Riley’s Station was last call for gas before Colfax

By: Al Albertazzi Special to the Journal
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Auburn old-timers refer to it as “Riley’s Corner,” and police and fire personnel sometimes use it as point of reference. Some Auburnites know it only as a bend in the road on East Lincoln Way just a little way down the hill from the old Alta Vista School. Today, what we call Auburn extends beyond the official city limits up to Bowman and beyond, but in the 1920s and ’30s, Auburn pretty much ended at Riley’s Corner. In 1929 John (better known as J.T.) Riley took out a loan of $650 to buy lumber to build a house on the bend in the road. Some years earlier the road had been designated as part of the Lincoln Highway, which was the main route over the Sierra and ran from San Francisco to New York. That sounds impressive and looked good on the maps, but back in the days of the Model T, foothill and mountain travel could be something of an adventure, especially since not all of the Lincoln Highway was paved until 1938. In the early ’30s the town of Bowman, consisting mainly of a school and a post office, was a dusty two miles up the road, and you couldn’t get gas at Bowman. For all practical purposes a gas station on the outskirts of Auburn would be the last chance to fill up before Colfax. Riley put a single gas pump alongside the house, added a cooler, and a roof sign boldly asserting “Riley’s Station” above the familiar red and white lettering of a Coca-Cola sign. Business was steady but never very brisk at Riley’s Station, even after the road was paved a year or two after it opened. J.T. continued to support his family of six by working as a carpenter for a $1 an hour. During the mornings the station was run by J.T.’s wife, Belle. His two sons, Bob and Bud, took over in the afternoons when they got home from school. On an average day some 10 to 20 customers would gas up at the station. Most of them were either locals, sportsmen, or daring flatlanders heading up to the snow country to see, or even try, the sport of skiing which had recently been introduced to the West Coast. Gas sold for 20 to 30 cents a gallon and had to be hand-pumped. Motor oil came in a barrel and had to be drawn into glass containers and capped with a funnel before being brought out to the waiting automobile. If a tire needed air, it came courtesy of a hand pump. The station operated for some 12 years — up to the beginning of World War II. Then gas rationing slowed sales down by quite a bit, and Bob and Bud, who had kept the station running, joined the armed forces and went off to fight the war. J.T. took the sign down and put the pump away, and “Riley’s Station” became “Riley’s Corner.” J.T. continued to live in the house until he passed away in 1981, just a few months short of turning 102. Editor’s note: Al Albertazzi has lived in Auburn since 1964. He interviewed Bob Riley for this look back in Auburn history.