Adding Wings to the Iron Horse

Powered by an eight-cylinder diesel-electric engine in 1934, a “Streamliner” cut steam locomotion time by half.

 

“Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time. Once I built a railroad; now it’s done. Brother, can you spare a dime?” — Bing Crosby

Art Deco illustration of famous Burlington Zephyr passenger train.

Diesel-electric engines pioneered by General Motors and Winton Engine Company (established in 1896 as a bicycle company) saved America’s railroad passenger industry. Two-stroke diesel engines provided a four-fold power to weight gain. Photo courtesy Model Railroader magazine, January 1999.

In the early 1930s America’s passenger railroad business was in trouble. In addition to the Great Depression, the once dominant industry faced growing competition from automobiles. New refineries produced gasoline thanks to the discovery of a giant East Texas oilfield.

Famous railroad passenger streamliners M-1000 and Burlington Zephyr at station.

The two “streamliner” trains that changed America’s railroad industry in the late 1930s: the Union Pacific M-10000 (left) and Burlington Zephyr. Today the Zephyr is on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Photo courtesy Union Pacific Museum.

It had been just 60 years since coal-burning steam locomotives and the transcontinental railroad had linked America’s east and west coasts. Now, more than 30 million cars, trucks, and buses were on U.S. roads. What would power heavy transportation?

Although railroad steam engine technology had advanced since the “golden spike” of 1869 in Promontory Point, Utah, locomotives still “belched steam, smoke, and cinders,” notes one railroad historian. “Passengers often felt like they had been on a tour of a coal mine.”

Smoke billowing from a train's diesel engines.

Diesel engines had been used since about 1925. The engines were heavy, producing only a single horsepower from 80 pounds of engine weight.

The railroads’ distillate-burning internal combustion engines of the day were heavy and troublesome. Primitive diesels had been used in switch engines from about 1925, but they were slow, explains Richard Cleghorn Overton in Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines.

Poster promoting 1934  public exhibition of diesel-electric Burlington Zephyr.

The powerful diesel-electric Zephyr arrived in 1934; its technology was a result of the Navy’s search for an improved submarine engine.

Burning fuels ranged from a low-grade gasoline to painter’s naphtha and diesel. Distillate railroad engines emitted an oily smoke and often produced only a single horsepower from 80 pounds of engine weight. These common four-stroke engines fouled easily and required multiple spark plugs per cylinder.

Improved Iron Horse Engine

Help was on the way for America’s failing passenger railroads. It would come from the U.S. Navy in the form of a diesel-electric engine…wrapped in a stainless steel Art Deco locomotive. “Wings to the Iron Horse,” proclaimed a company advertisement in the 1930s. “Burlington pioneers again — the first diesel streamline train.”

"Making of a Motor Car" exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress fair in Chicago.

New diesel-electric engines generated power for the “Making of a Motor Car” exhibit at the 1933 Century of Progress fair in Chicago. The assembly line fascinated visitors who watched from overhead galleries.

With the threat of war on the horizon, the U.S. Navy needed a lighter weight, more powerful diesel engine for its submarine fleet. General Motors joined the nationwide competition to develop a new diesel engine. Seeking engineering and production expertise, in 1930 GM acquired the Winton Engine Company of Cleveland, Ohio. Winton, established in 1896 as Winton Bicycle Company, was an early automobile manufacturer.

The Winton Engine Company evolved into a developer of engines for marine applications, power companies, pipeline operators — and railroads.

Burlington Zephyr,, the first diesel-electric passenger train.

America’s first diesel-electric train, the Burlington Zephyr, was a transportation milestone.

With GM’s financial backing, Winton engineers designed a radical new two-stroke diesel that delivered one horsepower per 20 pounds of engine weight. It provided a four-fold power to weight gain.

The Model 201A  prototype — a 503-cubic-inch, 600 horsepower, 8-cylinder diesel-electric engine — used no spark plugs, relying instead on newly patented high pressure fuel injectors and a 16:1 compression ratio for ignition.

Art deco posters for Burlington Zephyr "streamliner" and 1933 Chicago Worlds fair.

