Like many people who came to Alaska in the mid-1970s seeking their fortune on the trans-Alaska pipeline, Paul Helmar wasn't fully prepared for what he found. It was 20 below zero when he arrived at the Fairbanks airport dressed in a pea coat and cowboy boots.
The $8 billion pipeline construction project, the largest in American history, was just beginning and Fairbanks was the center of all the action.
"There were people from all over the world looking for work," said Helmar, who now owns a photography shop, Juneau Photo Works, in downtown Juneau. "There was so much opportunity. Alaska was different. It was just what I was looking for."
Having just graduated from college with a degree in anthropology, Helmar had been hired to photograph the pipeline for a state historical project.
The 800-mile pipeline would eventually run from Prudhoe Bay, at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, to Valdez, a port town on the Gulf of Alaska. Construction workers, who for the first time included women in their ranks, labored 12 hours a day, seven days a week, earning an average of about $4,000 a month. Adjusted for inflation, that equals $9,100 today.
Stories of the pipeline construction give a picture of what could happen if a much-discussed natural gas pipeline is built from Alaska's North Slope to the Lower 48, or to a Gulf of Alaska port. The last time such a project was undertaken, the adventure and the wages drew thousands of workers to the far North.
"I had to go," said Paula Terrell, who at the time was a single mother living on welfare in Juneau. Deeply in debt after a divorce, Terrell went to a local union seeking employment on the pipeline. She was told she would have to prove herself as a laborer, so she volunteered to work without pay on Egan Drive, then under construction. After learning the basics of oiling machinery, she headed north with her union card.
When Terrell arrived at Pump Station One near Prudhoe Bay, she was the only woman in camp. As an oiler she found herself crawling under, around and over huge pieces of earth moving equipment.
"It was cold even in July," she said.
Terrell didn't have the physical size to get the leverage need to loosen huge bolts so the men built her a "cheater bar" that fit over a hand wrench to give her more power.
"I wanted to learn and I worked hard and they respected me," she said.
The men in her maintenance shop were also protective and, because there were no separate bathrooms, stood guard while she took showers. Terrell later worked in a variety of positions at the state Legislature and is now Southeast director for the Alaska Marine Conservation Council.
Fairbanks, the northern-most Alaska city with a major airport, railroad and road system, became the hub for much of the pipeline construction that commenced in 1974 and continued through 1977. Tons of construction cargo rolled into the town. Thousands of construction workers were dispatched from Fairbanks union halls to major construction camps along the pipeline route. Hookers and hustlers lined the streets of the city seeking their cut of the $800,000 spent daily in wages and purchases.
"It was a crazy time," said Juneau lawyer Pat Gullufsen, who was hired as an assistant district attorney in Fairbanks in 1975.
Gullufsen, who had never tried a case, was handed a stack of files on his first day in the office and sent into court. The state was caught off guard and somewhat overwhelmed by the social turmoil caused by the influx of money and people, said Gullufsen, who changed to private practice before returning to work for the state Department of Law.
One of the reasons the state was caught off guard was that the pipeline had a lot of false starts, said Jerry Smetzer, an economic planner in Fairbanks at the time. Smetzer vividly remembers driving his wife to a Fairbanks hospital to give birth to their first child when a train loaded with huge pipe pulled across the road and stopped.
"It was December 1969 and dark," said Smetzer. In a panic he found a brakeman. "I can still see the poor guy running down the track, swinging that lantern, trying to get the train moving," said Smetzer, now an analyst for the state Department of Health and Social Services.
The train began moving, but pipeline construction stalled for next four years. Business people in Fairbanks had started throwing money around in anticipation of a boom but lawsuits filed by environmental and Native groups stopped construction, said Smetzer. The project remained tied up in federal court until late 1973 when it was approved by Congress.
When the floodgates finally burst, Fairbanks quickly became a boomtown. Prices soared. A pair of cold weather "bunny boots" that had cost $10 prior to the boom cost $100 a year later, said Van Sundberg, a college student in Fairbanks when pipeline construction took off.
"People were renting space between their washer and dryer - that's true," Terrell said.
No one had control of the economy, said Smetzer. "The average citizen had to hang on for dear life and hope they didn't fall off," he said.
However, there was still some idealism left from the 1960s. John Lesh and Roxene Miller, both from Juneau, ran a communal house where many young people stayed while they looked for work.
"There were never less than 10 people. It seemed like everyone who came from Juneau at least stopped by," said Lesh, who now lives in Gustavus. Posted in the kitchen was a list of camps Juneauites were working in.
