Sprague's predecessor was founded in 1870 by Charles H. Sprague, who initially focused the company on meeting the explosive demand for coal, which was being fueled by the industrial age.
During World War I, the privately held company became the major supplier of coal to America's European allies. To facilitate the transportation of millions of tons of coal across the Atlantic, the Sprague Steamship Company was founded. By World War II, the company was operating eleven terminals and a fleet of 27 vessels transporting coal and other products throughout the world. Its role as a worldwide coal supplier was solidified in 1942, when the US Government selected Sprague to manage the wartime coal shipment program.
Following the war, Sprague enjoyed an era of rapid growth as residual fuel oil became a major fuel source and component of the energy business. Sprague seized this growth opportunity by entering the oil business and building its first industrial oil terminal adjacent to its Portsmouth coal facility. The Sprague family entered the industrial oil business with a major commitment; building terminals, acquiring tankers, contracting with suppliers, handling the product, and entering new markets. In 1959, the company expanded its oil marketing activities by entering the distillate oil market.
By the late 1960s, the company separated into two operations: coal and oil. This division was quickly followed by the sale of its entire coal operation to Westmoreland Coal Company. Having consolidated its focus on the oil business, the Sprague family sold its interest in the company to Royal Dutch Shell's Asiatic Petroleum subsidiary in 1970. Two years later, Shell sold Sprague to Axel Johnson Inc., a member of the Axel Johnson Group of Stockholm, Sweden. That move proved fortuitous because it provided the resources for Sprague to prosper during the energy crises of the 1970s.
Spurred by recent oil supply crises, the company came full circle in 1982 when Sprague joined forces once again with Westmoreland Coal Company. Through an exclusive marketing arrangement with Westmoreland, coal again became a major energy component of Sprague's total energy business, and reinforced its position as a major industrial fuel supplier.
Supported by a growing network of terminals, Sprague launched a full-time materials handling marketing effort in 1986. The following year marked a shift in the company's business from being primarily an industrial fuel distributor to focus on commercial and wholesale fuels as well. To aggressively support this new, broader direction, the company made a number of significant acquisitions.
The 1990s saw further expansion into the natural gas marketplace, gasoline wholesaling and terminal business, as well as entry into the aviation fuel market. In 1999, Sprague moved its corporate offices to a state-of-the-art facility located at Two International Drive, Suite 200, Pease International Tradeport in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Sprague began 2001 by acquiring RAD Energy, a leading fuel distributor servicing metro New York and New Jersey. RAD not only expanded Sprague’s footprint, but it also brought to Sprague several innovative, field-tested fuel management programs that could be utilized across the Sprague footprint.
In 2005, Sprague expanded its footprint in Maine with the acquisition of Merrill Marine Terminal Services, Inc. in Portland, Maine. This provided Sprague with another sizeable operation in New England - adding approximately 600,000 tons of annual materials handling capacity.
Sprague also continues to expand its Materials Handling business. Built initially around coal handling in the turn of the century, Sprague is now focused on supporting customers’ evolving requirements, such as offloading large wind turbine blades and components.
Traditionally, Sprague's Natural Gas business has served large commercial and industrial market segments. The acquisition of Houston Energy Services (HESCO) in 2006 expanded Sprague's natural gas offerings geographically and positioned the company to grow its small commercial market segment.
In 2007, Sprague acquired 50% of Kildair Services Ltd, a Canadian-based terminal and export cargo business. In 2012, Sprague successfully completed the acquisition of the remaining 50% and is actively expanding the Materials Handling aspects of the Montreal-located facility.