Hundreds of barrels shipped from Philadelphia to London by nervous crew in 1860.
When the U.S. petroleum industry began in 1859, it launched many new industries for producing, refining and transporting the highly sought after resource. With demand growing worldwide, America for the first time exported oil (and kerosene) during the Civil War when a small Union brig sailed from the Port of Philadelphia to London.
Soon after Edwin L. Drake drilled the first American oil well along Oil Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania, entrepreneurs swept in and wooden cable-tool derricks sprang up in Venango and Crawford counties. As demand for oil-refined kerosene for lamps grew, oilfield discoveries created famous (and notorious) petroleum boom towns like one at Pithole. Moving oil out the oil regions also brought the beginning of a new industry’s transportation infrastructure.
Launched in 1847 by the shipbuilding firm of J. & C.C. Morton of Thomaston, Maine, the Elizabeth Watts was about 96 feet long with a draft of 11 feet. The 224-ton brig made petroleum history during the Civil War.
“Doubt and distrust that preceded Drake’s successful venture suddenly fled before the common conviction that an oil well was the ‘open sesame’ to wealth,” reported Harpers New Monthly Magazine. Soon after his historic discovery near Titusville, Drake bought up all the 40-gallon whiskey barrels he could find to transport his oil on barges down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh refineries. (more…)
World renowned woman reporter later owned and operated the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.
Recognizing the potential of an efficient metal barrel design, Nellie Bly acquired the 1905 patent rights from its inventor, Henry Wehrhahn, who worked at her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company.
She became one of the most famous journalists of her day as a reporter for the New York World. Widely known as the remarkable Nellie Bly, Elizabeth J. Cochran Seaman (1867-1922), investigated conditions at an infamous mental institution, made a trip around the world in less than 80 days – and manufactured the first practical 55-gallon oil drum. (more…)
Service stations and gasoline pumps began with a device for dispensing kerosene at an Indiana grocery store in the late 1880s.
Gas pumps with dials were followed by calibrated glass cylinders. Meter pumps using a small glass dome with a turbine inside replaced the measuring cylinder as pumps continued to evolve.
S.F. (Sylvanus Freelove) Bowser sold his newly invented kerosene pump to the owner of a grocery store in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on September 5, 1885.
Less than two decades later, the first purposely built drive-in gasoline service station opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bowser’s invention, which could reliably measure and dispense kerosene – a product that had been in demand for half a century – soon evolved into the metered gasoline pump.
S.F. Bowser’s “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pumps” became known as “filling stations.” An upper clamshell closed for security when unattended.
Originally designed to safely dispense kerosene as well as “burning fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum,” early S.F. Bowser pumps held the same amount of fuel as the standard 42-gallon oil barrel.
Bowser kerosene pumps used marble valves, a wooden plunger and an upright faucet. With the pump’s popular success at Jake Gumper’s grocery store, Bowser formed the S.F. Bowser & Company and patented his invention in late October 1887.
Bowser’s 1887 patent was a pump for “such liquids as kerosene-oil, burning-fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum.”
Within a decade – as the automobile’s popularity grew – Bowser’s company became hugely successful.
First Pump, First Station
By 1905, the S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” was known to motorists as a “filling station.”
The original Bowser pump consisted of a square metal tank with a wooden cabinet equipped with a suction pump operated by hand-stroke lever action.
Beginning in 1905, Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into the automobile fuel tank. More design innovations followed. The popular Model 102 “Chief Sentry” with its “clamshell” cover offered security when the pump was left unattended (see the Diamond Filling Station of 1920 in Washington, D.C).
With the addition of competing businesses such as Wayne Pump Company and Tokheim Oil Tank & Pump Company, the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana, became the gas-pump manufacturing capital of the world. Some companies even came up with coin-operated gas pumps.
Manufactured in 1911, an S.F. Bowser Model 102 “Chief Sentry” pumped gas on North Capitol Street in Washington D.C., in 1920. The Penn Oil Company’s pump’s topmost globe, today prized by collectors, survived only as a bulb. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
Penn Oil Company filling stations were the exclusive American distributor of Lightning Motor Fuel, a British product made up of “50 percent gasoline and 50 percent of chemicals, the nature of which is secret.” The secret ingredient was likely alcohol. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
First Drive-In Service Station
Although Standard Oil will claim a Seattle, Washington, station of 1907, and others argue about one in St. Louis two years earlier, most agree that when “Good Gulf Gasoline” went on sale, Gulf Refining Company opened America’s first true drive-in service station.
The motoring milestone took place at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on December 1, 1913. Unlike earlier simple curbside gasoline filling stations, an architect purposefully designed the pagoda-style brick facility offered free air, water, crankcase service, and tire and tube installation.
Gulf Refining Company’s decision to open the first service station (above) along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was no accident. By 1913 the boulevard had become known as “automobile row'” because of the high number of dealerships. Photo courtesy Library of Congress.
