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FreightWaves Haul of Fame: Cole’s Express was Maine’s finest

A vintage Cole's Express truck. (Photo: Robert Gabrick)

The story of Cole’s Express is a classic American “rags to riches” tale. 

Allie Cole struck out on his own at the age of 10 when he was old enough to understand that his widowed mother could not support him and several sisters and brothers on what she earned as a washer-woman. After leaving Lowell, Maine, Cole supported himself through a series of jobs, including farm and stable work. In 1910, at the age of 17, he was working as a baggage and freight handler at the Enfield, Maine, railroad station. 

He decided to go into business for himself, rather than work dead-end jobs that did not value good customer service. He landed a contract to deliver mail between the Enfield railroad station and the nearby towns of Burlington, Grand Falls, Lowell and Saponac. Using a horse and wagon, this first contract became the foundation of Cole’s business, which he named Cole’s Express in 1917. 

The early years of Cole’s Express

His business grew, and by 1919 Cole had earned enough money to purchase a Model T Ford, which he used to deliver mail and other packages. Using the Model T reduced the time it took Cole to deliver mail along his route. He began to supplement his income from delivering mail by transporting lumbermen and other passengers to and from the railroad station. This generated additional revenue, and so Cole started a trucking and passenger service from Enfield to Bangor, which was about 30 miles away. 

Cole decided that his new business would grow faster by relocating to Bangor. He moved it,  and his wife and four children to Bangor, where Cole’s Express would be headquartered for many years.

From Bangor, Cole began expanding his services to other towns, including Houlton and Lincoln. By the late 1920s, Cole’s Express had become fairly well known across the area.  

At that time, the roads in Maine – and in most of the United States – were rudimentary. Add to the poor conditions of the roads the long and often brutal winters in Maine. For whatever reason, the Maine State Highway Commission did not plow the roads north of Lincoln. So many area residents stored their automobiles at Thanksgiving and did not drive them again until May.

Therefore, people depended on Cole’s overnight freight and passenger services. He plowed the roads using the same freight trucks that made deliveries. This led the state legislature to designate funds to plow the roads north of Lincoln as well as to improve them for road traffic year-round.

The 1930s

The Great Depression spread across the country during the early 1930s. Although Cole’s Express was the largest trucking business in the region, it was on the edge of bankruptcy due to the financial crisis. 

Cole secured a loan of $2,000 (the equivalent of more than $35,000 today) so the company could continue to operate. By 1935, Cole’s Express was still in business with 13 worn-out trucks and 20 employees. Besides hauling freight, the company was also repairing freight trucks, selling and hauling fertilizer, and building truck bodies. Finding other ways to make money, employees raised and fed 10,000 chickens on the third floor of the company’s  headquarters.  Cole’s Express employees also packed and hauled thousands of pounds of potatoes to A&P grocery stores across Maine.

World War II 

World War II began in Europe when Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. While the U.S. did not enter the war until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the country began rebuilding its military capabilities in the late 1930s. 

Because Maine was the closest state to eastern Canada and Great Britain, the U.S. Army Air Force built bases in Bangor, Houlton and Presque Isle. Once the U.S. entered the war, these bases were key departure points for troops and war materials destined for Europe. 

A Cole’s Express reefer.

Cole’s Express won contracts from the federal government to haul steel, pipes, construction equipment, general freight and food to the new bases. The company’s trucks were soon operating 24 hours a day. Cole had an idea that if he could convert his trucks to tractors, the company could haul even more freight. Cole made 10 tractors with extended trailers. However, as the U.S. fought in Europe and the Pacific, an increasing number of men were called for active service. Therefore, the company experienced a driver shortage. 

Galen Cole, Allie’s 16-year old son, began driving for the company. However, he was drafted by the U.S. Army as well, and served in Europe until the end of 1946. Upon his return from his service, he joined his father and brothers at Cole’s Express as terminal and operations supervisor, and later assumed responsibility for the over-the-road driving fleet operation. As his skills grew, Galen began to participate in the general management of the company. 

Post-war expansion

Cole’s Express expanded significantly in the post-war years. Allie Cole acquired Cliffs & Griffith’s Express. Cole’s Express was the first trucking company to be granted authority by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) to conduct full freight service throughout Maine as well as in the Atlantic provinces of Canada (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia). 

As Allie Cole’s health deteriorated during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Galen was the day-to-day administrator of the company’s operations. When Allie Cole died in 1955, the trustees of his father’s estate and his four brothers chose Galen to become company president. 

