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Fill 'Er Up: 100 Years of Pittsburgh Gas Pumps

Imagine a world where there are no drive-in gas stations. To fill up your car, you had to drive to the hardware store or pharmacy to have someone scoop gasoline into your tank. That world existed only 100 years ago, until the Gulf Refining Company built the nation’s first modern gas station in Pittsburgh.

Dec. 1 marked the 100th anniversary of the station’s opening.

Brian Butko, Director of Publications at the Heinz History Center, said the nation’s first drive-in station was located in a triangle-shaped lot on Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street. It was complete with newly invented Bowser Company hand-cranked pumps and offered services like free road maps, water, and tire air.

Butko said, before the station, getting gas wasn’t an easy task.

“Typically the gas tank was located under the seat. So, first thing they would have to do is get out and lift the seat,” Butko said. “And then, most cars carried a stick somewhat like a ruler that you would dip down into the tank to see how close to empty you were.”

Butko said gas was delivered to stores and stations in buckets. Those stations would either scoop the gas out of the barrel into the tank, or fill five gallon cans with gas and then fill the tank using them.

Rick Dery, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Gulf Oil, said pharmacies were also a reliable place to get gas. Since they historically kept gasoline to treat lice, pharmacies had in place the systems needed to buy, hold, and dispense it.

Dery said there were other stores specializing in gasoline.

“This was the first architecturally designed facility for the sole purpose of dispensing gasoline off the street,” Dery said. “So people could literally drive in to this facility and it was designed specifically for that purpose.”  

Dery said, because of the station’s success, the number of ones like it “blew up” to over 200,000 nationally. Today there are only about 166,000.

Butko said the station was located to target customers driving on a new highway.

“That was directly on the Lincoln Highway, which was the first coast to coast automobile road, which had just been dedicated a couple months before,” Butko said. “The Lincoln Highway ran from New York to San Francisco right through Pittsburgh and right down Baum Boulevard.”

Butko said every major city was developing its own “automobile road,” where the old carriage blacksmiths were becoming focused on cars, and Baum Boulevard was Pittsburgh’s.

He said the station lasted only a few decades though and was quickly outpaced by larger ones and a growing demand for gasoline.

Dery said the station didn’t last because its lot was too small.

“Today, we don’t look at a retail gasoline property that’s anything under two acres of land,” Dery said. “And even two acres is a relatively lean operation.”

He said, when building a new site, Gulf tries to build at least ten pumps and a 4,000 foot convince store, which wouldn’t fit in the Baum Boulevard location.

After being demolished the site housed other car businesses, like Buick and Oldsmobile dealerships.

“Until recently, you could still even see in the cracks of the pavement the outline of it,” Butko said.

Today the site houses a parking lot and apartments, but a historic marker stands to remind people of what once stood there.