Charles Merle Rolston | Murat Shrine


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Charles Merle Rolston (1878 - 1947)

Creator of the Service Station

In June of 1908 the first gasoline station in Canada and, allegedly in the world, was opened in Vancouver on the southwest corner of Smythe and Cambie streets.

The creation of Gizeh Shriner Charles M. Rolston, who received his degree's in Acacia Lodge in 1902, and Major James S. Mathews, a member of Western Gate Lodge.

The idea of a filling station evolved from a 1902 request of another Freemason, John Hendry of Union Lodge, manager of the Hastings Sawmill. Hendry telephoned the Imperial Oil Company, which then consisted of two employees, Charles Rolston, the manager and James Mathews, the clerk, he need some gasoline for his new automobile and did they have any in stock?

Mathews, who answered the call, stated that they had it; it was in cases of two five-gallon wine cans per case. The voice on the telephone asked if it was the type used in automobiles to which Mathews replied he had no knowledge but presumed it was. Thus was transacted the first gasoline sale for automobiles.

A fill up in those early years was a messy and dangerous business as the gas was poured from five gallon buckets thru funnels and the slopping of gas was always a constant worry to Rolston who feared the danger of a fire.

Charles Rolston conceived the idea of the service station six years later in 1908. During the six years between 1902 and 1908 the number of automobiles in Vancouver was on the rise and a number of garages sprung up. These garages started to price gouge motorist which dismayed Rolston as it was starting to reflect on Imperial Oil who had a monopoly on oil products at that time.

Adjacent to the storage yard, facing the street, he built an open side shed of corrugated iron. It was about five feet deep, twelve feet wide, and eight feet high in front, with a plank floor. In the center was built a tapered three foot high concrete pillar that was tapered to twelve inches at the top, and on this he placed a thirteen gallon kitchen water tank fitted with a glass steam gauge marked off by white dots in one gallon increments. The tank was gravity feed, it being connected to the main storage tank. The filling hose was a ten-foot length of garden hose with no nozzle.

This system was so highly successful that soon all of the cars in Vancouver were purchasing their gasoline at the Smythe and Cambie street station. As many as fifty to sixty were lined up on pre-holiday afternoons awaiting their turn to fill up which prompted Rolston to add a second tank.

The fame of the little gas station soon spread and enquiry's as to how it operated were received from all parts of North America and, from these simple beginnings, was born the modern day service station.

Charles Rolston remained with Imperial Oil for forty years during which in 1914 he saw the Ioco refinery built through his efforts. Rolston Island, near the refinery, was named in his honor.

Shortly after his retirement in 1934 he traveled extensively and in 1939 was present to fellow Freemason, King George VI, at Buckingham Palace. Charles Rolston passed away March 1, 1947.

Major James S. Mathews, after distinguished service overseas in WW1, returned to Vancouver and took over the management of the Western Cordage Co. of New Westminster. In 1929 Mathews retired from the business world and actively engaged in his hobby of collecting memorabilia relating to Vancouver. His passion for history and collecting led to his appointment in 1933 as the first Archivist for the City of Vancouver, a position he held until his death in 1970. He was 92 years old.

During his tenure as archivist Major Mathews was responsible for the saving of two of Canada's national treasures; the RCMP vessel The St. Roch and Engine 374, the CPR steam engine that pulled the first passenger train across Canada in 1886. The building that houses the City of Vancouver Archives, is named the James S. Mathews Building, in his memory.