The Northwestern Oil Company Filling Station

The Northwestern Oil Co. Filling Station, aka the Portland Malt Shoppe, ca. 1955. [Image: Matt Seppo]

716 East Superior Street | Architect : Arthur Handford | b. 1921 | Extant

The nation’s first dedicated gasoline filling station opened in St. Louis in 1905. Until then, “autoists” purchased fuel at hardware stores. The first mention of a gas station in Duluth implied that several already existed, as the Duluth News Tribune announced that a new facility opening in October 1913 at 423 Commonwealth Avenue was the “only filling station west of West Duluth.” Five years later the newspaper reported that “26 Duluth Stations Supply 15,000 Gallons of ‘Gas’ Daily” at about twenty-four cents a gallon (roughly $4.20 a gallon in 2020). The story noted that several facilities were service stations owned by big oil companies and that “almost every garage in the city also has its tank and pump.” The gas came from large supply tanks located in West Duluth at at Forty-Sixth Avenue West and Grand Avenue. The story also noted that “some of the largest companies have spent much money making these places attractive as well as useful.” Indeed, many early filling stations—often more like retail shops than industrial facilities—across the country had interesting, sometimes whimsical designs.

The Northwestern Oil Company built its first station in 1919 at 2202 West Superior Street. In 1922 the Hanford Construction Company built a delightfully designed station for the Northwestern Oil Company between Seventh and Eighth Avenues East on the lower side of Superior Street. Plans for the building have been credited to the construction firm’s owner, Arthur Hanford. He created a one-story Eclectic Revival building faced with brick and decorative tile, including classic motifs such as shields, scrolls, and leaves on the corner pilasters. The company name was carved over center door and, above windows on either side of the door, the words “NOCO” and “OILS” (NOCO was the brand name of the company’s petroleum products). A canopy, lost at an unknown date, extended from building and over the gas pumps. Advertisements for the facility called it “the most beautiful service station in America,” with “a wonderful rest room for the ladies overlooking Lake Superior.”

By 1922 Northwestern advertised that it sold Vimamite gasoline, “A Perfect Gasoline” with “Pep in Every Drop.” By 1939 the company had opened six filling stations in Duluth. Five years later Harry Rogers began operating the station at Seventh Avenue West, having managed Northwestern’s station at 123 East First Street the previous year. Northwestern filling stations disappeared, from city directories after 1957, the same year Harry is listed as operating Rogers Pure Oil Service at 706 East Superior Street. Harry died in 1959, after which his wife Edith operated the station until her retirement in 1973.

After the gas station closed the building served as a retail shop. In 1989 it reopened as the Portland Malt Shoppe, so-named because its location is within the borders of the 1856 town of Portland, which became part of Duluth in 1870.

The Northwestern Oil Company Filling Station, aka the Portland Malt Shoppe, photographed by Dennis O’Hara in 2009. (Image: Northern Images)