Powered by an eight-cylinder Winton 201A diesel engine, the revolutionary “streamliner” traveled the 1,015 miles from Denver to Chicago in just over 13 hours — a passenger train record.

At Chicago’s Century of Progress World’s Fair in 1933, GM evaluated two 201 diesel-electric engines, using them to generate power for its “Making of a Motor Car” exhibit. The working demonstration of a Chevrolet assembly line fascinated thousands of visitors who watched from overhead galleries.

One visitor happened to be Ralph Budd, president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (known as the Burlington Line). Budd immediately recognized the locomotive potential of these extraordinary new diesel-electric power plants. He saw them as a perfect match for the lightweight “shot-welded” stainless steel rail cars pioneered by the Edward G. Budd (no relation) Manufacturing Company in Philadelphia.

Newspaper with headline about record-breaking run of the Zephyr train.

During its “dawn to dusk” record-breaking run, the Zephyr burned only $16.72 worth of diesel fuel.

Edward Budd was the first to supply the automobile industry with all steel bodies in 1912. His success in steel stamping technology made the production of car bodies cheaper and faster. By 1925, his system was used to produce half of all U.S. auto bodies.

The Depression, however, put the Budd Manufacturing Company almost $2,000,000 in the red — prompting its fortuitous diversification into the railroad car market to generate revenue. When approached by Burlington President Ralph Budd in 1933, this Budd was ready.

Chicago World's Fair visitors in line to see the Burlington Zephyr.

Chicago World’s Fair visitors line up to admire the stainless steel beauty of the Burlington Zephyr, which will soon be featured in a Hollywood movie. Eight major U.S. railroads soon convert to efficient diesel-electric locomotives. Photo from a Burlington Route Railroad 1934 postcard.

Within a year, the two technologies were successfully merged with the creation of the Winton 201A powered Burlington Zephyr, America’s first diesel-electric train. It would change railroad transportation history.

Art Deco and the Silver Streak

The Zephyr rolled into Chicago’s Century of Progress exhibition on May 26, 1934, ending a nonstop 13 hour, 4 minute, and 58 second “dawn to dusk” promotional run from Denver.

Powered by a single eight-cylinder Winton 201A diesel, the “streamliner” cut average steam locomotive time by half. The Zephyr traveled 1,015 miles at an average speed of 76.61 miles per hour and reached speeds along the route in excess of 112 mph — to the amazement and delight of track-side spectators from Colorado to Illinois.

During its record-breaking run, the Zephyr burned just $16.72 worth of diesel fuel (about four cents per gallon). The same distance in a coal steamer would have cost $255. Construction innovations included the specialized shot-welding that joined sheets of stainless steel. The lightweight steel also resisted corrosion so it didn’t have to be painted.

Movies poster for ''The Silver Streak," a 1934 "B" movie.

Although ”The Silver Streak” was a 1934 “B” movie — intended for the bottom half of double features — it remains a favorite of some railroad history fans.

Americans fell in love with the Zephyr. Four months after its high-speed appearance at Chicago’s Century of Progress, the streamliner made its 1934 Hollywood film debut, starring as “The Silver Streak” for an RKO picture.

The Zephyr was loaned for filming —  and the Burlington logo on its front was repainted to read Silver Streak. “The stream-lined train, platinum blonde descendant of the rugged old Iron Horse, has been glorified by Hollywood in the modern melodrama,” proclaimed the New York Times.

Although the black-and-white “B” movie came and went without making much of a splash, it has won its place in movie history as a rail-fan favorite, according to a 2001 article in the Zephyr Online. “It did have a lot of action, and the location shots of the Zephyr are an interesting record of this pioneer.”

The RKO film should not to be confused with 20th Century Fox’s 1976 comedy “Silver Streak,” which was filmed in Canada using Canadian Pacific Railway equipment from the Canadian, a transcontinental passenger train.

Winning Technology for WWII Subs

By the end of 1934, eight major U.S. railroads had ordered diesel-electric locomotives. The engine technology’s cost advantages in manpower, maintenance, and support were quickly apparent.

