On April 30, 1980, bus driver Harlan Rosford (1917-1995) makes his last run, after 26 years of service between Vashon Island and Seattle. Rosford was well-loved by generations of passengers, and was known for his enjoyment of music, chat, and fun parties aboard his three-trip-a-day bus route.
Rosford was born in Kirkland, and developed an interest in music early on, learning to play the piano and banjo at a young age. By the time he was 14 he played in a jazz band. His other interests included mechanics, and he was known as a person who could fix just about anything.
His bus-driving career began in the 1940s on the North Bend stage line, which later became Evergreen. Evergreen had a route on Vashon Island that was losing money, so Rosford bought the two-bus operation on July 7, 1954, and moved his family to the island.
Over the years, the same people tended to ride his bus, as it was their only mode of public transportation. As they grew and had children, they rode the bus, as did the following generation. Rosford made sure that all of his passengers had a very enjoyable ride on the 42-mile round trip.
The Magic Bus
If he wasn’t talking, he was whistling, and became known as the Whistling Bus Driver, happily providing tunes to his fellow travelers. Other times he would tell jokes, or little historical vignettes of places the bus would pass by.
On-board parties were another of Rosford’s treats. Passengers would donate a few extra coins, and Rosford would pick up fried chicken or other delectables in West Seattle for the trip home. There would always be money left over for the next party, be it a birthday party, a holiday party, a baby shower, or just for fun. Some riders were known to ride with Harlan even if they had no destination in mind.
Rosford spent 12 hours a day on the six-day-a-week job, also doing his own bus repairs. He didn’t mind, and loved every minute of it. “It was never boring,” he said. One time he let a man in a gorilla-suit drive the bus in downtown Seattle.
In 1972, Metro took over King County transit operations, and contracted Rosford’s line. Rosford continued on as a driver until his retirement in 1980.
He waited until the last day to let his passengers know that he was leaving. “Emotionally, I wasn’t up to telling them ahead of time,” he told The Seattle Times, “I thought I’d do it quick and drive off down the road.”
When one of his regular passengers heard the announcement, she began singing “My Buddy.” Tears rolled down Rosford’s cheeks, creased from years of smiles and whistles.
Even in retirement, he continued to care for his old friends. In 1995, Metro announced that it was discontinuing a route that served elderly passengers, and Rosford organized a senior’s march into the Metro offices in protest. Metro kept the route open.
Rosford died later that year, on October 22, at the age of 78. His memorial service was attended by many of his riders, whose travels he made all the more enjoyable.