Updated: Feb 23, 2022
By Ariana Burns, Palouse Anthropology
In the spring of 1992, there was a need for intercity public transit in the Moscow-Pullman area. Campus Link of Moscow, a local people-moving company, teamed with the Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute (PCEI) during Earth Week to demonstrate the already existing community support for it. The University of Idaho and Washington State University had created a “shuttle service task force,” but that group focused only on serving students (Taus, 1992). Local governments in both states studied the need, but had found it unsolvable, a need that that could not be met.
I worked at the Moscow Food Co-op when it was over on 3rd Street in the old KFC building back then. I remember when I first saw the small sky-blue Magic Bus bounce into the Co-op parking lot to collect passengers before heading to Pullman. In defiance of the studies and the reasoning, there it was: public transit.
Not long after that momentous occasion, I was asked to draw illustrations of the bus and its driver, Dave Sanden for a piece in the Co-op Newsletter by Nancy Casey: "The Transportation Question Most Often Asked by Kids: Why is it Called the Magic Bus?" (1992) [Nancy’s graciously agreed to let me use some large quotes from that story. I always felt it best captured the events leading up to the Magic Bus]:
Once upon a time in a land of two cities, two counties, two universities, two states and two school districts, people of all ages, shapes and sizes needed to go everywhere. . . .
The highway between the two cities was terribly clogged from people driving--back and forth, back and forth. . . .it was even getting dangerous to be in crosswalks or on bicycles. One after another, the people were asking again and again, "Why isn't there a bus?"
So the large and official, important and overseeing people of the two cities, two counties, two universities, two states and two school districts appointed commissions to study the matter. These people gathered together to write reports and say words like "feasible," "cost effective," and "responsibility."
They finally agreed that it couldn't be done, that something that seemed so simple, now that it was fully studied and understood by the decision-makers of the two cities, two counties, two universities, two states and two school districts, was not only quite overly difficult, but rather, indeed, it was impossible to be running people all over the place in a bus (Casey, 1992).
It was at this point that Dave Sanden looked around and said, “Hey! We need a bus.” And he went and found one.
Dave was self-employed, jack-of-all-trades, and a member of the Palouse Greens political party. He told a reporter from the Spokesman Review that he’d grown weary of all the “bureaucratic talk and no action.” He didn’t see public transportation as being a financial problem. “It’s not a matter of money; it’s a matter of commitment” (Taus, 1992).
The Magic Bus was a blue 1970s Ford school bus. Dave sold a lot of his things to buy the bus for $7,000 and drove it four days a week between Moscow and Pullman. The bus service ran on donations (Hedland, 1992). He intended to keep to his route “until I starve or I don’t have enough money to fix the bus” or someone else decided to take over the service (Taus, 1992).
Believing what we heard from the two cities, two counties, two universities, two states and two school districts, there is only one thing to believe about this bus; it must be magic (Casey, 1992).
To garner more support from a wider range of the community, Sanden held a bus painting rally on Earth Day alongside the Moscow-Pullman highway. The university presidents and community leaders were invited but none attended (Miller, 1992; Pettit, 1992).
Among those that did attend were members of the Palouse Greens and PCEI. The new blue paint job reminded Dave of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ 1960s psychedelic painted school bus called “Furthur.”
“It’s pretty obnoxious,” he admitted (Pettit, 1992). With a new paint job and no obvious support from community leaders, the Magic Bus descended on the Palouse, careening and swaying on its old shocks. “GOING MY WAY?” was emblazoned on the side; “Revolution” punned above the windshield.
Some people in the area scoffed at the sight. Mass transit wasn’t going to be sold with a graffiti covered bus. No one would want to be seen on it!
The Moscow-Pullman Daily News on May 11 reported more than 40 riders had used the Bus in the previous week. Sanden’s solo operation was working, but he told the paper that “(t)he cities, counties, and universities could make it happen faster if they’d stop forming committees, doing studies and get to work” (Hedland, 1992).
Dennis Sasse heralded the Magic Bus’ presence on the editorial page of the UI student paper, the Argonaut: “This bus embodies the American spirit and ingenuity, which shows that one person can make a difference. Dave has a strong sense of community and with hard work and a little support, it will work (1992).
