Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock

Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock (1916 -1982)

Energy Sources - Before about 1875, the dominant energy source was wood and it was used almost exclusively for heating. Very minor amounts of alternate energy sources (coal, gas) were used for metal processing and lighting.  Starting toward the end of 1800’s, steam engines were used for transportation (rail and ships) and the production of electricity (1882 Pearl Street Station, Manhattan). Their dominant source of energy was coal which started adding to the energy source and replacing wood. The Spanish American War (1898) changed the Navy’s view on coal vs oil. The need for coaling stations and the difficulty of loading ships with coal gave way to use of oil. A giant oil field at Spindletop (Beaumont) Texas provided a source of energy for almost any purpose and added to the energy supply. About 80% of the energy supply for WWII came from the United States. Sun Oil early involvement with production and distribution of oil created financial success.

Gas lighting used in Baltimore as early as 1816


Brief summary of Sun Oil Company history

1886 - 1890 – Peoples Natural Gas (Pittsburg) expanded to include oil production, transportation, storing, refining, shipping and marketing.

1901 – Spindletop (Beaumont, Texas) oil field led US into the oil age. Prior to this oil had limited application to lighting and lubrication. Oil became the fuel for mass consumption. United States became the leading oil producer.

1902 – Joseph Pew and Sun Oil Company established an oil refinery at Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania to process light sweet crude oil.

1902 - 1916 - Prior to starting Sun Shipbuilding, Sun Oil Company had a fleet of oil carrying ships to take oil from Texas to Marcus Hook. 

1908 – Marcus Hook refinery – wholly owned by Sun Oil.

Two ships modified to transport oil by Sun Oil Company before starting Sun Shipbuilding. SS Paraguay and schooner Thomas Lawson. Paraguay was 242 feet long and carried 18000 barrels of oil.


Three of the pre-Sun Shipbuilding ships were sunk by German submarines in World War I (1914 - 1918)

1916 – Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company started as a separate company. It produced more than about 700 ships until it closed in 1982. It was then sold to Pennsylvania Shipbuilding that went out of business 7 years later.


Early Years (1916 to 1919)

Sun Oil started Sun Shipbuilding to ensure it had the means of providing the feedstock for its refinery in Marcus Hook, PA. In this period Sun Shipbuilding produced 4 tankers, 8 Passenger/Cargo ships and 2 Cargo ships. The tankers produced in this period were about 10,500 DWT (dead weight tons) and were capable of a speed of about 10.5 knots. The Passenger/Cargo ships were slightly larger (about 12000 DWT). By comparison, the standard T2 tanker of WWII was 15800 to 16300 DWT and capable of 16 knots (typical 501 feet long, 68 foot beam, steam turbine, single shaft).


Built by Sun Shipbuilding, and completed as USNS Sol Navis 1919. Expropriated from Luckenbach Steamship Line to carry fighting troops home from the war in Europe. Returned to Luckenbach Lines in 1920 and renamed Harry Luckenbach. Sunk in 1943 by German Submarine. Luckenbach Steamship Co. operated between 1850 and 1974.

Post WWI Period (1920 – 1938)

In this period Sun Shipbuilding produced about 62 tankers, 3 Cargo ships, 2 Rail Carriers and numerous smaller ships totaling 152 ships. The tankers capacity ranged from about 10,600 to 18,000 DWT.

World War II Period (1939 – 1946)

The shipyard expanded from 8 shipways to 28. At its peak, employed about 36,000 people. The shipyard produced about 252 tankers, 52 cargo ships and two “seatrain” ships and smaller car float barges. The tankers were T2 and T3 types including several variant models.  Capacity ranged from 13,100 to 19,200 DWT. The Cargo Ships were Maritime Commission designed C2, C3 or C4 ships. The “seatrain” ships used rail road cars as containers. The whole RR car was moved inside the ship and secured for the sea voyage.

Two examples of tankers produced by Sun Shipbuilding. Esso Gettysburg (1942), a T2 tanker 503 foot long, capable of 14 knots speed, 16600 DWT, 141,000 barrels of oil. Sunk 1943 by German Submarine. Fleet oiler USS Cimarron (AO 22) (1939) a T3 tanker 533 feet long, capable of 18 knots, 18200 DWT.


Post WWII period (1947 – 1982) 

The shipyard shrank down in size, some of land was sold off for an industrial park. In this period the shipyard produced 37 tankers, 35 Cargo ships, 2 seatrain ships, 2 liquified natural gas ships. The cargo ships included 8 C7 container ships and 1 additional container ship. The demand for ships had dramatically declined and Sun Ship searched for alternate ways of utilizing its expertise. They created an Aerospace division that produced solid propellant rocket motor cases. Other post war products include specialized  bridge anchors, deep submergence submersibles, deep submergence rescue vehicle, hopper dredge and wind tunnel for Boeing.

Sun Shipbuilding closed its door in 1982. It was taken over by Pennsylvania Shipbuilding which continued on for another 7 years but it too closed. It is difficult for an American Shipbuilder to compete against foreign shipbuilders because of labor cost differential. Only about 1% of ocean trade is conducted in American built and operated ships and that is only because of requirements for shipping between American ports (see Jones Act).

Typical first generation container ship, C7 Maritime Commission design. Some later generation container ships are much larger.


American Racer (1964) for United States Lines, break bulk cargo ship. Photo and painting courtesy of David Boone marine artist.


Post War Ships - Special design 

GTS Admiral William M. Callaghan (1967) a roll on/roll off transport ship. Propulsion from two gas turbines.


The 1962 tanker Manhattan was extensively modified with an ice breaker bow and other changes designed to travel from East Coast US to Purdue Bay Alaska by way of the North West Passage. Modification done at Sun Ship (1969) with major sections built by other shipyards. The ship made it through ice 14 foot thick without a problem but was stopped by thicker sections and required other ice breaker help. It did make it to Purdue Bay and back to East Coast but the experience gained indicated that it would not be a successful future financial venture. 


USNS Glomar Explorer - 1972 secret CIA spy ship designed to recover the Russian submarine K 129 that had sunk west of Hawaii.


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