has been home to many movers and shakers. Some—Winfield Scott, Burk Burnett, John Peter Smith—are well known. Others are less known. Two of the less known were pioneers in two forms of mass transit in the first half of the twentieth century.
Robert Chesley Bowen was born in 1889 in Williamson County. As a young man he developed an interest in the new form of transportation—motor vehicles—and operated garages in several small Texas towns, selling each garage at a profit and buying another.
In 1919 Bowen and his brother Temple each bought a truck and went into business hauling freight. In 1920—three years after William Knox Gordon had struck oil near Ranger—the Bowen brothers went to the Ranger and Breckenridge oil fields and began hauling pipe and other supplies. Soon they had a fleet of one hundred trucks. They sold out in 1925 for $100,000 ($1.5 million today) and moved to Fort Worth, where they began founding and buying and selling Texas bus lines.
For example, in 1926 the Bowens chartered West Texas Coaches, which served west Texas from Fort Worth. Soon the Bowens were operating the biggest bus network in Texas. In 1928 they distilled their holdings into Bowen Motor Coaches.
In 1932 the Bowen line began offering the “latest development in buses”: night coaches made of an aluminum alloy and equipped with berths, radio, electric fans, a women’s dressing room, and a lavatory. Bowen claimed that his line was the first in the United States to use the new buses. Travel time from Fort Worth to Houston via Dallas: seven and a half hours.
This brief is a reminder of the state of the Texas highway system eighty years ago. Not until 1932 was the highway (presumably U.S. 75) from Dallas to Houston fully paved!
In 1941 the art moderne Bowen Bus Center opened downtown at the corner of Main and Lancaster streets.
The bus center included Theo’s Café.
And a USO recreation center.
By 1943 the Bowen system had four hundred buses carrying forty-eight thousand passengers a total distance of twenty-five thousand miles each day.
But that year Bowen sold the company for $3 million ($45 million today). Not bad for a business that began with one truck.
In 1945 the Bowen bus line was absorbed by the Continental Trailways national network.
Meanwhile, as Bowen entered the bus line business in the late 1920s, he also entered the aviation business. In 1927 he and his brother were incorporators of Texas Air Transport. R. C. was the company’s first president. TAT was the first airline to carry mail from Texas to the Middle West and to Mexico. In 1928 the Bowens sold TAT to A. P. Barrett (see Part 2), who founded Southern Air Transport, which evolved into American Airlines in 1934. Amon Carter, by then the airline’s biggest stockholder, had its headquarters moved from Dallas to Fort Worth. American Airlines is now the most-traveled airline in North America.
When brother Temple founded Bowen Airlines in 1930, R. C. sat on the board of directors.
Bowen Airlines flew single-engine Lockheeds that carried six to eight passengers. The planes flew from Fort Worth to Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Tulsa, St. Louis, and Chicago.
Passengers included Clark Gable, Jack Dempsey, and Will Rogers.
Bowen Airlines went out of business in 1936.
Seven years later R. C. Bowen tried to take to the sky again, founding Bowen Airways Company. His plan was to establish a feeder airline network after the war ended and to employ men who had been drivers for his bus line and who then had been trained as pilots during the war.
Bowen said, “Hundreds of Bowen Bus Line employees are now serving our country, and many of them are bomber and fighter pilots. When they come home, they may not be as interested in buses as they used to be, especially after pushing around P-38s and B-24s in the air. We hope to have airline jobs ready for them to step into. We believe the end of the war will mark the beginning of an era when all first-class mail will go by plane, and passenger travel by air will reach proportions now not dreamed. Hence, it is our intention, granted government permission, to establish twenty-eight main and feeder routes over this wide Southwest and Midwest territory which would serve not only the larger cities such as St. Louis, San Antonio, Amarillo, Salt Lake City, and Oklahoma City but also such smaller intermediate points as Mineral Wells, Ranger, Brady, Huntsville, and Corsicana.”
But Bowen’s plan never received Civil Aeronautics Administration approval.
R. C. Bowen died in 1947. He lived in River Crest at 201 River Crest Drive, a near neighbor of both Amon Carter and A. P. Barrett.
Robert Chesley Bowen is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.