The Bus was attacked on two separate occasions. A tire tube was damaged, but it was still able to run. Then a few days later the brake lines were slashed. That damage put the Bus out of operation; Dave drove the route in his sedan. “He’s still doing it; it’s still on time,” reported Pam Palmer of Moscow, who road with Sanden (Olsen, 1992). The following day the Magic Bus had been repaired and back running its route.
I remember walking home from work one morning when I heard the wheeze, grind, and sigh of a large vehicle halting. A baby blue door squeaked open and Dave Sanden smiled down at me from his perch.
I was almost home, but it was May in Moscow. I stepped in. Along the drive, he noted points of interest, including the sculpture on Bill Bowler and Jackie Wright’s front lawn which if memory serves wasn’t there. Ne'er-do-wells had stolen it in the night. We went to Pullman and back to Moscow and he dropped me off where he’d found me.
The Bus worked its magic for six weeks. The universities entered talks with Saint Maries Bus Lines to get a campus-to-campus service. Katherine Hedland writing for the Moscow Pullman Daily News told readers “there was more magic in the air” (Hedland, “Blue bus,” 1992).
Peg Motley, owner of Wheatland Travel, announced she was working with Dave Sanden to provide intercity transit for more than just the students. She purchased buses to run the route and the pair mapped out routes and stops (Tarr, 1992; Hedland, “Blue bus,” 1992).
Dave announced the Magic Bus would stop running so he could focus on the transit service with Peg. Kenna Eaton, manager of the Food Co-op, allowed the staff to take staggered breaks so those who wanted could take one last ride on the Magic Bus.
I remember climbing on the Magic Bus for the final ride with a couple of co-workers, excited at the possibilities of what had happened in eight weeks. Even after the static and the vandalism and people saying “no,” there would finally be regular busing. It was new in my experience and a marvel.
On August 10, 1992 at 6:30a Moscow and Pullman had intercity bus service through Wheatland Travel on weekdays. There were plans to expand to Saturdays. University of Idaho and Washington State University administrations, both city’s chambers of commerce, and PCEI were involved. One-way was $1.50 and round trip was $3 for adults. University fares were paid by their schools (McCarthy, 1992).
Mass transit from Moscow to Pullman has gone for many years, but for a time the Palouse had a Magic Bus.
“The magic of the Magic Buspool was not me or the bus," Sanden said. “It's the spirit and the energy that has been there for years….Don't you get it?” he said. “You can make effective change” (Hedland, “Blue bus,” 1992).
Acknowledgements Amy Thompson, University of Idaho Special Collections; Elaina Pierson, Latah County Historical Society
Casey, Nancy. “The Transportation Question Most Often Asked by Kids: Why Is It Called The Magic Bus?” Moscow Food Co-op Newsletter, May 1992.
McCarthy, John. “Moscow-Pullman Transportation Buses Ready To Roll Monday Morning Routes Designed For Workers, Students, Even Mall Shoppers” Lewiston Tribune, August 8, 1992.
Hedland, Katherine. “Talking ’bout a rev-o-lution.” Moscow-Pullman Daily News, May 11, 1992.
“Blue bus is gone, ‘magic’ isn’t." Moscow-Pullman Daily News, May 30-31, 1992.
Huspeni, Dennis. “Bus route approved by Moscow City Council.” Moscow-Pullman Daily News, July 7, 1992.
Olsen, Ken. “‘Magic Bus’ the victim of vandalism.” Moscow-Pullman Daily News, May, 12, 1992.
Miller, John. “Bus system magically appears.” Evergreen, April 29, 1992.
Pettit, Diane. “Pullman Man Starts His Own Shuttle Bus He’ll Run It On Donations As Long As He Can.” Lewiston Tribune, April 25, 1992.
Sasse, Dennis. “Magic bus is a sound idea.” Argonaut, May 1, 1992.
Tarr, Linda “WSU, UI working toward inter-campus bus service.” Evergreen, June 8, 1992.
Palouse Anthropology is a group of researchers interested in preserving the micro-history of the Palouse through the collection and compilation of historical artifacts and oral histories for the benefit of researchers and future generations. firstname.lastname@example.org