17 October 2010

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na, Pt 1

In Pursuit of the Ghost Train of Tsedi-na :
My First Experience with the Pipeline, 1975

The Advent of the Alyeska Pipeline: The event which changed everything.

Above:  The route of the oil pipeline and a profile map in the context of the entire state of Alaska.Below: The pipeline construction camps, 1974-77:  You won't readily find this map anymore. The camps are mostly long-gone since the early 1980s or even earlier. In place of these camps are the various pump stations, some of which have also since been abandoned. None of the pump stations were located on or even near these construction camps. The pipeline camps were for construction of the actual line while there were separate camps at every proposed pump station location.

The Alyeska Pipeline was the single largest privately-financed construction project of the time. To say it changed most everything in Alaska is an understatement. From the moment those first oil field leases were let out by the State of Alaska in 1969, the future course of Alaska was set and the lives of every one of its citizens would be greatly affected forever--even those living in the most remote of places within the state. I was one of many for whom this event marked a pivotal change which would affect me for a lifetime. During the height of construction, over 20,000 people from all over the world were employed on the project. All of them would be affected in similar ways, for this was a project like no other. 

Franklin Bluffs was the name of my first camp. It was March of 1975 and I was flying from Fairbanks across the Arctic Circle to a pipeline construction camp that was only fifty miles south of Prudhoe Bay. I believe the company who had the contract flying to the northern camps was Wien Air. They are long gone, but at the time they were a well-established yet typically-Alaskan operation--a bare bones and sometimes white-knuckled flying operation. The turbo-prop probably held two-dozen people, if that many, with room for a huge assortment of duffel bags, tool kits, boxes held together with duct tape and all the other odd assortment of baggage we in the North Country are used to seeing on pipeline workers' flights such as this one.

This was my first real job since leaving the Army nearly a year before. I was excited, knowing that this could be the beginning of a career that would take me on to even bigger and better things. Yes, it was a three-year construction project, but most all of us who were part of that gargantuan operation, including me, somehow seemed to believe it would go on forever. I can recall nothing in my life quite as exhilarating as when I finally became a part of the Alyeska Pipeline project.

Franklin Bluffs camp, winter view: This was the camp that I first saw during those late winter months that I worked here as a Native site counselor. Nothing exists at this site but the gravel pad upon which this camp was built. Like all the other construction camps, this one was disassembled and hauled off after the work here was completed.  We landed on a gravel strip adjacent this camp. Franklin Bluffs is on the North Slope amoist nothing but tundra. There are no trees and few geographic features. There is a slight bluff from which this camp took its name, but nothing exists here to stop the incessant winds from blowing up a real storm. Those create total white-outs making road travel nearly impossible. There were plenty of those.  (Click for a larger view).

We landed without incident in the most barren country I had ever seen. All there was to be seen was one bluff as we were landing--and not much of one at that--and miles upon miles of a vast white flat featureless landscape wholly devoid of any distinguishing features. This was the North Slope. The camp  consisted entirely of ATCO units built somewhere in Canada and transported by truck over the Alcan Highway. It was a series of parallel flat-roofed single-story barracks connected by very long and wide hallways that were heated by large diesel-burning space heaters.  The halls were brighly-lit with barracks extending at right angles out of the them probably about every fifty feet. I don't know how many of these there were, but the camp was designed to house 1,100 men. All of this was interconnected with a large dining and kitchen facility somewhere near the front of the camp close to the  various offices. Outside were rows of steel buildings which served as warehouses, repair shops and support facilities for water, sewer treatment and power, among other things. 

Everywhere were the bright yellow Alyeska pickup trucks and suburbans. Almost all of them were 1975 model Chevrolets. There were dozens upon dozens of these--especially the pickup trucks. Then there were all the heavy yellow pipeline construction equipment. All of it was kept running all the time because diesel engines  shut down had a bad habit of not restarting out here in this arctic environment.

I had a camp manager who was a Texan to answer to but my real boss was Lonnie Thomas and Bob Scanlon, who headed the Native Training Program for Bechtel which was based in Fairbanks on Ft. Wainwright.  Lonnie was either a Tlingit or a Haida Indian originally from Klawak, not far from Ketchikan on Prince of Whales Island. Bob Scanlon was not Indian, but he was a good and dedicated boss. I know that because I soon felt the need to throw a curve ball his way and he caught it.  He backed me up under what seemed at the time to be exceedingly difficult circumstances.

