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Fill ‘er Up? Union Gasoline Station Susanville, California

This smiling crew of gas pump jockeys posed for Northern, CA, photographer J.H. Eastman at a Union Oil Company filling station located at the corner of Main and North Streets in Susanville, CA, in 1936. The building is a prefabricated steel structure of the type that was popular at that time.

There are two types of pumps in use at this station. The three tallest ones are hand-operated “visible” style units that contain a pump in the base operated by a lever to pump gas into the round glass cylinder at the top; from there, the fuel was gravity-fed into a vehicle’s gas tank. The shorter pumps on the far left and right of the pump island are more modern electrically-powered units. In the center is a motor oil fountain that dispensed different grades and weights of oil.

The prices of the two fuels offered were between eighteen cents a gallon to twenty-two cents that included the four-cent a gallon state tax. Three types of gasoline were available; a high-octane leaded blend on the far left of the building, leaded Union “76,” and “White Magic,” an un-dyed mixture.

The Union Oil Company was founded in 1890 and was based in San Ramon, California. Union was in operation until 2005 when it became a part of the Chevron Corporation.

Please share with us what you find of interest in this photo courtesy of the UC Davis Library.

26 responses to “Fill ‘er Up? Union Gasoline Station Susanville, California

  1. White Magic was a “third structure” gasoline (that is, a gasoline with an octane rating below 70). In 1939, it had an octane rating of 63.0 and was positioned in the market opposite other major producers’ low-octane gasoline such as Shell Green Streak, General Metro, Richfield Rocor, and Tidewater White Gold.

    First structure had an octane rating over 75, while second structure was 70-75.

      • No problem. I’d never heard of White Magic and was curious, so I started poking around with different search terms on Google. The first useful thing I found was a 1939 report on West Coast oil suppliers’ products, which mentioned the octane level and other physical characteristics (boiling point, etc) and called it a third structure gas, with a table of different qualities of gas from different companies. I wasn’t familiar with that term and couldn’t find a definition in that report, so I went to look that up and found a 1945 copy of the Federal Register that used the structure system in its definitions for an update to the wartime Office of Price Administration.

    • I was recently surprised to learn that in WWII, German aircraft were flying on 87 octane fuel…probably not optimal for a high powered V-12 aircraft engine.

      • Prior to the Battle of Britain Allied planes were also flying on low octane fuel.

        The Luftwaffe was very unpleasantly surprised during the Battle of Britain air campaign when they were met by the same RAF fighters it had opposed over continental Europe now being operating on the newly introduced 100 octane fuel. The resulting performance increase coupled with increased engine durability under high power settings made a significant contribution to the British effort.

        A number of technical reports support the fact that by the end of the war the German aviation fuel was similar in quantity to that of the Allies. The scarcity and low quality of lubricants as the war progressed lead to significant problems for German aviation.

      • German octane ratings are lower than Allied numbers because Allied reports quoted rich fuel mixtures and German reports quoted lean mixtures. The German C-3 fuel was listed by Germans as 100 octane and by American reports as 130 octane. By 1942 Germany had improved C-3 to where the Allies would have rated it at 150 octane, and it was around 2/3 of their production, with the other third being B-4, which was 87 octane (lean) fuel (~100 octane Allied/rich octane). The post-war American report “Technical Report 145-45 Manufacture of Aviation Gasoline in Germany” concluded that German fuel was essentially identical to Allied fuel.

      • Just as an addendum to this part of the discussion, the Spitfires and Hurricanes carbs and the Germans relied on FI. As a consequence, when the Spits did barrel rolls or were upside down for any period of time, the engines would sputter, belching black smoke and losing power, not fun in a dogfight. This was cured somewhat by the installation of “Miss Shcilling’s Orifice”, a brass ring to limit fuel feed (Miss Schilling being a fervid motorcyclist). These were replaced by pressure carbs in 1943, but I feel FI was really the way to go. However, the P51 Mustang using basically the same Merlin Engine, had a low and high blower that seemed to take care of this problem. Then a lot of attention was paid to fuel and higher ratings. Both Merlin and Packard Merlin engines were used and when they switched over to 100/150 fuel before D-Day, there are a number of modifications to be made, but the upgrades were ready by June 1, 1944. There is an interesting set of test data about the Mustang mods here: (plug in www in front and html at the end, if this can be approved by David). A lot of this testing ended up leading to improvements in automotive fuels as well, but the great work done by Packard on these engines did not save them in the end.

  2. Looks like a Havoline Motor Oil dealer across the street, either connected to the Chevron on the right or as a standalone retailer?

    It’s easy enough to figure out how the visible pump works, though maybe it wasn’t quite exact. As i don’t know how the electric pumps work, would an attendant crank a wheel to the desired amount on the dial, indicated by a hand with a circle on it, and then the gasoline would be metered until the other hand reached the circle and thus the proper amount has been discharged?

    Thanks again David fora great shot! And look at the puddles of gasoline at the bases of the hoses!

  3. Interesting that there are no cars at this station, on any of the streets or at the Texaco down the road.
    Three guys on the clock and nary a customer.

    • You can actually see a “ghost image” of a car right below the Texaco sign. That is an indication that the photographer used a rather long exposure to get the sharp depth of field in the picture.

  4. I read, Union became Union 76 in 1934. I notice the “White Magic” pumps don’t have a lead sticker, are we to believe this was “white gas”? I remember my old man would get a gallon or 2 for something at our cottage. I think he used it to start the brush and leave piles.

    • Hey, Howard! White gas was (is?) used for Coleman lanterns and white gas stoves. Campingmaniacs dot com forward slash white gas has a good article. As it is highly flammable, I can imagine it being used to start brush fires.

      • Once saw a guy toss some white gas into the fire pit at Big Basin State park , Santa Cruz County , California, it ignited in midair, went through the fire and set a wax covered canvas old school tent fully ablaze at 8 PM in the evening , thank god there was no one in it ….you can only well imagine if kids had been sleeping in it ….

        History repeated itself when I worked at Skylonda Cal Fire / California Department of Forestry when we responded to Portola State park : a guy had flung white gas into the fire pit , this time it traveled up his arm : damn good thing it was only his arm ! White gas is NOT to be &$%#’ed with !!!!!!!!

    • White pants and shirts sure look snappy but would ‘dirty-up’ in no time. Maybe just a promo shot several steps from reality. Vin.

  5. I wonder if that’s just a promotional photo. There’s 3 employees for a small station that appears to only sell gas and oil.

    • Seems like promo would be a good guess. Lots of gas stations and businesses sent out promo post cards “back in the day”.

  6. Been a long-long time since I went to Susanville! Real estate prices there are historically near to if not absolutely the lowest in all of California! It is the biggest town as close nowhere as one can find in the state. Nobody wants to go there (except maybe me?). However with lumber and mining operations around, as well as Lake Almanor, people that have to be there for their jobs need SOMEPLACE to go to within fifty miles!

    As I recall from a long time ago, it was a nice little town. I was actually thinking of moving there a few years back.

    • The biggest employer is the HIGH DESERT State Prison in Susanville.

      Inmate count – approx 3.788

      An old neighbor was a guest there a few years back.

  7. Chevron Corp currently sells Chevron and Mobil branded fuels in the US. 76 was purchased buy Conoco/Phillips 66 of OK City. Those brands are Regional as is Chevron with Mobil being effectively National but in some areas rare.

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