Working around the clock to make sure the trans-Alaska Pipeline holds water

A group of 798 pipeliners welds a section of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. (Photo courtesy of Diane Schenker)

Robert Grove had spent three years living in a cabin he built in Talkeetna when he decided to return to Fairbanks in 1976 to find work as a laborer on the trans-Alaska Pipeline.

When Grove went to the labor union hall he found a job performing hydrotests, a process that flushed water through 25-mile stretches of the pipeline at extremely high pressure. It was a coveted job on the pipeline because it required a lot of hours on the clock. Grove is now retired and living in Ester.

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GROVE: The first week I went to work was the only week in two and a half years that I worked less than eighty hours a week. Many times we would work twenty-four hours a day. I was on a labor crew along with a 798 pipeline crew. Those guys were all out of Tulsa. All of the laborers were all from Alaska. They respected us Alaskans because they all knew we hunted, and we were pretty crazy. These guys all had guns on the pipeline — which was amongst other things that were illegal — and they just thought we did, so they didn’t mess around with us.

You wouldn’t believe the stuff that would come out of that pipe. Kind of always wondered where it comes from. I mean chairs, booze, clothes — all kinds of stuff.

One night in October, the pipe, it dropped from 45 degrees to twenty below when they had about twenty miles of pipe full of water. Needless to say everybody freaked out. Frank P. Moolin himself, who was the head of the whole pipeline, landed in a helicopter that morning. And everybody was scheduled to leave the next day — that was supposed to be the last day for the season. And guys were going all over the world to get married, to move on with their lives and what not. He knew that, and he basically said to our crew that, “If you stay here we’re going to be here another month, and we have to wait for a bunch of boilers to be trucked up from the oil fields in Alberta. And we just need to heat up the water that we’re pulling out of the Jim river, two degrees.”

One of the conditions that Frank Moolin said was, “If you stay here and work another month I will fly you to anywhere in the country that you want to go, and I’ll fly you back and make sure that you’re the first one called out of the haul in the spring.”

And he definitely lived up to his word. I was down in Guatemala and Mexico and got a telegram. I had a message at the Mexican embassy in Mexico City. And I went there and I had tickets to fly back to Fairbanks.

This story is part of Midnight Oil, a new podcast from Alaska’s Energy Desk. To hear more you can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.