Alaska History: Pipeline Days
Updated: Sep 17, 2021
Since my current work-in-progress is set in the 1970s, I’ve been thinking about the building of Alaska’s pipeline and how it affected Alaskans. It changed the state profoundly.
Large oil deposits were discovered on the North Slope of Alaska in the late 1960s. Oil companies and others who saw job opportunities started pushing for a way to get the oil out of the ground and to market. The proposed pipeline would cross Alaska Native land. The legal status of Alaska Native land claims had been stalled since statehood. Now that money was on the line, negotiations started up again. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) was signed in 1971, settling the question of who owned which lands and creating Native corporations. ANCSA in itself has changed many things about our economy and people’s lives throughout the state. (Many knowledgeable writers have covered the settlement better than I can. To learn more on that subject, the ANCSA Regional Association site https://ancsaregional.com/about-ancsa/ is a good place to start. There’s also a good article about the effect of the pipeline on Alaska Natives at https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/pipeline-impact-pipeline-alaska-natives/ .)
Now that arrangements could be made for the land, the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a group made up of seven oil companies, put plans into motion.In 1975, the construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline system (TAPS) from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez began. The engineering and logistics allowed the roughly 800-mlie pipe to cross mountain ranges and rivers, and much of it was built above ground so it wouldn’t harm the permafrost. More than 70,000 workers were involved. Oil started to flow through the pipeline in June of 1977. (For more pipeline facts, see the Alaska Public Lands Information Centers site at https://www.alaskacenters.gov/explore/attractions/trans-pipeline .)
Many of the pipeline workers passed through or stayed in Anchorage and Fairbanks, which were transformed into oil boomtowns. Anchorage’s population increased the most, by over 250%, since many of the oil companies had their headquarters there.
Many of the newcomers were well-paid pipeline workers, mostly young men. They had money to burn, so places like bars and strip clubs popped up like mushrooms after a rain. Apartment buildings and split-level houses were built wherever developers could buy land. Restaurants and shops had plenty of customers. People learned not to judge by appearance, because a scruffy young person in jeans might be able to buy that car or other pricey item with cash. It was a heady time to live in Alaska!
The pipeline days waned as the construction was completed and other industries became a bigger part of the mix. But the oil industry is still a major part of our state. And you can still see remnants of the pipeline days if you look carefully. See Stephen Cysewski’s photos at http://cysewski.com/wia/70anchorage/index.html for some examples.
P. S. Tim Bradner just published a column about the anniversary of ANCSA in the Anchorage Daily News: https://www.adn.com/opinions/2021/09/16/50-years-on-ancsas-legacy-looms-large-in-alaska/