(Editor’s Note: In this series of reports, we are recounting the daily travels and travails of Erwin G. “Cannon Ball” Baker, and his record-setting run from San Diego to New York City of 11 days in 1914. A group of enthusiasts is re-creating his ride in 2014, and I am trying to keep up with them.)
Gasoline was discovered quite by accident. It was waste from the process of refining crude oil. Oil men weren’t sure what to do with it.
“We poured it down the sewers, to get rid of it,” oil pioneer John D. Rockefeller once explained. “There were some terrible explosions on the occasions when it accidentally ignited. Cleveland was more than once almost completely destroyed.”
Let us digress a bit: In the mid-1800s when folks were still unsure what to with the sticky, gooey crude oil they found bubbling out of the ground, a Scotsman discovered that by “refining” the crude oil, several useful products could be made: Paraffin and kerosene were suitable for lamp oil, cooking and even heating. The heavier products of refining were used for lubricating machinery and such. But what to do about this annoying gasoline substance?
A number of simultaneous, but seemingly unrelated inventions about this time coincided to help gasoline find its place in the world.
Since whaling was no longer producing the quantities of oil needed for lamps, kerosene became a hot commodity – but kerosene demand soon plummeted with Thomas Edison’s patent of the electric light bulb in 1879.
In 1876, in Germany, Otto & Langen perfected the internal combustion engine which, to run, needed a light fuel that could be compressed with air to form a combustible vapor. In 1882, the company’s top engineers left the company to build their own versions of the engine; those two men were Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach. Three years later, about the time the Deutz company came up with a reliable carburetor, Daimler and Maybach fitted their latest version of the engine to a two-wheeled vehicle that became the first motorcycle – then a boat and finally a carriage. Meanwhile, in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1885, the first “gasoline pump” was invented.
And, voila! Suddenly all the ingredients had come together to create a use for gasoline, which was deemed – by men like John D. Rockefeller eager to get rid of it – as ideal for use as a motor fuel. So Rockefeller and his Standard Oil Co. made it so – almost giving it away, to undercut the competition and put them out of business. (So that’s how cars came to run on gas!)
But cars continued to be rare enough and a novelty until the turn of the century. It wouldn’t be until 1905 in St. Louis that the first actual gasoline filling station opened. Two years later, another opened in Seattle. Another one – still open today – opened in 1909 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. The first drive-in filling station opened in 1913 in Pittsburgh, selling gas for 27 cents a gallon!
But, outside of those few stations, where did folks back then buy gasoline?
“They sold it at railroad stations, and hardware stores,” said Don Emde, who organized the “Finding Cannon Ball’s Trail” Centennial Ride, which followed Erwin G. “Cannon Ball” Baker‘s record-setting 1914 route from San Diego to New York. “So that’s why Baker had to ride near rail lines and through established towns – to be able to find gas.”
Other likely points of sale could have been blacksmith shops, and even pharmacies (in fact, when Bertha Benz took the world’s first motorcar trip in 1886, she stopped to get more gas at a drug store)!
Was Baker able to easily find gas along his oft-times lonely route?
“For the most part, yes,” Emde said his research found. “But the one place where he had trouble was in the Apache lands, on the third day of his ride.” That would have been on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation between Phoenix and Springerville, Arizona.
“At one point, he had to pay someone bring him gas in a container strapped to a burro,” Emde said. “He was outraged that he had to pay the exorbitant price of 80 cents for that gallon of gas.”
Soon, however, Baker was off and running again. Emde said Baker could travel for about 75-80 miles on a tank of fuel (his tank looked to be a little smaller than two gallons in capacity).
But the faster he ran, Baker noticed, the more fuel he used. So he had to balance his need for speed, to get to New York fast enough to set his hoped-for record, with his need for fuel. He would be nine days into his 11-day ride before he saw his first real “gasoline station.”
May 5, 2014