Section 6: Gas Stations

Automobiles required a source of power. At first, automobiles were powered by diesel fuel, steam, or electric engines. By the 1910s, most cars ran on gasoline. Drivers had to be able obtain gasoline in cities or along the highways if automobiles were to prove practical.

Image 23
Image 23: Sven Green of Hatton used a truck to deliver fuel to customers. SHSND 00121-0028

The design of early cars did not include a fuel gauge. (See Document 10.) Drivers listened to the sound of fuel running into the tank; when it sounded full, they stopped adding gas. The earliest sources of gasoline were either a livery (a place where horses or cars could be rented) or a blacksmith shop. The driver or attendant poured gas into a five-gallon can and then poured the fuel into the car’s fuel tank. (See Image 23.) Many drivers filled fuel cans and tied them to the running boards on their cars. That strategy helped them travel between towns.

Document 10: Out of Gas


The Nelson County Observer newspaper of Lakota printed the following story on July 13, 1906.

“A young and budding chauffeur the other day had his machine stand stock still in front of P. Quinn’s little ‘cottage,’ and he coaxed it every way he could think of, big beads of sweat rolling from his noble brow. Finally [S.A.] Floren hove in sight, inquired what was the matter, jumped off his machine, gave it a few turns – no go. Happy thot, Mr. Floren poured in some gasoline, when lo and behold, away it went. ‘You blanket blank d. f. the auto is all right. . .’

Moral: Be sure your gasoline is “wet” if you have to light a match to find out.”

Image 24
Image 24: At the Mills and Farup service station in Park River, drivers could pull up to the curb to fill their gas tanks. Other services were available, too. Soon, however, gas stations recognized the danger of placing pumps at the curb. A car could run into the tanks and start a fire. SHSND A1545

Practical gasoline pumps were in use by 1910 and by the 1920s many different companies produced gasoline pumps. Pumps were safer for filling fuel tanks and allowed drivers to measure the amount of fuel purchased. Drivers now could purchase gasoline at grocery markets, hardware stores, and automobile sales centers. (See Image 24.) The price of gasoline (and other supplies for cars) varied over the years. In 1915, motorists could purchase gas in a city for around 20 cents per gallon ($4.61 today). The price was usually a little higher in small towns.

By the 1920s, the sale of gasoline was organized into specialized locations known as gas or filling stations. Drivers looked for familiar gasoline brands, such as Standard Oil or Texaco. As gasoline companies entered into competition for drivers’ dollars, they also offered automobile services. Service station attendants washed windshields, checked oil and water levels, and changed flat tires. (See Image 25.) Some service stations also offered automobile maintenance and repair services. Attendants wore snappy uniforms with the logo of the company they worked for on their shirts and caps.

Image 25
Image 25: At the Standard Oil service station on Highway 81 in Grafton, the service station attendants wore uniforms. SHSND 2012-P-054-0001

Motorists planned regular stops at well-known service stations such as Taubert's Brick House on U.S. Highway 10 in Casselton or Molly’s Service Station in downtown Bismarck. (See Image 26.) Taubert’s had a lunch counter where travelers could eat after filling their fuel tank. Molly’s offered full automotive service and parking while customers completed their shopping.

Image 26
Image 26 front: Molly’s Service Station in downtown Bismarck advertised a variety of services with this postcard. The station wanted to attract regular customers who would leave their cars for service while shopping. SHSND 00151-0042
Image 26
Image 26 back: Molly’s Service Station in downtown Bismarck SHSND 00151-0042

As gas stations modernized, they became safer. (See Image 27.) The gas pumps were moved back from the edge of the street so that cars were not likely to crash into them. Fuel storage tanks were placed underground to limit the possibility of a disastrous fire. Motorists could use pumps to fill their tanks instead of fuel cans. Within a few years after people began to buy automobiles, there was a filling station in every town. (See Image 28.)

Image 27
Image 27: Capital Service Station of Bismarck was a modern service station that protected its pumps with columns and placed them away from the street. The open garage door indicates that the station also offers mechanic’s services. SHSND C0406
Image 28
Image 28: This Dickinson Service Station did not have a mechanic’s bay, but did offer tourist cabins in old railroad cars. By 1920, nearly every small town had a filling station. SHSND 0075-0648

Why is this important?
The value of automobiles was recognized very quickly, even by people who were not interested in paying for a car or paying taxes for road maintenance. But, cars would not go anywhere without adequate sources of gasoline. Cars brought more business to towns, and cars also created new jobs and business opportunities all over North Dakota.