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Fill 'er up: The birthplace of the gas stations wins a historical marker

Wednesday, July 12, 2000

By Joe Grata, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

While you may associate coal, steel, ketchup and polio vaccine with the city's past, here's a fact that may surprise you: Pittsburgh was home to the nation's first drive-in "filling station."

Only 30 gallons of gasoline, costing 27 cents a gallon, were sold Dec. 1, 1913, when Gulf Refining Co. opened the station in a pagoda-style building it constructed on a lot along Baum Boulevard in East Liberty.

Free crankcase service, air, water and installation of tires and tubes so impressed people driving $400 Model T Fords that sales jumped to 350 gallons several days after the opening.

Former Gulf Oil Corp. employees and history buffs, dedicated to preserving the heritage of this former Pittsburgh-headquartered corporate giant, yesterday dedicated a historical marker at the site of the first drive-in service station, now vacant and used for parking at the corner of Baum and St. Clair Street.

The idea for the yellow-and-blue marker was initiated by the Gulfoil Historical Society, an organization dedicated to "preserving the history, products, practices and friendships" of Gulf Oil Corp. The marker notes Gulf's success at the service station "led to construction of thousands of gas stations by different oil companies across the nation."

Although the Gulfoil Historical Society is less than 2 years old and numbers only 133 members, those who attended the unveiling of the marker came from as far away as Texas and New Jersey.

Society Vice President Buzz Houston drove from Oxford, Kan., towing a trailer carrying a 1919 Oldsmobile truck once used to deliver bulk Gulf gasoline -- "Peerless Motor" and "Good Gulf" brands. The vintage truck, a predecessor of today's tankers used to transport 8,000 gallons at a time, carried five-gallon cans to measure the amount dumped into holding tanks by hand.

While here, Houston and other members planned to visit former Gulf research facilities and view the restored Gulf weather dome on top of the Gulf Tower, Downtown, a landmark whose changing red and blue lights forecast sun or rain respectively.

Chuck Wichrowski stood out at yesterday's ceremony because he was wearing an Exxon shirt for the Exxon service station he operates at Baum Boulevard and Millvale Street in East Liberty. But he's a former Gulf dealer and member of the Gulfoil society.

"With rush hour traffic the way it is, I don't know that things are much better today than they were in 1913," he mused.

But if the price of gas had kept up with inflation, a gallon of Good Gulf that cost 27 cents at the first drive-in station in 1913 would cost almost $21 a gallon today. And a 12-gallon fill-up that cost $3.24, or 30 percent of the average weekly earnings, would cost more than $250.

The East Liberty station also was the first to pass out the free road maps produced by Gulf and used as a marketing tool. Making the employee restroom available to motorists contributed to the concept of public restrooms at stations elsewhere.

Bob Beck, secretary of the Gulfoil Historical Society, said thousands of former Gulf Oil Corp. employees and retirees living in the region are candidates to join the relatively new group. They can write to him c/o Gulfoil Historical Society, Box 44, Natrona Heights 15065-0044, or e-mail him at trukspec@bellatlantic.net.



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