Growth continued at Cole’s Express during the late 1950s and 1960s. New terminals were opened and expanded service was offered in several cities and towns across Maine. Allie Cole had purchased Cliffs & Griffith’s Express during the 1940s, and under Galen Cole’s leadership, the company grew through a very aggressive acquisitions strategy. It acquired companies such as Ayer’s, Bemis, Blaisdell, W.J. Foley, Fred’s Hunnewell, Grahams, Higgens,    Houlton Truck Express, Law Trucking, McGary, Peerless and Sargents. 

The Cole’s Express expansion continued during the 1960s and 1970s. It expanded freight service to Boston; within a short time the company grew to be one of the largest carriers between Maine and Massachusetts. 

However, during the late 1970s steps were taken to begin deregulation of the U.S. trucking  industry. Concurrently, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters used the industry turmoil to seek more members and to gain power. Many freight companies began to go out of business. Cole’s largest competitor went out of business at this time. Cole’s Express became the undisputed leader in intrastate general freight service. It did more business in Maine than all other freight companies combined.

In addition, A.J. Cole & Sons, the company’s truck and trailer business, continued to do well. Employing over 100 mechanics, it was considered one of New England’s best truck and trailer repair services. Over the years it repaired thousands of trucks and trailers.

A Cole’s Express tank van, used to carry flammable liquids.

Deregulation brings change

The U.S. trucking industry was deregulated when Congress passed the 1980 Motor Carrier Act.  Cole’s Express could not compete with the non-union companies that sprang up. While the company paid its drivers well, it did not pay them what the International Brotherhood of Teamsters demanded. 

This resulted in a strike in 1982 that left 20,000 pieces of freight undelivered and the loss of the company’s biggest customer. The freight was eventually delivered when some employees crossed the picket lines. However, the strike continued for 18 months. Cole’s Express was not the only company impacted; the Teamsters’ initiated strikes against dozens of New England-based carriers. Some of these carriers met the union’s demands to pay higher wages; many others ceased operations and shut down. 

To cut costs and conserve capital, Cole’s Express closed all of its terminals outside of Maine; this cut the company’s size by two-thirds. Because of its decades of service and reputation, loyal customers and friendly carriers provided extra trucks and drivers, which allowed Cole’s to continue operations and generate much-needed revenue. When the strike ended, Cole’s had regained about 75% of its former business and became a non-union carrier.

Under Galen Cole, the company created Cole Transportation Systems, an innovative computer software development service. Cole Transportation Systems sold software to delivery companies nationwide. In 1988, Cole Training Institute was opened. It was a training school for those who wanted to learn how to operate a tractor/trailer and/or forklift. The institute helped stem the shortage of truck drivers in Maine.

By the late 1980s, the Cole’s family of companies included Cole’s Express, A.J. Cole & Sons, Cole Properties, A.J Cole Tire, Cole Warehouse and Distribution, Cole Computer Services and Cole Training Institute. Together, the companies provided some of the best and most extensive transportation solutions in New England. 

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a recession destabilized the trucking industry, particularly in New England. Moreover, deregulation was also still having an effect on legacy carriers. Without the burdens imposed by the ICC, thousands of new trucking companies were started. This led to widespread overcapacity and rate battles; profit margins were often razor-thin. Many local, statewide or regional trucking firms were hurt by national carriers that could rely on economies of scale. While thousands of new carriers were created during this period, thousands of others went out of business. Many companies sought acquisitions and mergers in order to survive or remain competitive.

Cole’s Express is acquired

Although Cole’s Express was a well-run and respected company, these issues had an impact on it as well. In 1992, Roadway Services Inc., a long-distance trucking firm, began negotiating with Cole’s to acquire the company. Roadway was implementing an acquisition and expansion strategy into related shipping areas to offset the recession and deregulation. 

After lengthy negotiations during 1992 and 1993, Cole’s Express was acquired by Roadway Services. The transaction benefitted both companies. Cole’s Express received the funding needed to stabilize and expand its services throughout New England; Roadway Services  extended its growing network into new regions.

Despite being a division of Roadway Services rather than an independent company, Cole’s Express still sought to be an industry leader in its niche. The company opened new terminals in Pittsburgh and Altoona, Pennsylvania, as well as in Newburgh, New York, in the 1990s. 

In addition, the company initiated a “small shipment express” service in 1995. According to Traffic Management  it had “a new pricing scheme to compete with the less-than-truckload services being offered by trucking companies.”

That year, Cole’s Express was providing trucking services throughout Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and along the Atlantic Coast of Canada.

A tractor pulls dual trailers – one with the Roadway logo, the other with the Yellow logo. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

In 2003, Roadway Express became part of YRC Worldwide Inc. through a merger with Oklahoma-based Yellow Transportation. It now runs under the banner of YRC Freight, a subsidiary of YRC Worldwide.

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.