“This distinction has been claimed for other stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis and elsewhere,” notes a Gulf corporate historian. “The evidence indicates that these were simply sidewalk pumps and that the honor of the first drive-in is that of Gulf and Pittsburgh.”
The Gulf station included a manager and four attendants standing by. The original service station’s brightly lighted marquee provided shelter from bad weather for motorists.
Spitlers Auto Supply Company, 205 Commerce Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia, closed in 1931. It was an example of curbside pumps used before Gulf Refining Company established covered, drive-through stations.
“On its first day, the station sold 30 gallons of gasoline at 27 cents per gallon. On its first Saturday, Gulf’s new service station pumped 350 gallons of gasoline,” notes the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
“Prior to the construction of the first Gulf station in Pittsburgh and the countless filling stations that followed throughout the United States, automobile drivers pulled into almost any old general or hardware store, or even blacksmith shops in order to fill up their tanks,” the historical commission explains.
The decision to open the first station along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh was no accident.
Until about 1925, Gulf Refining Company was the only oil company to issue maps. Gulf was formed in 1901 by members of the Mellon family of Pittsburgh. Map image courtesy Harold Cramer.
This 1916 Bowser gasoline pump operated by a hand crank and “clock face” dial. Photo from the Smithsonian Collection.
By 1913 when the station was opened, Baum Boulevard had become known as “automobile row” because of the high number of dealerships that were located along the thoroughfare.
“Gulf executives must have figured that there was no better way to get the public hooked on using filling stations than if they could pull right in and gas up their new car after having just driven it off the lot,” notes a commission historian.
In addition to gas, the Gulf station also offered free air and water – and sold the first commercial road maps in the United States.
“The first generally distributed oil company road maps are usually credited to Gulf,” says Harold Cramer in his Early Gulf Road Maps of Pennsylvania.
“The early years of oil company maps, circa 1915 to 1925, are dominated by Gulf as few other oil companies issued maps, and until about 1925 Gulf was the only oil company to issue maps annually,” Cramer notes.
The Gulf Refining Company was formed in 1901 by members of the Mellon family, along with other investors, as an expansion of the J. W. Guffey Petroleum Company formed earlier the same year – to exploit the Spindletop oil discovery in Texas.
While the Gulf station in Pittsburgh may have been the first “modern” service station, kerosene and gasoline “filling stations” helped pave the way.
“At the turn of the century, gasoline was sold in open containers at pharmacies, blacksmith shops, hardware stores and other retailers looking to make a few extra dollars of profit,” notes Kurt Ernst in a 2013 article.
“In 1905, a Shell subsidiary opened a filling station in St. Louis, Missouri, but it required attendants to fill a five gallon can behind the store, then haul this to the customer’s vehicle for dispensing.
“A similar filling station was constructed by Socal gasoline in Seattle, Washington, opening in 1907,” Ernst explains in his The Modern Gas Station celebrates its 100th Birthday.
“Today, 152,995 gas stations dot the landscape, including 123,289 convenience stores,” Ernst reports. On average, each location sells about 4,000 gallons of fuel per day, “quite a jump from the 30 gallons sold at the Gulf station in Pittsburgh on December 1, 1913.”
Collectors value station memorabilia, including this pump and globe exhibited at the Northwoods Petroleum Museum outside Three Lakes, Wisconsin, established in 2006.
Photographs of early service stations remain an important part of preserving U.S. transportation history (also true for architecture, pump technologies, advertising methods, and more). The Library of Congress maintains a large collection, as do others posted in AOGHS photo links. The article Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park also offers insights that can be found in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a station in a Washington, D.C., suburb.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society is dedicated to preserving U.S. petroleum history. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are welcomed – as is any financial contribution to help maintain this energy education website. For AOGHS membership information, please contact email@example.com. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information: Article Title: “First Gas Pump and Service Station.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/first-gas-pump-and-service-stations. Last Updated: November 25, 2019. Original Published Date: March 14, 2013.
Opened in 2003, the Smithsonian’s Transportation Hall includes an oilfield service truck among petroleum-related exhibits.
The Smithsonian’s exhibit includes the history behind creation of the interstate highway system. Photos by Bruce Wells.
A Smithsonian exhibition includes themes aimed at educating visitors about transportation in American history. The Route 66 exhibit includes a 1930s oilfield service truck from Shawnee, Oklahoma, carrying a contemporary tri-cone drilling bit.
Opened in 2003 after a $22 million renovation, the Transportation Hall of the National Museum of American History is 26,000 square feet – with 340 objects. The Washington, D.C., attraction features 19 historic settings in chronological order.
“America on the Move” features the Smithsonian Institution’s extensive transportation collection using the latest multimedia technology – and a massive locomotive.