Porpoise (SS-172), the first US submarine to use Winton diesel-electric engines.

Winton diesel-electric engines powered a new generation of U.S. submarines. The Porpoise (SS-172) was the first of its class to join the fleet in 1935 — and served throughout World War II..

Despite the greater initial cost of diesel-electric, a century of steam locomotive dominance soon came to an end. By the mid-1950s, steam locomotives were no longer being manufactured in the United States.

GM won the Navy’s competition for a lightweight powerful diesel — choosing the 16-cylinder Winton Engine Company diesel-electric to power a new class of submarine. In 1935, the USS Porpoise was first to join the fleet, where it served throughout World War II. Diesel-electrics power plants descended from the Burlington Zephyr would remain part of the fleet until replaced by nuclear propulsion.

A Zephyr competitor — the Union Pacific M-10000 built by the Pullman Car & Manufacturing Company — also appeared at the Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago.

In fact, the aluminum M-10000 streamliner was revealed six weeks earlier than the Zephyr. Recognized as America’s first streamliner, the M-10000 was cut up for scrap in 1942. The Zephyr (later renamed the Pioneer Zephyr) ended up on display at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

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Recommended Reading: Burlington’s Zephyrs, Great Passenger Trains (2004); The Great Railroad Revolution: The History of Trains in America (2013). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Adding Wings to the Iron Horse.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/adding-wings-to-the-iron-horse. Last Updated: May 24, 2021. Original Published Date: April 29, 2014.

 

Remarkable Nellie Bly’s Oil Drum

Famous New York World reporter of 1880s will take charge of 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, 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.

The 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., promoted her Iron Clad Manufacturing Company as “owned exclusively by Nellie Bly – the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such magnitude.”

Nellie bly oil drum patent drawing and portrait of Elizabeth Cochran Seaman

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.

(more…)

Densmore Brothers invent First Oil Tank Car

Two Pennsylvanians advanced new petroleum industry’s infrastructure — and later created “QWERTY” keyboard.

 

As Northwestern Pennsylvania oil production skyrocketed following the Civil War, railroad tank cars designed and fabricated by two inventive brothers improved shipment volumes from oilfields to kerosene refineries. Their tank car design would not last long, but more creativity followed when one came up with the “QWERTY” keyboard arrangement for typewriters.

Flatbed railroad cars with two oil tank cars became the latest oilfield infrastructure innovation after James and Amos Densmore received a U.S. patent on April 10, 1866. The brothers from Meadville, Pennsylvania, received a patent for their “Improved Car for Transporting Petroleum,” developed one year earlier in the booming oil region of Northwestern Pennsylvania. The first American oil well had been drilled just seven years earlier at Titusville.

Densmore brothers circa 1860s wooden oil tank car exhibit in Pennsylvania

Railroad tank cars were virtually non-existent prior to the start of the oil industry in Pennsylvania, where Amos and James Densmore designed their twin tanks on a flatbed car in 1865. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

Using an Atlantic & Great Western Railroad flatcar, the brothers secured two tanks in order to ship oil in bulk. The patent (No. 53,794) described and illustrated the railroad car’s design.

The nature of our invention consists in combining two large, light tanks of iron or wood or other material with the platform of a common railway flat freight-car, making them practically part of the car, so as they carry the desired substance in bulk instead of in barrels, casks, or other vessels or packages, as is now universally done on railway cars.

Development of railroad tank cars came when traditional designs, including the flatcar, hopper, and boxcar, proved inadequate for large amounts of oil. New designs were born out of necessity, “as the fledgling oil industry demanded a better car for the movement of its product,” notes American-Rails.com.

A Densmore two-tank oil tank car is filled among derricks.

Prone to leaks and top heavy, Densmore tank cars provided a vital service, if only for a few years before single, horizontal tanks replaced them.

According to transportation historian John White Jr., the Densmore brothers oil tank design essentially consisted of a flat car with wooden vats attached. “The Central Pacific is known to have used such specialized cars to transport water, he noted in his 1995 book, The American Railroad Freight Car.