I was at camp primarily to ensure that our force of Natives would somehow remain on the job. Whatever it took to do that was my responsibility. Most of these Natives were villagers who had never worked construction before. They were typically very young--18 to 21 and mostly male. This was a very volatile group. They did not understand these outsiders who had come to build this massive pipeline and I suspect that many of the Natives were intimidated by them--especially the Texans and Oklahomans who comprised the bulk of the pipeline workers.  I was facing a job which was really unwinnable, but I did not realize it at the time. 

I had a lot of problems with the Resident Site Manager Bob Stiles who was from Texas. He did not understand Natives and obviously did not want to. He barely tolerated me. I had to try to work around him. The camp manager, who was also a Texan, was easier to work with, so I often brought my immediate concerns to him.  Unfortunately what I discovered is that the real power resided in  Bob Stiles. It would not be long before we would have to square off. 

But the real problem we Natives seemed to face was, as usual, within our own ranks. Too many of my fellow Natives found ways to bootleg liquor into the camp. Many a night there were alcohol binge parties which often resulted the next day in Native workers either being fired or feeling sorry for themselves and simply quitting. The worst incident happened shortly after a huge number of United Association Local 798 Pipeline workers showed up with their Native welder helpers as per the agreement whereby so many Native welder helpers had to be hired into those positions. It was basic trainee level. It could have worked, too, but many of the senior Local 798 welders found ways to discourage or otherwise drive off their Native welder helpers. Then they started bringing in their own family members from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas to replace the Natives. In one week over sixty of my Native workforce had quit. I stood there in disbelief as I watched planeloads of Natives departing the camp. It was a disaster.

Meanwhile I had this ongoing struggle with Bob Stiles which kept getting worse. He finally sent one of his henchmen to warn me to straighten up and shut up. I shot off a long report down to the head office, the follow-up to a telephone conversation I had with Lonnie Thomas and Bob Scanlon. They wanted the report in detail. I had taken good notes. They got what they wanted. In the end, even though I found I was unable to hold onto nearly as many Natives at Franklin Bluffs as I would have liked, at least I got the last laugh on Bob Stiles. He was removed as Resident Site Manager. Shortly after that I decided I had had enough of a losing situation and I notified Fairbanks via an explanatory letter that I too would be leaving.

Over the course of the few months that I was at Franklin Bluffs I had the chance to go out into the field numerous times, even though Bob Stiles often tried to block my access out there. I interviewed dozens of Natives on the site and in the barracks, all the time trying to collect data to demonstrate what was actually happening to our Native work force. I saw first hand a lot of mistreatment of Natives and in a few cases was able to successfully intervene. What I took away from that assignment was a burning desire to somehow find a way in my personal life to make up for the bad hand I had seen dealt to all too many of the obviously unsophisticated remote-village Natives who often were unable to adapt to a situation such as the one presented in the early days of pipeline construction.   Their  work situationsinvolved long hours working with a wide variety of people who knew little or nothing about Natives.

The snow and ice had melted off the tundra. I had had enough of that North Slope camp in more ways than one. Except for one brief break, I had been there about four months, working sometimes both night and day in a futile attempt to keep as many Natives employed on this part of the pipeline as possible. I felt that I had failed, but at least I provided a detailed record of what had happened there to my head office in Fairbanks. 

Now it was time to begin looking for a new career.  How was I to know that a year later I would end up right back where I had started this personal adventure--at Franklin Bluffs? All those construction camps and pump station camps and before the year was out I would be back on the North Slope in that very camp. Funny how life works out sometimes. 

Meanwhile I picked up this marvelous book--essentially a political history of the construction era of a long-forgotten railroad--the Copper River & Northwestern Railway. I had never really thought of myself as a rail-fan. It had been years since I had thought much about trains at all. Some things in life cannot be escaped. Not only would I soon return to Franklin Bluffs, but I was about to meet an ancestor I never even imagined had ever existed.  And in the process I too would become a dedicated historic railroader.

An abandoned CR & NW Railway box-stock car in the near-ghost town of Chitina--not far from the traditional home of Nicolai of Taral.

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