The first oil export of US crude oil using the Elisabeth Watts cargo ship came soon after Edwin L. Drake drilled the first American oil well along Oil Creek in northwestern Pennsylvaniai, in Venango and Crawford counties. 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 the year 1861, Peter Wright & Sons, exporters from Philadelphia were responsible for making the first export of crude oil to London in a 224-tonne capacity conventional cargo ship, the Elisabeth Watts. 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. . “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.
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.
On November 18, 1861, the 901 barrels of Pennsylvania oil and 428 barrels of refined kerosene were loaded on the Elisabeth Watts. Forty-five days later, on January 9, 1862, the U.S. brig sails down the Thames River to arrive at London’s Victoria Dock. It will take 12 days to unload the 1,329 barrels. Not much more is known about the Elizabeth Watts. She carried the world’s first really substantial cargo of oil and arrived safely in England. The three British consignees awaiting the cargo were G. Crowshaw & Company, Coates & Company, and Herzog & Company. Beyond that the records are blank-except to note that the ship’s master had considerable difficulty in recruiting a crew. However, the following year, reports says that Philadelphia exported 239,000 barrels of oil. (Source and image: AOGHS)