STORIES OF COURAGE & BRAVERY IN ALASKA'S RUGGED COPPER RIVER VALLEY

2017 Marks The 40th Anniversary Of The First Oil Running Through The Trans-Alaska Pipeline




The Trans-Alaska Pipeline 
Passes Through The Copper Valley


This summer marks the 40th anniversary of the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. The pipe, which passes through Glennallen, on its way south from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez, was built in the 1970's. The time surrounding the construction of the Pipeline was, in many ways, chaotic. It was similar to the Gold Rush boom times of the 1890's. 

Both the Gold Rush and the construction of the pipe were  eras of enormous change,

The adventurers who came in the 1800's -- and there were thousands of them -- were no more prepared for the harsh realities of Copper River Country than the thousands of midwesterners, suburban kids and would-be homesteaders who arrived 8 decades later, as the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline catapulted this part of Alaska onto the national stage.

On the most basic level, living in the Copper Valley has always been something like being hurtled into a Boy Scout camp. But at 35 below zero. It's a world in which your new and unfamiliar life includes hauling water, chopping wood, and turning raw logs into homes…In both the Gold Rush and the Pipeline construction, challenges remained the same. There was nowhere to live.  Each time, you had to go it alone. In the 1970's,  people lived in mobile homes and trailers they had dragged to their lots near the road. They lived in buses and trucks And, like their 1890's predecessors, they lived in shacks and sheds, and half built cabins, with leaky roofs and uninsulated floors. Things hadn't changed. There were too many people, and too few homes -- just as there had been during the old Gold Rush of the 1890's. Same place. Same problems. And lots and lots of people.

Many of the newcomers who came to the Copper Valley during the 1970's were in search of work on the Pipeline. Any kind of work: "Bull cook" (meaning maid), or driving a truck, or cleaning up.,, It really didn't matter, because the pay was so good. The rush of would-be Pipeline workers was enormous, and men, women and children began pouring into the countryside, by the hundreds, and then by the thousands.  The pipeline company made camps for them -- "Man Camps."  When wives and kids tagged along, the incoming children filled up the schools.

Although lots of Pipeline workers were trained professionals, who had lived and worked in "The Oil Patch" -- in Texas and the Middle East -- a very large number who entered the Copper Valley were ordinary people,  with no particular education or experience -- but a strong desire to tap into the Pipeline and make money. 

The construction of the Pipeline was a difficult time. Medical services and ambulances -- operated by missionaries and volunteers -- were stretched to the limit. Overcrowded schools required trailer add-ons. Prices were high. The accidental death rate topped the nation. And, as is usual during boom times, prostitution and vice made its way into an otherwise sleepy little community. 

In the 1890's, when the Great Alaska Gold Rush swept through the Copper Valley, it was as if a cargo ship sank in the region. Early gold miners had brought with them tons of gear, which they left behind. That gear was picked up after they left, by the Ahtna people, who began using discarded hats, vests, American flags, boots, pots, pans, and tools. 

It was the same in the 1970's. Discarded gear worked its way into local culture, as Pipeline workers ditched brand new boots, saws, drills and other things, dumping valuable objects into Department of Transportation trash barrels along the roads. Locals found it worthwhile to scan the roadsides, trash barrels and dumps for something useful. The Pipeline provided lunches, including canned sardines. One local teacher retrieved an entire cupboard full of sardine cans for emergency use.  Local dumps filled up with the handy, sturdy wooden boxes that transported pipe. In Gakona, a BLM worker drove to the dump every night, picked up discarded 4 by 4's, took them home in his truck -- and then built himself a stacked log house from the beams. The large wooden boxes were used for garages and homes by locals. Even more valuable was the excess super high-density, high R-value, curved pipe insulation that was discarded and snapped up to insulate roofs. 

When the first oil moved through the Pipe in 1977, 40 years ago, the boom was over. But some Pipeline workers stayed. They finished building homes, raised families, joined the emergency medical service, formed businesses -- and made a life for themselves in this wild and elemental place. A place where they had intended to make a buck and then leave -- but which they found had kept them here. By taking hold of their hearts. 

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Write us at ncountry@gci.net! Bearfoot Travel Magazines/Copper River Country Journal, Gakona, Alaska

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