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In the 1970s, it wasn’t a pandemic that brought Baltimore to a standstill

May 13, 1979 - GAS SHORTAGE -- There were no lines at the Sunoco station in the 4500 block Falls Road yesterday. No gas, either. Photo taken by Baltimore Sun Staff Photographer Ralph L. Robinson.
May 13, 1979 - GAS SHORTAGE -- There were no lines at the Sunoco station in the 4500 block Falls Road yesterday. No gas, either. Photo taken by Baltimore Sun Staff Photographer Ralph L. Robinson. (Robinson/Baltimore Sun)

It doesn’t take a pandemic to paralyze a nation. Ask those who rode out the energy crisis of 1973-74.

That October, Arab states slapped an oil embargo on the United States for aiding Israel during the Yom Kippur War. The ban stopped Americans in their tire tracks. Gasoline became today’s toilet paper and Clorox wipes.

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In Maryland, the fuel crisis peaked in February 1974, when the shortage froze traffic around Baltimore. Seething drivers waited in queues, some five miles long, for hours in what The Baltimore Sun called “bread lines on wheels,” hoping to fill up; too often, stations ran out of gas. Fights broke out, station owners were threatened and some began toting guns.

“It’s turning us into animals. It’s back to the caveman,” said John Wanken, of Cockeysville, who spent an entire morning in 1974 hunting for gas. He finally got $2 worth, giving him half a tank — just what he’d left home with four hours earlier.

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Lines for service stations snaked through business districts and residential neighborhoods, blocking private driveways and stores’ parking lots. People camped overnight at the pump; Bill Connolly, 22, slept in the back of his Volkswagen bus for six hours at a station on 36th Street to be first in line when it opened at 7.

Things reached a point where the sight of any line of cars triggered a Pavlovian response: join the parade. In Severna Park, several cars slid in behind a row of slow-moving vehicles, unaware that it was a funeral procession.

“If it wasn’t for sanitation laws, I think everyone should get a horse and buggy,” one motorist said.

In Havre de Grace, Edgar Garrison, an army officer, rode his 18-year-old mare, Misty, to work at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, a string of light reflectors on her tail.

Some stations chose, illegally, to sell only to regular customers. “Dealers are setting themselves up as little oil sheikhs, decreeing to whom they will dispense gasoline,” The Sun opined. Some did good deeds. Three days a week, to help stressed hospital workers, Moe’s Gas Station on Pulaski Highway let doctors and nurses butt in. Other stations, fed up with the hassles, simply closed for the duration — 55 of them in northwest Baltimore alone.

Aside from gas lines, traffic was light — a 40% drop in cars on the John F. Kennedy Highway (Interstate 95) during the crisis. Retailers felt the pinch; people stopped shopping. The shortage squeezed many means of transport, from Meals on Wheels to library bookmobiles. Movie attendance fell 25% in February. At The Strand Theater, in Dundalk, turnout was sparse for the blockbuster hit “The Exorcist.”

To stabilize problems at the pump, Maryland launched an odd-even rationing system, where those whose license plates ended with odd numbers could get gas on odd days, and so on. Motorists took umbrage. “What we we supposed to do, buy two cars so we can get an odd and even license plate?” one wrote The Sun. For its part, the newspaper ran tips for people waiting in line. While inching toward the pumps, it said, better you should stop and start your engine than to keep it running because “in 40 minutes, you can save one-half gallon of gas.”

Gas thefts were rampant; Baltimore County police logged 46 complaints one day. Auto parts stores, including a Pep Boys on Eutaw Street, sold out of both siphons and locking gas caps; the latter were no match for an ax. Woodlawn Brooks, of Mary Avenue, found his car drained of 20 gallons overnight.

Thieves got bolder as the crunch dragged on. In northeast Baltimore, two 16-year-olds were arrested for siphoning fuel from a charter bus. At the Wilkens Police Precinct in Catonsville, thieves emptied the tanks of several officers’ private cars parked in the station’s lot. In Anne Arundel County, they swiped gas from a police car itself.

In March, the embargo was lifted and the madness ended. Normalcy returned, though sales of smaller, more efficient cars took off. By today’s standards, the price of a gallon of regular gas had barely risen, from 43.7 cents in December to 54 cents in May. But the frenzy had shaken motorists to the core. It also served as the harbinger of a second oil embargo in 1979 — a tuneup, if you will.

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