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Thursday, June 20, 2013

SU Researchers Examine Gas Stations on Virginia's Eastern Shore

SALISBURY, MD---During a drive from Salisbury to Norfolk for a Salisbury University sailing club regatta, Bradley Machperson noticed the unusual number of abandoned or converted gasoline stations on U.S. Route 13.

His simple observation led to a comprehensive research project, recently published in the journal Southeastern Geographer. The article, “Gasoline Station Morphology on Virginia’s Eastern Shore,” was co-authored by Dr. Mark de Socio of SU’s Department of Geography and Geosciences.

Mark de Socio and Bradley MachpersonIn fall 2011, the duo identified, mapped, dated and photographed 152 gas stations in that region. The results: 52 are actively selling gas, 39 are derelict and 61 are used for other purposes. This includes 16 car maintenance garages, 11 antique shops/flea markets, nine restaurants, seven car dealerships, five homes/apartments, two religious facilities, and even a U.S. Post Office and a town hall/police station.

“It was a fun project since it deals with an everyday component of our modern built environment,” de Socio said.

Using cues about architectural styles to group all stations by decade built, the team discerned some changing patterns about life on the peninsula:  The earliest gas stations (1930s and before) were mostly in-town country stores and garages. Since the 1930s, stations were increasingly located along Route 13, but still clustered near towns.

The 1940s saw a lag in gas station construction, due to rationing and demand declines during World War II. In the 1950s, the middle of the peninsula, with no growing population centers, remained largely untouched.

Construction has decreased since the 1960s, but stations have remained in areas with high traffic and more inhabitants. Everything built since 1990 is a super convenience store with multiple pumps and food options.

The largest clusters of currently active gas stations are in Cape Charles, a rail, ferry and now Bay Bridge Tunnel hub; the increasing tourist destination of Exmore; and the growing coastal resort and employment hub of Chincoteague/Wallops Island.

Surprisingly, three gas stations built in the 1940s or earlier still operate.

“Retail establishments tie directly into the spatial patterns of human settlements and mobility in the time they were operating, so it was interesting to use these gasoline stations to reveal past patterns of a human made environment throughout Virginia’s Eastern Shore over the decades,” explained Machperson, a geography and earth science major from Bowie. He recently graduated from SU and will begin a master’s degree at Ryerson University in Toronto this fall.

Southeastern Geographer is a peer-reviewed publication of the Southeastern Division of the Association of American Geographers. As the article states:  “A rich cultural history is embedded in the landscape around us, [holding] the stories of our past if we are willing to see it.”

For more information call 410-543-6030 or visit the SU Web site at

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