“However, prior to the discovery of oil by Colonel Edward (sic) Drake near Titusville, Pennsylvania, on August 27, 1859, the tank car was virtually non-existent,” added White, a former curator of Transportation at the Smithsonian Institution.

Densmore Twin Tank Design

The brothers further described the use of special bolts at the top and bottom of their tanks to act as braces and “to prevent any shock or jar to the tank from the swaying of the car while in motion.” A historical marker on U.S. 8 south of Titusville memorializes the Densmore brothers’ contribution to petroleum transportation technology.

The first functional railway oil tank car was invented and constructed in 1865 by James and Amos Densmore at nearby Miller Farm along Oil Creek. It consisted of two wooden tanks placed on a flat railway car; each tank held 40-45 barrels of oil. A successful test shipment was sent in September 1865 to New York City. By 1866, hundreds of tank cars were in use. The Densmore Tank Car revolutionized the bulk transportation of crude oil to market.

The benefit of such cars to the early petroleum industry’s infrastructure was immense, especially as more Americans eagerly sought oil-refined kerosene for lamps.

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Despite design limitations that would prove difficult to overcome, independent producers took advantage of the opportunity to transport large amounts of petroleum. Other transportation methods required teamsters taking barrels to barges on Oil Creek and the Allegheny River to get to kerosene refineries in Pittsburgh.

Abandoned Densmore oil tank cars among derricks with improved horizontal tanks nearby.

Riveted cylindrical iron tank cars replaced Densmore brothers’ wooden vat cars. Discarded Densmore tanks can be seen. Photo courtesy Drake Well Museum.

As larger refineries were constructed, it was found that it cost $170 less to ship 80 barrels of oil from Titusville to New York in a tank car instead of individual barrels. But the Densmore cars had flaws.

They were unstable, top heavy, prone to leaks, and limited in capacity by the eight-foot width of the flatcar. Within a year, oil haulers shifted from the Densmore vertical vats to larger, horizontal riveted iron cylindrical tanks, which also demonstrated greater structural integrity during derailments or collisions.

The same basic cylindrical design for transporting petroleum can be seen as modern railroads load products from corn syrup to chemicals — all in a versatile tank car that got its start in the Pennsylvania oil industry.

Oil Tanks to Typewriters

Although the Densmore brothers left the oil region by 1867 — their inventiveness was far from over. In 1875, Amos Densmore assisted Christopher Sholes to rearrange the “type writing machine” keyboard so that commonly used letters no longer collided and got stuck. The “QWERTY” arrangement vastly improved Shole’s original 1868 invention.

Densmore typewriter company advertisement.

Amos Densmore helped invent one of the first practical typewriters.

Following his brother’s work with Sholes, inventor of the first practical typewriter, James Densmore’s oilfield financial success helped the brothers establish the Densmore Typewriter Company, which produced its first model in 1891. Few historians have made the oil patch to typewriter keyboard connection. According to the Pennsylvania Historical Commission’s ExplorePAhistory.com:

“Biographies of the Densmores — and even their personal papers now residing at the Milwaukee Public Museum — all refer to their work on typewriters, but make no mention of their pioneering work in railroad tank car design.”

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Recommended Reading:  The American Railroad Freight Car (1995); Early Days of Oil: A Pictorial History of the Beginnings of the Industry in Pennsylvania (2000); Story of the Typewriter, 1873-1923 (1923); Myth, Legend, Reality: Edwin Laurentine Drake and the Early Oil Industry (2009). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Densmore Oil Tank Cars.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/densmore-oil-tank-car. Last Updated: April 4, 2021. Original Published Date: April 7, 2013.

 

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Crucial time passed before containment, but new lessons learned from zealous remediation process.

 

“No one anticipated any unusual problems as the Exxon Valdez left the Alyeska Pipeline Terminal at 9:12 p.m., Alaska Standard Time,” an account by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission would later report about the 1989 disaster. 

Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989.

Field studies continue to examine the effects of the Exxon supertanker’s disastrous grounding on Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989. Photo courtesy Erik Hill, Anchorage Daily News.

