A few weeks back, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came to a Liberty Avenue filling station to grouse about gas prices. There was little mention of it at the time, but ironically enough, our dependence on oil got started just a few blocks away, along an otherwise nondescript block of Baum Boulevard.
It's easy to forget, but Pittsburgh played a crucial role in the early oil industry. The world's first big commercial oil strikes took place in towns along the Allegheny River, and Pittsburgh naturally became a distribution hub for the oil they produced. One of the first oil companies -- those election-year pariahs -- even got its start here. Gulf Oil was financed largely with Mellon money, and it was Gulf that built a landmark gas station in the city's East End.
For a truly stirring history of Gulf (i.e. one that conveniently ignores its exploitation of Third World dictatorships), we turn to Since Spindletop, a corporate history published on Gulf's 50th anniversary, in 1951.
"[T]he world's first drive-in gasoline service station was opened ... at the corner of Baum Boulevard and St. Clair Street in 1913," Spindletop baldly asserts. "This distinction has been claimed for other stations in Los Angeles, Dallas, St. Louis and elsewhere, but the evidence indicates that these were simply sidewalk pumps and that the honor of the first drive-in is that of Gulf and Pittsburgh."
Well, maybe. Obviously, corporate histories are a bit unreliable. I mean, Spindletop begins by asserting "corporations are bodies of men, property, experience and skill brought together in the collective rendition of a public service for a legitimate profit." All depends on your definition of "legitimate," I guess. And of "public service." No to mention "skill."
And only the "men" are worth mentioning, fellas? No love for the broads in the secretarial pool?
Long before this history was published, the "first gas station" claim was part of Gulf's marketing. Decades after the Baum station opened, advertisements touted it as an emblem of Gulf's innovating spirit. (One ad features an illustration of a driver pulling up to the station while his female passenger screeches, "You're driving up on the sidewalk!" See, buddy, this is why Gulf execs left the women at home.)
But people were buying gasoline before 1913. Often they went to a general store that dispensed it by the gallon from a drum. And as even Spindletop admits, some savvy retailers arranged to make this dispensary as convenient as possible, by allowing motorists to purchase it from their cars.
Even the GulfOil Historical Society, a group of Gulf veterans and fans, doesn't swallow the corporate spin.
"This was NOT the first filling station," their Web site (http://www.gulfhistory.org/) declares. "It was NOT Gulf's first station, it is not the oldest station, or the first place where you could drive off the road into a lot and buy gas." (Disclaimer: The Society cautions that their site is "for recreational information on Gulf Oil Corporation history. DO NOT use this information for any other purpose." So no wagering, please.)
So what makes this station special? The fact that it was designed specifically for purposes of selling gas. As the carefully worded state historical marker on the site observes, it was the "first drive-in facility designed and built to provide gasoline, oils, and lubricants to the motoring public."
Photos of the gas station depict a hexagonal-shaped kiosk, slightly larger than the Piercing Pagoda in a shopping mall. Cars could pull up from any direction, and a large awning sheltered drivers and attendants. Moreover, as advertisements in 1913 declared, the station was "fully equipped with the latest and most modern appliances" and "also prepared to supply a full and complete line of automobile lubricating oils and greases." I'm guessing writing ad copy paid by the word back then: You'll note that while other stations might have the "latest" or the "most modern" appliances, Gulf had both.
The focus paid off. Within a few months, the station was selling 1,800 gallons a day -- enough to fill two or three modern SUVs.
Arguably, of course, all that gas made it easier to leave Pittsburgh, which is what many Pittsburghers -- and Gulf itself -- did in the decades since 1913. But easily available gas has its upside, too. Without it, how would presidential candidates hold press conferences offering drive-by solutions to complicated problems?