When the U.S. petroleum industry began on August 27, 1859, it launched many new industries for producing, refining and transporting the highly sought after resource. With demand growing worldwide, America for the first time exported oil (and kerosene) during the Civil War when a small Union brig sailed from Philadelphia to London.

Soon after Edwin L. Drake drilled the first American oil well along Oil Creek in northwestern Pennsylvania, entrepreneurs swept in and wooden cable-tool derricks sprang up in Venango and Crawford counties.

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Launched in 1847 by the shipbuilding firm of J. & C.C. Morton of Thomaston, Maine, the Elizabeth Watts was about 96 feet long with a draft of 11 feet. The 224-ton brig made petroleum history during the Civil War.

“Doubt and distrust that preceded Drake’s successful venture suddenly fled before the common conviction that an oil well was the ‘open sesame’ to wealth,” reported Harpers New Monthly Magazine. Soon after his historic discovery near Titusville, Drake bought up all the 40-gallon whiskey barrels he could find to transport his oil on barges down the Allegheny River to Pittsburgh refineries.

In January 1860, oil sold for $20 a barrel and brought jubilant investors huge profits, including Drake’s investors at the Seneca Oil Company of New Haven, Connecticut. By May of 1861, more than 130 producing wells were crammed into the area, yielding 1,288 barrels of oil a day.

New cooperages joined the oil boom and stripped the Pennsylvania hillside forests to sell barrels at up to $3.25 each while teamsters charged up to $4 each to haul them. But with an oversupply of oil came plummeting prices and instability that would bring ruin to many fledgling petroleum companies.

About this time, the veteran cargo brig Elizabeth Watts was chartered by the successful Philadelphia import-export firm of Peter Wright & Sons. “She was a two masted, square-rigged ship well suited for the Atlantic cargo trade of the day,” noted J. & C.C. Morton, the Maine shipbuilding firm that constructed the 224-ton brig in 1847.

Since its founding in 1818, Peter Wright & Sons had grown and prospered, transporting “China, glass, and Queensware” among other commodities. At the prompting of new partner Clement Acton Griscom, the firm secured the Elizabeth Watts and her Captain, Charles Bryant, for the novel purpose of transporting crude oil from Philadelphia to London. The three British consignees awaiting the cargo were G. Crowshaw & Company, Coates & Company, and Herzog & Company.

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Barrels of vinegar – “Vinegar Bitters” – at New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1870 would be similar to the 1861 loading of oil and kerosene barrels aboard the Elizabeth Watts prior to departing the Port of Philadelphia for England. Photo courtesy New Bedford Whaling Museum.

To reach Philadelphia docks, the oil would have to travel overland across Pennsylvania. The nearest railroad to Oil Creek’s prolific fields was a grueling trek on muddy roads clogged with teamsters’ wagons. The preferred railhead, owing to primitive road conditions, was the Philadelphia and Erie Railroad station at Miles Mills (now Union City), 20 miles north of Titusville.

From Miles, railroad flatcars laboriously stacked with barrels and pulled by a steam locomotive could make their way eastward to Philadelphia. Along the route, saltwater residue would eat at the barrels’ glue and cause leakage. The risk of fire or explosion would be constant.

Despite the hazards and difficulty, 901 barrels of Pennsylvania crude and 428 barrels of refined kerosene made the trip. Each 40-gallon barrel weighed over 60 pounds empty and 360 pounds to 400 pounds when full. The region’s oilmen agreed to adopt a standard 42-gallon oil barrel in 1866 – see History of the 42-Gallon Oil Barrel.

At the Port of Philadelphia it took dockside stevedores 10 days to load the oily cargo aboard the moored Elizabeth Watts. Sailors were not anxious to sign on with a ship that could explode and burn even before casting off and sailing down the Delaware River toward the open sea. The story goes that Capt. Bryant had to “shanghai” his crew of seven.

The fumes were noxious, lurking, and explosive. No ship had ever crossed the Atlantic bearing such cargo. Whether by persuasion or chicanery, Capt. Bryant secured his crew, and the Elizabeth Watts departed the Philadelphia docks on November 19, 1861.

Forty-five days later, on January 9, 1862, the Elizabeth Watts sailed down the Thames River to arrive at London’s Victoria Dock. It took twelve days to unload the 1,329 barrels.

Success breeds success, and only a year later, Philadelphia exported 239,000 barrels of oil – still without the technology of railroad tank cars or “tanker” ships designed for the purpose. As with many stories of America’s petroleum heritage, these early deficits in technology were overcome by stalwart and tenacious men who risked their lives and fortunes in pursuit of oil.

Editors Note – AOGHS is indebted to maritime author Dr. William Flayhart III for his research and documentation on the Port of Philadelphia and its contributions to the growth of America’s petroleum industry. Dr. Flayhart has published Perils of the Atlantic among several other books including, The American Line, QE2, and Majesty at Sea.

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