In the early spring of 1989, after nearly a dozen years of daily tanker passages through Prince William Sound, Alaska, the super-tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground and spilled more than 260,000 barrels of oil, affecting hundreds of miles of coastline. Some consider the spill amount, used by the State of Alaska’s Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council, too conservative.

When the 987-foot-long tanker hit the reef shortly after midnight, “the system designed to carry two million barrels of North Slope oil to West Coast and Gulf Coast markets daily had worked perhaps too well,” explained the Alaska Oil Spill Commission’s initial report. “At least partly because of the success of the Valdez tanker trade, a general complacency had come to permeate the operation and oversight of the entire system,” noted the report.

Complacency about giant oil tankers ended on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez hit Bligh Reef.

oil spill map of Alaska coast in 1989.

“Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”

“The vessel came to rest facing roughly southwest, perched across its middle on a pinnacle of Bligh Reef,” noted the commission’s report. “Eight of 11 cargo tanks were punctured. Computations aboard the Exxon Valdez showed that 5.8 million gallons had gushed out of the tanker in the first three and a quarter hours.”

Tankers carrying North Slope crude oil had safely transited Prince William Sound more than 8,700 times during the previous 12 years. Improved shipbuilding technologies resulted in supersized vessels. “Whereas tankers in the 1950s carried a crew of 40 to 42 to manage about 6.3 million gallons of oil…the Exxon Valdez carried a crew of 19 to transport 53 million gallons of oil.”

Alaskan weather conditions – 33 degrees with a light rain – and the remote location added to the 1989 disaster, the report continues. With the captain not present, the third mate made a navigation error, according to another 1990 report, Practices that relate to the Exxon Valdez by the National Transportation and Safety Board. “The third mate failed to properly maneuver the vessel, possibly due to fatigue or excessive workload,” the report explained.

Containing Oil Spills

At the time, spill response capabilities to deal with the spreading oil will be found to be “unexpectedly slow and woefully inadequate,” according to the Oil Spill Commission’s report. “The worldwide capabilities of Exxon Corporation would mobilize huge quantities of equipment and personnel to respond to the spill — but not in the crucial first few hours and days when containment and cleanup efforts are at a premium.” 

The commission added that the U.S. Coast Guard, “would demonstrate its prowess at ship salvage, protecting crews and lightering operations, but prove utterly incapable of oil spill containment and response.”

 

illustration of oil tanks inside super tanker Exxon Valdez

At 987 feet long and 166 feet wide, the Exxon Valdez – delivered to Exxon in December 1986 – was the largest ship ever built on the West Coast.

 

Oil Spill Cleanup Lessons

Exxon began a cleanup effort that included thousands of Exxon and contractor personnel, according to ExxonMobil. More than 11,000 Alaska residents and volunteers rushed to the coastline to assist. “Because Prince William Sound contained many rocky coves where the oil collected, the decision was made to displace it with high-pressure hot water,” reported the authors of “Scuba Techniques Used to Assess the Effects of the Exxon Valdez.”  The 2001 report added:

However, this also displaced and destroyed the microbial populations on the shoreline; many of these organisms (e.g. plankton) are the basis of the coastal marine food chain, and others (e.g. certain bacteria and fungi) are capable of facilitating the biodegradation of oil.

At the time, both scientific advice and public pressure was to clean everything, but since then, a much greater understanding of natural and facilitated remediation processes has developed, due somewhat in part to the opportunity presented for study by the Exxon Valdez spill.

Within a year of the spill, a study conducted by the Alaska Oil Spill Commission resulted in the 1990 Details about the Accident report. Experts continue to review the effects of the Exxon Valdez grounding on Bligh Reef.  Most scientists today say the ecosystem in Prince William Sound, although still recovering, is healthy.

According to ExxonMobil, the company spent $4.3 billion as a result of the accident, “including compensatory payments, cleanup payments, settlements and fines. The company voluntarily compensated more than 11,000 Alaskans and businesses within a year of the spill.” Field and laboratory studies continue to examine affects of the oil spill, which resulted the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

Two decades before the Exxon Valdez grounding, an oil spill from a Union Oil offshore platform six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, led to the modern environmental movement and the 1970 establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Learn more in Oil Seeps and Santa Barbara Spill.

