April 8, 2012 — As gas prices hit an all-time high in Cecil County today, slipping past the $4.00 mark for regular for the first time, those posted amounts called to mind the 1970s energy crisis. The spike occurred at the John F. Kennedy Highway Service Center, but most spots around Cecil offered a gallon for a few pennies or a nickel below that price.
The difference between today and nearly forty years ago is that the current supply is plentiful. It’s just sky high prices now, so as long as drivers empty their wallets to fill ‘er up things are fine. When the nation faced the first energy shortage in 1973-74 following an oil embargo the Federal Energy Office developed an allotment system to help balance out the distribution of the nation’s supply. In the spring of 1973, the retail price of a gallon of regular gas was around 38-cents. By June, it had shot up to a shocking 55 cents a gallon. A second energy crisis occurred in the wake of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. At that time the price got up to around 99-cents a gallon.
The allotment wasn’t enough to keep pumps from running dry as long, long lines formed at gas stations all over Maryland in 1973-74. With so many motorists rushing to keep their tanks topped off at all times and worry that the shortage was accelerating, lines of cars snaked through the streets of towns and sometimes cars idled for an hour or longer waiting for the pump. Frequently tempers flared during those tedious, wasteful waits and stations closed once the big underground tanks were pumped dry.
On most days during the height of the energy emergency, the line at the North Street Exxon Service Center, owned by Jack Fears, jammed up traffic in downtown Elkton as vehicles stretched down North Street. Over on High Street motorists ideled their engines waiting for a turn to fill the tank with the Firebird brand at Charles R. Browns. Chief Thomas McIntire and his officers monitored the jam up each day until the pumps ran dry, keeping things orderly while also making sure people didn’t get too impatient. Similar scenes occurred at other stations around the county.
Since the gas lines steadily lengthened and the number of closed stations increased, the state implemented an odd-even rationing system. Drivers of vehicles with licenses plates having an odd number for the last digit filled up on odd-numbered days, while drives with even-numbered tags got their ration on even days. This seemed to help as lines were shortened in the days after the system was implemented.
Conservation procedures were also needed. Buildings turned off extra lights, thermostats were turned down, and sweaters were worn inside. Outside street lamps were darkened and during the Christmas of 1973 few decorative lights brightened the holiday as Cecil Countians worried about heating supplies for the cold winter ahead.
But after the shortage disappeared and the supply met demand once again, the energy crisis of the 1970s was forgotten. However, that expensive gasoline out on I-95 today brought to mind another time when shortages and costly gasoline shocked the nation and called for urgent action.