Robert Chesley (R. C.) Bowen, businessman and early Texas busing and air transportation pioneer, was born on November 4, 1888, on a farm in Williamson County, Texas, to Robert Walker Bowen and Olive (Zirkle) Bowen. Bowen was the first of four siblings, three boys and one girl, who survived infancy. Temple Bowen, aviation industry pioneer, was his youngest brother. Bowen grew up in Italy, Texas, where he attended school. As a child and teenager, he worked multiple jobs, which included shining shoes, selling newspapers, gathering laundry for a laundry company, and answering calls as a telephone operator. In 1910 Bowen worked as an electrician in a power plant.
The job that had the most impact on his life and his future career was working as an auto mechanic in Dallas. He started, ran, and sold several garages throughout Texas—first in Italy while he was a teenager. By 1920 Bowen had relocated to Mineral Wells with his wife and children and operated his own garage. That same year, his brother Temple was also living in Mineral Wells with the family of their sister, Nell (Bowen) Darnell. The brothers purchased trucks and transported oilfield supplies and pipe to the Ranger and Breckenridge oilfields. Their fleet of trucks grew, and by 1925 the brothers had sold their trucking business and moved to Fort Worth.
In 1925 R. C. and Temple Bowen began a bus line called West Texas Coaches as a partnership based in Fort Worth. The company started with eight buses running routes between San Angelo and Fort Worth. The next year R. C. and Temple Bowen, along with F. G. Lippett, chartered West Texas Coaches, Inc. R. C. Bowen not only served as president and general manager of the motor coach line, but he also held the same positions in both South Texas Coaches and Texas-Oklahoma Coaches. By 1929 the brothers also controlled Young’s Bus Lines. He also chartered Union Bus Terminal in San Angelo and participated in an industry meeting in May 1926 that made suggestions regarding bus and truck regulations to the Texas Railroad Commission, the body that regulated bus lines in Texas at the time. In November of that year he became an inaugural member of the Highway Club of Texas, based in Fort Worth. The club advocated the creation of a state highway system and legislation aimed at expanding and improving vehicle infrastructure and regulation. In March 1928 Bowen was one of the incorporators of the Texas Bus Owners’ Association and served as vice president and treasurer.
In 1927 R. C. and Temple Bowen and Lippett incorporated another business, Texas Air Transport, Inc. (TAT), a company established to service two contract airmail routes in Texas. R. C. Bowen served as TAT’s first president. By October 1928, Temple Bowen had replaced his brother as president of TAT. Earlier that year, tragedy stuck R. C. Bowen’s family when, in July 1928, his son, Robert C. “Bobby” Bowen, Jr., died at the age of seven. Bobby and his two siblings were visiting the farm of their maternal grandfather when he fell into a reservoir tank and drowned.
In 1929 Bowen applied to the Texas Railroad Commission for authorization to sell four bus lines—West Texas Coaches, South Texas Coaches, and Young’s Bus Line to Southland Red Ball Motor Bus Company and Texas-Oklahoma Coaches to Pickwick-Greyhound Lines, Inc. The Railroad Commission approved the sale. Southland Red Ball reportedly paid Bowen $1,150,000 for his three bus lines. Southland Red Ball reorganized as Southland Greyhound Lines, Inc. Bowen briefly served as the president of Southland Greyhound. He continued to operate other bus lines and bought routes from and sold routes to Southland Greyhound.
As of 1929 Bowen was operating his various bus lines under the trade name Bowen Motor Coaches. In 1937 Bowen, as the owner of all the stock in South Texas Coaches and three other bus companies that it wholly owned—North Texas Coach Company, Wichita Falls Bus Company, and Roberson Bus Lines, Inc.—combined and rolled all of them into Bowen Motor Coaches, Inc., a company that he formed the year before.
Bowen continued to grow his bus company and expand the routes it traveled. The company provided transportation services for the Texas Centennial Exposition, the Texas Frontier Centennial, and the Greater Texas and Pan-American Exposition in Dallas. It carried passengers on daily routes, vacation tours, and even carried U. S. mail. In 1940 Bowen’s buses were traveling 25,000 miles per day and carried 1,500,000 passengers. He sold Bowen Motor Coaches in 1943. It was reported that Bowen was paid more than $3,000,000 in cash for his company. The next year he sold three other bus companies. His next major business venture was an airline called Bowen Airways. The proposed airline would provide air service between 101 cities after World War II. Bowen intended to hire his former bus line employees who had become pilots during the war as civilian pilots ferrying cargo and passengers. Bowen had air transportation experience. In addition to his involvement with TAT, he had been an incorporator and director of Bowen Air Lines, the Texas-based passenger airline owned and run by his brother Temple. Bowen Air Lines operated from 1930 to 1936 when it was purchased by Braniff Airways. Bowen applied to the Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1943 for a license to proceed with his plans for Bowen Airways, but this application was not accepted, and the company was dissolved the following year.
In 1939 Bowen purchased control of the Highway Transportation Company and became its president. Bowen also served as a director on the board of the First National Bank of Fort Worth. After leaving the bus industry, he put some of his efforts into a company called the Southwest Rubber Reclaiming Corporation. He believed that the sale of products made from scrap rubber would grow after the war, and a factory in the Southwestern United States would enable him to be at the forefront of the emerging industry.He joined the board of directors of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce in 1942.
During the Great Depression, Bowen participated in a meeting in Washington, D.C. to create codes for the bus industry for the National Recovery Administration. In 1932 Bowen supported C. V. Terrell for Texas Railroad Commissioner. He also lent his name to an advertisement, paid for by the Democratic State Executive Committee of Texas, urging the people of Texas to vote for the Democratic nominees in Texas and at the national level in 1932. Six years later, after providing free transportation on Bowen buses for supporters to a Terrell campaign rally, Bowen was accused by a challenger of Commissioner Terrell of paying rent on Terrell’s campaign headquarters. While not a particularly active church-goer, Bowen was said to have been a generous donor to charitable groups and regularly made contributions to Catholic and Protestant organizations.
In 1943 the Call Field Veterans Association awarded Bowen a citation for his support of World War I veterans. The Wichita Falls American Legion post cited him for his financial contributions. In 1944 he received the National Honor Award from the Disabled American Veterans. Although he was not a member of the organization, Bowen had worked on several projects with the veterans’ group personally and as an officer of Bowen Motor Coaches.
Bowen married Ramah Earl Cochran on April 8, 1915, in Hill County, Texas. The couple had three children: Harold Cochran (H. C.) Bowen, Doris Elaine (Bowen) Forest, and Robert Chesley “Bobby” Bowen. R. C. Bowen died at St. Joseph Hospital in Fort Worth on February 12, 1947, due to complications from pneumonia. He was buried in Fort Worth at Greenwood Memorial Park and Mausoleum.