Pittsburgh's century-old drive-in gas station first of its kind

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Filling a car with gasoline was different 100 years ago.

A driver had to hop off the seat, the gas tank was underneath -- it needed gravity's help to reach the carburetor because the fuel pump wouldn't be invented for another 15 years. Check the fuel level with a dipstick, since there was no fuel gauge. And someone needed to start cranking the gas because it wasn't going to pump itself.

A century ago today, the world's first drive-in gas station opened in Pittsburgh at the intersection of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in East Liberty. And though it hardly resembles current gas stations, it was a big step forward to promoting gasoline as the fuel of choice for automobiles.

At the time, the station opened without much fanfare and was viewed as a minor achievement, said Brian Butko, director of publishing at the Sen. John Heinz Regional History Center in the Strip District and author of two books about the Lincoln Highway.

"The equivalent is if there's something new on a Web browser or Facebook changes today," he said.

That's because there were already gas stations around, even if they were primitive. People had converted old shacks into gas stations and they used water heaters and barrels to store and dispense fuel. Motorists also could buy gas directly from pharmacists and blacksmiths.

"They were all jury-rigged," said Jeff Lenard, vice president of strategic industry initiatives at the National Association of Convenience Stores in Alexandria, Va. "They were places that happened to sell gas, but they weren't designed to sell gas. What happened in Pittsburgh, that was the first gas station that was designed to sell gas."

The Gulf Oil station looked like a pagoda with pumps on each side of the building. It replaced an old shack that also had dispensed gas.

The location made sense, Mr. Butko said. Baum Boulevard was -- and in many ways still is -- Pittsburgh's "automobile row," and Gulf Oil's headquarters was in Pittsburgh. The oil industry had a long history in the area as it is not far from Titusville, site of one of the country's first oil wells and home to a large oil rush in the 1850s and 1860s.

And Baum Boulevard had been dedicated as part of the Lincoln Highway on Oct. 31 of that year, Mr. Butko said.

"It made total sense for Gulf to open the first station there," he said.

"A lot of it had to do with the Mellon family being so cornerstone to Gulf's very existence," said Rick Dery, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of Gulf Oil LP. "It was a relatively new concept, and I think they wanted it to be close."

Gulf Oil is now a subsidiary of Cumberland Farms, a convenience and retail store chain based in Framingham, Mass.

The station sold 30 gallons of fuel that first day -- less than 1 percent of the average volume at fueling stations today -- at 27 cents per gallon, equivalent to $6.37 per gallon today when adjusted for inflation.

The station, which offered free water and air and later gave free road maps to customers, was staffed 24 hours a day.

But the idea took awhile to catch on. There were just 500,000 cars being driven nationwide in 1913, as automobiles were viewed as toys for the wealthy. And not all cars used gas -- others were powered by ethanol, electricity and even steam.

By 1917, a total of seven gas stations had been built in Pennsylvania.

The success of those stations and advancements in automobile manufacturing that made cars cheaper led to a boom. By 1920, 15,000 gas stations could be found nationwide. By the end of the 1920s, there were approximately 200,000 -- more than the 156,000 in existence today.

"It was the idea of a service station," Mr. Lenard said. "One of those services was a faster fuel. It wasn't something that was very easy to do before then. Cars were dirtier, you're spilling fuel. That set up a template."

There are no planned events at the site of the first drive-in gas station today. The site is marked with a Pennsylvania state historic plaque of the "First Drive-In Filling Station," installed in 2000. Gulf plans to mark the anniversary at its annual brand meeting next year in Las Vegas.

"In its own way, it was pretty revolutionary," Mr. Butko said. "There were others before them, but Gulf figured out how to deliver it in an elegant manner."

Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1969 or on Twitter @msanserino.

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