Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Refineries (Oil)

Transporting Oil, circa 1875

Sepia-toned photograph of two men using a horse-drawn wagon to transport an oil tank while a train passes in front of them.

Horse-drawn tank wagons had to be used to transport oil after Pennsylvania Railroad workers repeatedly destroyed pipelines. (Library Company of Philadelphia)

Library Company of Philadelphia

Once oil had been found, the main challenge was transportation to appropriate sites for refining; horse carts, ships, trains, and pipelines all played a role starting in the early years of the industry. At the same time, the interplay of oil ownership, transportation opportunities, and refining capacity made the early oil trade a complex business. Competition among the various players often led to price wars and vandalism.

Landowners and oil traders were not necessarily the same. The Pennsylvania Railroad’s oil interest in the early years extended beyond transport to the purchase of large plots of land in Philadelphia, notably on the Delaware at Greenwich Point, about 1¾ miles south of the Navy Yard. The Greenwich facility grew rapidly to bring together several oil companies in 1875. The Pennsylvania Railroad owned the land of the oil facilities on the Delaware, whereas independent producers controlled the oil business. Together they entered a price war over shipping rates that pitched them against Standard Oil and the Baltimore & Ohio, New York Central, and Erie Railroads.

Meanwhile, out West, pipelines intended to carry oil directly from the well to refineries threatened the railroads’ control over transport. In 1874, the Columbia Conduit Company planned to build a pipeline from the Butler County oilfields to Pittsburgh. The line would run below Pennsylvania Railroad lines at two points, once in Butler County and again in Allegheny County. PRR workers retaliated by repeatedly ripping out the pipe laid at both of these locations. The line to Pittsburgh ultimately was completed, but the oil had to be hauled across PRR tracks in horse-drawn tank wagons in Butler and Allegheny Counties. This detail from a stereograph taken around 1875 shows one such crossing.

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