Although there were many
non-union service jobs available in Fairbanks, the yellow brick road to big paychecks went through the union halls, which Smetzer called "The Gods of the Pipeline." In some cases it was easy to get a union card but getting hired could be another matter. Construction companies would notify the union halls when they needed workers. Hiring was generally based on a combination of union job hours and the amount of time a union member had been unemployed.
Tim Sunday, who joined the Teamsters in Juneau, spent two weeks in Fairbanks hitchhiking to job calls at the union hall before getting hired. And the halls were packed, said Mike Notar, who remembers making his way through ice fog and minus 40 degree temperatures looking for work. Both Notar and Sunday are now business representatives for unions in Juneau.
People who had no union experience or connections could sit in the halls for weeks waiting for a chance call, said Larry Hurlock.
"You had to be tough to be a union business agent in Fairbanks. Lots of people wanted jobs and some of those construction workers were pretty big men," said Hurlock, who worked as an oiler as a member of the Union of Operating Engineers.
One union that earned the antipathy of almost everyone was the "798ers," a local pipefitters union out of Tulsa, Okla., that controlled who worked assembling pipe. Few Alaskans were able to get jobs through the 798 hall.
"The bad guys," said Sundberg, somewhat jokingly.
"They were from a southern rural culture and they were cliquish. The pipeline was their job as far as they were concerned," said Hurlock.
Hurlock, a seasoned construction worker, was delighted with the quality of the pipeline camps. In addition to the free room and board there was typically TV, long distance phones (free calls to the Lower 48, but not within Alaska), great food and a clean room shared with only one roommate.
"It was unbelievable. I had hit gold," Hurlock said.
"When I first got there they were flying lobster in once a week from back east," said Sunday. In addition most workers received free round-trip air transportation to the city they were hired out of for rest and recreation after working a couple of months of 12-hour days.
The pipeline was a cost-plus operation meaning that the risks typically inherent to companies bidding on construction projects were removed by allowing businesses to pass on the costs of materials, equipment and labor. One of the reasons was the 1973 Arab embargo on oil shipments to the United States. The resulting energy crisis put the concerns over the costs in the background and the price tag for the project soared from an original estimate of $900 million to approximately $8 billion.
At times the pipeline looked like a WPA project, said Helmar, referring to the Depression-era projects created by President Franklin Roosevelt to put people to work.
"There were busloads of people just watching," Helmar said.
Most of the people interviewed thought the work was done efficiently, particularly the road portion of the project. Part of the problem with the pipeline segment was that the technology was new, said Hurlock, who is retired and living in Juneau. When there were problems, a lot of people just had to stand around until they were solved, he said.
The Arctic environment was something of a shock for many people from Southeast.
"It had starkness that was very attractive," said Lesh. The expansiveness of the land and how big the state was surprised Notar, who had grown up in Juneau. Adding to the strangeness, said Sundberg, were 30-foot-tall black Styrofoam monoliths sitting out on the tundra. The Styrofoam, wrapped in black plastic, was used to insulate the roadbed from the permafrost.
"We were out ahead of everyone and we were the last people to see that portion of the country before it was dug up," said Sundberg, who was a surveyor for the section of the pipeline that ran through the Brooks Range.
The small streams were packed with trophy-sized grayling, and where a previous attempt to build a road had disrupted the streams Sundberg found fish swimming in flooded grass. Sundberg, an environmental engineer for the Department of Transportation, also watched as a wolf family took up residence at the edge of the new road and began living off the roadkills from passing trucks.
"They adapted," he said.
Tim Sunday learned how to drive a truck on the northern part of the road. "There would be whiteouts when the wind got going. It was unbelievable. You could only go 3 or 4 mph. You needed someone to get out to let you know where the edge of the road was."
Shortly after the pipeline was completed a bumper sticker surfaced that said "Dear God, Please give us another pipeline. I promise not to (expletive) this one away." The sticker acknowledged a truth that hit home with many of people who had worked on the line. Sundberg, who had been living a hand-to-mouth existence as a college student in Fairbanks prior to the pipeline, suddenly found himself earning $1,300 a week.
"Like most people on that big ride I didn't do a lot of preplanning," Sundberg said about the money he didn't save.
A new generation of Alaskans may well have a chance to work on a gas pipeline that could have an impact similar to that of the oil pipeline.
Past pipeline workers predict the new generation may make the same mistakes. Spending wildly is what young men with lots of money do, Hurlock said.
"If I were young and had it to do all over again I would probably do the same thing," said Lesh about the money he spent.
Terrell, who had to leave her son for six months at a time to work on the pipeline, didn't feel she had a lot of choice and saved her money. She invested her nest egg in a house in Juneau.
"It's helped me all these years," she said.
Mac Metcalfe is a Juneau writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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