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Recommended Reading:  The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Perspectives on Modern World History (2011); Slick Policy: Environmental and Science Policy in the Aftermath of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill (2018). Your Amazon purchase benefits the American Oil & Gas Historical Society. As an Amazon Associate, AOGHS earns a commission from qualifying purchases.

_______________________

The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. © 2021 Bruce A. Wells.

Citation Information – Article Title: “Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/transportation/exxon-valdez-oil-spill. Last Updated: March 21, 2021. Original Published Date: March 24, 2009.

 

Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park

One gas station photo from the Library of Congress tells many early automobile tales.

 

Among the thousands of images in the Library of Congress’ online digital collection, many offer insights for understanding the early U.S. petroleum industry. Details found in just one 1921 black-and-white photograph of a Washington, D.C., suburb captured an interesting scene of petroleum products’ infrastructure.

Dome Gas Station at Takoma Park in 1921.

Despite “blemishes resulting from a natural deterioration in the original coatings,” this 1921 image of a Takoma Park, Maryland, gas station from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division helps preserve U.S. petroleum history.

 

Originally printed from an eight-inch by six-inch glass negative, the library’s digital image (reproduction number: LC-DIG-npcc-30003) features Takoma Park and its railroad station on the northeastern border of the District of Columbia and Maryland. (more…)

First Gas Pump and Service Station

Service stations gasoline pumps began with an 1880s device for dispensing kerosene at an Indiana grocery store.

 

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 designed a simple device for reliably measuring and dispensing kerosene – a product in high demand as lamp fuel for half a century. His invention soon evolved into the metered gasoline pump.

Gasoline pump and hoses illustration, 1915 to 1935.

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.

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.

first gas pump S.F. Bowser volatile liquid dispenser patent 1887

Bowser’s 1887 patent was a pump for “such liquids as kerosene-oil, burning-fluid, and the light combustible products of petroleum.”

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.

As consumer demand for kerosene (and soon, gasoline) grew, Bowser’s innovative device and those that followed faced competition from other manufacturers of self-measuring pumps. In Wayne, Indiana, the Wayne Oil Tank & Pump Company designed and built 50 of a new model in 1892, the company’s first year of business (learn more in Wayne’s Self-Measuring Pump).

first gas pump "calm shell" early pump image from road map

S.F. Bowser’s “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pumps” became known as “filling stations.” An upper clamshell closed for security when unattended.

Despite the competition, in the early 1900s – as the automobile’s popularity grew – Bowser’s company became hugely successful. His grocery store pump consisted of a square metal tank with a wooden cabinet equipped with a suction pump operated by hand-stroked lever action.

Beginning in 1905, Bowser added a hose attachment for dispensing gasoline directly into the automobile fuel tank. The S. F. Bowser “Self-Measuring Gasoline Storage Pump” became known to motorists as a “filling station” as 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).

An early gas station attendant fills a n auto gas tank.

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.

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 enterprising manufacturing companies even came up with coin-operated gas pumps.

Oil tank truck for Lightning Motor Fuel, a British product.

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 first auto service station.

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,” noted 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.

Early gas pumps seen curbside at parts store.

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,” explained 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 noted at ExplorePAhistory.com.

The decision to open the first station along Baum Boulevard in Pittsburgh was no accident.

first gas pump earliest road maps of 1920s Gulf Oil

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.

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.

first gas pump Smithsonian museum Bowser pump exhibit

This 1916 Bowser gasoline pump operated by a hand crank and “clock face” dial. Photo from the Smithsonian Collection.

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,” said 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 noted.

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 oilfield 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,” noted 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 explained in his The Modern Gas Station celebrates its 100th Birthday.

“Today, 152,995 gas stations dot the landscape, including 123,289 convenience stores,” Ernst reported. 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.”

first gas pump collection of pumps in oil museum

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.

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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.

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The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Become an AOGHS supporting member and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For more information, contact bawells@aoghs.org. Copyright © 2020 Bruce A. Wells. All rights reserved.

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: August 31, 2020. Original Published Date: March 14, 2013.

 

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