LOOKING BACK: Energy Crunch of 1974

Published 4:30 pm Friday, January 5, 2024

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Fifty years ago — dimmed lights, chilly rooms, and long lines at local gasoline stations on new year’s eve 1973 was a preview of what the energy crunch of that time could mean to Franklin-Southampton-Isle of Wight for the year 1974. 

The area was experiencing rapidly developing shortages of home heating oil and gasoline resulting from the Arab oil embargo — a temporary cessation of oil shipments from the Middle East to the United States, Netherlands, Portugal, Rhodesia and South Africa — imposed by oil producing Arab countries, starting in October of 1973, in retaliation for support of Israel during the Yom Kippur war.

Half-filled gasoline tanks and rainy, windy weather had its effect on New Year celebrations, but most people managed to brush aside, at least for that evening, any discomforts brought about by the weather and the oil embargo.

There had been minor problems for motorists over the past few weeks, but on Monday, Dec. 31, the energy crisis really came home, dramatically, to Franklin as long lines of cars jammed local gas stations. One-by-one the stations were selling out of gas – first regular, then hi-test, and then closed.

L.L. Bryan, owner of the Exxon station at the corner of Mechanic Street and Second Avenue, had sold out of regular gas by 11 a.m. “When we sold out of regular, we still had 1,500 gallons of premium,” Bryan said. “But we sold out of that too in the next hour and a half.”

At Cutchins Arco on Second Avenue, it was the same. Employee McCoy Fowler reported. “We gave everyone up to $2 worth on Monday,” he said. “We had already sold $3 worth to over seven hundred cars on Saturday. People seemed to understand though. We had only one man to complain Saturday about not being able to purchase more than the $3 limit.” (Gasoline in October of 1973 averaged 0.39 per gallon but was rising until early in 1974 when it was approaching 0.53 per gallon.) 

New Year’s Eve was a sellout day for John Galloway’s Gulf Central Service Station on Fourth Avenue and virtually every other station in the area. Cobb’s Exxon on Fourth Avenue held some gas in reserve. Station owner G. E. Cobb said Monday his station quickly sold “everything we’re going to sell today.”

A massive traffic jam developed around the Imperial station on South Street. Franklin police were called to the scene and directed local traffic as through traffic, on busy U. S. Route 258, was brought to a standstill while local motorists lined up bumper-to-bumper in every direction trying to somehow make their way to the pumps. Imperial employee Durell Majette said the station was imposing no limits. “As long as we have it, we’re giving people all the gas they want,” Majette told a reporter.

Even Union Camp Corp. was affected. Fuel oil uncertainties prompted Union Camp’s Franklin installation to request a one-year air quality variance from the State Air Pollution Control Board (SAPCB) to allow it to burn coal instead of oil in some of its boilers. The company said that even with a conversion to coal the Franklin area would still be well within the most stringent air standards adopted by the State Air Board. A public hearing was held with William Trice, Union Camp Technical Director, representing Union Camp, and officials of the SAPCB in attendance.

According to John Munford, vice president of Union Camp and general manager at Frankin, the company was one of the few major installations in Virginia that could convert to coal from heavy number six oil. “Fuel shortages could cause a 30% decrease in Franklin’s production of pulp, paper, lumber, and article board. We estimate that this would result in the layoff of 600 people at the plant and another 200 in the wood supply area, representing an annual payroll loss of eight to $10 million dollars.” 

At the public hearing, there was no expressed opposition to the requested variance.

CLYDE PARKER is a retired human resources manager for the former Franklin Equipment Co. and a member of the Southampton County Historical Society. His email address is magnolia101@charter.net.