The exhibition “brings back to life the history of ships, trains, trucks, and automobiles. It also reveals America’s fascination with life on the road.” (more…)
Extraordinary maritime project supports petrochemical facilities.
A 1915 postcard captures the Houston Ship Channel one year after President Woodrow Wilson officially opened the newly dredged waterway. Photo courtesy Fort Bend Museum, Richmond, Texas.
The Houston Ship Channel on Buffalo Bayou leads upstream to Houston – where downtown can be seen at top right. Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library.
Dredged 25 feet deep, the Houston Ship Channel opened for ocean-going vessels on November 10, 1914, making Texas home to a world-class commercial port.
President Woodrow Wilson saluted the occasion from his desk in the White House by pushing an ivory button wired to a cannon in Houston.
The waterway – originally known as Buffalo Bayou – was “swampy, marshy and overgrown with dense vegetation,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). It had been used to ship goods to the Gulf of Mexico as early as the 1830s. “Steamboats and shallow draft boats were the only vessels able to navigate its complicated channel,” ASCE adds about the waterway, now part of the part of the Port of Houston.
In 1837, the steamship Laura traveled from Galveston Bay up Buffalo Bayou to what is now Houston, explains the Port of Houston Authority of Harris County. The trip, in water no deeper than six feet, proved the bayou was navigable by sizable vessels and established a commercial link between Houston and the rest of the world. The Houston Ship Channel today is 45 feet deep and 530 feet wide. It supported oil refineries and among the largest petrochemical facilities in the world.
A “Bird’s Eye” view of Houston in 1891. Today’s Port of Houston is ranked first in foreign cargo and among the largest ports in the world. Map image courtesy Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
“With the discovery of oil at Spindletop in 1901 and crops such as rice beginning to rival the dominant export crop of cotton, Houston’s ship channel needed the capacity to handle newer and larger vessels,” adds the Port Authority, which administers the channel.
According to ASCE, Harris County citizens in 1909 formed a navigation district (an autonomous governmental body supervising the port) and issued bonds to fund half the cost of dredging the channel.
A museum in Beaumont, Texas, includes refinery exhibits for educating young people about the Port of Houston. Photo courtesy The Texas Energy Museum.
Harris County voters in January 1910 overwhelming approved dredging their ship channel to a depth of 25 feet for $1.25 million. The U.S. Congress provided matching funds. As work began in 1912, similar extraordinary maritime projects of the time included the Panama Canal and the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway.
By 1930 eight refineries are operating along the deepwater channel, ASCE notes. The area eventually will support one of the largest petrochemical complexes in the world. Now along the shores are petrochemical facilities and oil refineries, including ExxonMobil’s Baytown Refinery, among the largest in the United States.
The modern Houston Ship Channel has been extended from the Gulf through Galveston Bay and up the San Jacinto River, ending four miles east of downtown. Although the dredging vessel Texas first signaled (by whistle) completion on September 7, 1914, the official opening date has remained when President Wilson remotely fired his Texas cannon on November 10.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Support this AOGHS.ORG energy education website with a contribution today. For membership information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2019 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information: Article Title: “Houston Ship Channel of 1914.” Author: Aoghs.org Editors. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/houston-ship-channel. Last Updated: November 3, 2019. Original Published Date: November 25, 2014.
Early autos shared mostly unpaved roads with horses and wagons.
“Petroleum, which consists of crude oil and refined products such as gasoline, diesel, and propane, is the largest primary source of energy consumed in the United States, accounting for 36 percent of total energy consumption in 2018…More than two-thirds of finished petroleum products consumed in the United States are used in the transportation sector.” — U.S. Energy Information Administration, Today in Energy, August 2, 2019.
America’s first auto show opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden in November 1900. Gasoline proved to be the least popular source of engine power.
Gasoline engines will take time to catch on with consumers.
Charles Duryea had claimed the first American patent for a gasoline automobile in 1895. One year later, Henry Ford sold his first “quadri-cycle,” creating the auto industry. Meanwhile, New York City public workers were removing 450,000 tons of horse manure from the streets every year.
Brothers Charles and Frank Duryea test drove their gasoline powered automobile – built in their Springfield, Massachusetts, workshop – on April 19, 1892. Considered the first automobile regularly made for sale in the United States, a total of 13 of the model was manufactured by the Duryea Motor Wagon Company. Other manufacturers quickly followed the Duryea example.
Although their company would last only three years, according to the Henry Ford Museum, “brothers Charles and Frank Duryea became the first Americans to attempt to build and sell automobiles at a profit.”
It was reported two months after the company’s first sale in 1896 that a New York City motorist driving a Duryea hit a bicyclist. This was recorded as the nation’s first automobile traffic accident.
A growing number of the new “infernal machines” soon shared unpaved U.S. roads with startled horses. Of the 4,200 new automobiles sold in the United States at the turn of the century, gasoline powered less than 1,000. (more…)