Wildcat Women: Narratives of Women Breaking Ground in Alaska's Oil and Gas Industry

Wildcat Women: Narratives of Women Breaking Ground in Alaska's Oil and Gas Industry

by Carla Williams
Wildcat Women: Narratives of Women Breaking Ground in Alaska's Oil and Gas Industry

Wildcat Women: Narratives of Women Breaking Ground in Alaska's Oil and Gas Industry

by Carla Williams


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Subzero temperatures, whiteout blizzards, and even the lack of restrooms didn’t deter them. Nor did sneers, harassment, and threats. Wildcat Women is the first book to document the life and labor of pioneering women in the oil fields of Alaska’s North Slope. It profiles fourteen women who worked in the fields, telling a little-known history of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. These trailblazers conquered their fears to face hazardous working and living conditions, performing and excelling at “a man’s job in a man’s world.” They faced down challenges on and off the job: they drove buses over ice roads through snowstorms; wrestled with massive pipes; and operated dangerous valves that put their lives literally in their hands; they also fought union hall red tape, challenged discriminatory practices, and fought for equal pay—and sometimes won. The women talk about the roads that brought them to this unusual career, where they often gave up comfort and convenience and felt isolated and alienated. They also tell of the lifelong friendships and sense of family that bonded these unlikely wildcats. The physical and emotional hardship detailed in these stories exemplifies their courage, tenacity, resilience, and leadership, and shows how their fight for recognition and respect benefited woman workers everywhere.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602233546
Publisher: University of Alaska Press
Publication date: 08/15/2018
Pages: 200
Sales rank: 1,143,305
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Carla Williams spent most of her career working in the Alaska oil and gas industry in Anchorage and the North Slope.

Read an Excerpt



The lure of black gold for modern humans exceeds ancient quests for cities of yellow gold.

The Alaska oil opportunity began with indigenous people using naturally occurring oil shale and tar mat as fuel during the long Arctic winters. Early explorers in the eighteenth century visiting the North Slope of Alaska made note of the oil found in this far-off place.

In 1901, Alaska's first commercially productive oil well was discovered in Katalla near Valdez by the Alaska Development Company, and production began one year later.

A decade after the Katalla wells started production, World War I increased the demand for oil for war machinery, and interest returned to the prospect of discovering oil in the Far North. The US government declared large pieces of land as reserves, saving oil for future domestic and military use, with private land leasing and drilling prohibited.

In 1923, President Warren G. Harding designated more than twenty million acres south of Utqiagvik (Barrow) as Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4. Geological surveys soon assessed the reserve's resources and discovered three oil fields and six gas fields. However, the financial viability of these fields diminished due to climate and access difficulties. Alaska's cold temperatures, road access, and barge access were all significant barriers.

Even during the post–World War II boom, with the automobile industry in mass production, the US government and the public remained cautious regarding Alaska's resource potential. Over the course of fifty years, investors profited from a meager 154,000 barrels from the Katalla oil fields. To put this in perspective, this is only one-tenth the capacity of the Exxon Valdez tanker, which transported oil from the pipeline terminal in Valdez until it hit Bligh Reef in 1989.

Disgruntled Customers Sit for Hours in Gas Lines

The 1960s and 1970s brought a revived interest in oil. With the US commitment to Israel's protection during the 1967 invasion by Egypt and Syria, OPEC's (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) Arab member states imposed an oil embargo on the United States. This embargo initially had little direct economic impact on the American market, but it rattled the American government sufficiently for leaders to begin searching for more secure oil sources, starting with oil reserves on American soil.

More concern arose with the American oil crisis in the 1970s, when rationing held motorists hostage in long lines at gas stations and when the public's appetite for reliable oil for military and domestic purposes increased. Suddenly, attention returned to Naval Petroleum Reserve No. 4 (later called the National Petroleum Reserve) in northern Alaska. The environmental and logistical challenges in extracting the oil there or anywhere on the North Slope greatly accelerated the quest for new technological and engineering innovations.

The remote location, combined with new technologies — and the labor needed to design them — skyrocketed costs. But, with this black gold, the oil companies opened their treasure chests to spend whatever it took to get the oil.

Dramatic Night Followed by Constant Day

Alaska's fragile summer environment requires oil rig movement and drilling in winter, when the earth freezes solid. Light footprints or heavy vehicle tracks both destroy the tundra, which is the dominant soil throughout the oil fields. Small annual precipitation and strong winds are characteristics of a desert, along with extreme temperatures. Biological soil crusts found in deserts across the world and Arctic tundra are both fragile and take years or sometimes decades to recover from a disturbance. Like rover tracks on Mars, the imprints remain.

On the North Slope, the sun drops below the horizon around November 24, and sixty-five days or so later presents a teaser tip of yellow. During this annual polar night event, temperatures drop to minus sixty degrees Fahrenheit and much colder with wind chills.

The vast eighty-eight thousand square miles of land from the Brooks Range to the Arctic Ocean stand quiet and serene, the opposite of a jungle, which is alive with noise and growing; but this frozen icebox harbors extreme risk for the unprepared. The cold is unforgiving and can turn deadly in minutes. Wind chills at extreme temperatures can quickly freeze body parts if exposed. The body will keep its core warm, while sacrificing extremities, like hands, ears, nose, and feet.

Equally dramatic, the summer months from April to mid-August provide boundless light twenty-four hours a day. People and animals come alive with the sunny temperatures, which reach seventy degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

During hot summers or under a manufactured heat source, such as an oil pipeline, the permafrost layers can create havoc. Permafrost is permanently frozen soil varying in depth and location. Buildings on melting permafrost twist and turn with the softening soil and eventually break apart with the forces placed upon them by the twisting. The weight of a structure on vertically melting earth can drop a building section several feet. To avoid this situation, buildings in the Arctic sit on pilings, and pipelines built close to permafrost include radiators, dispelling heat to keep the ground frozen.

Few obstacles impede the row upon row of pipelines, crossing over braided streams and tundra shrubs and grasses. The land's flat, treeless surface extends for miles, interrupted only by earth-covered ice mounds called pingos. Under certain light, mirages reflect fake, boxy skyscrapers along the distant horizon. Shallow ponds and lakes give a false impression of abundance, but only five inches of precipitation fall per year in this desert environment.

Fight for Land Rights

Oil companies wanted a pipeline, but land claims tied up their land prospects. Since statehood in 1959, Alaska Natives protested the state of Alaska's claim to lands and the debate heated with this oil-field project. Some resolution came in 1970, when the US Supreme Court supported the Alaska Native claims.

However, before this resolution, oil companies designed the Valdez marine terminal and a road to Prudhoe Bay, and prior to a permanent land claim settlement for all Alaska Natives, construction began in 1971. This action provided enormous pressure toward a settlement.

The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 (ANCSA) provided relief to all. With the stroke of President Nixon's pen, forty-four million acres transferred to Alaska Native peoples for their own unspecified use. The act provided for the establishment of twelve Alaska Native shareholder corporations. The corporations would later divest into many business opportunities, including oil-field service companies, and become owners of oil production facilities.

Three years prior to ANCSA, on March 13, 1968, the Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO) and Humble Oil and Refining Company (now Exxon) announced the Prudhoe Bay discovery well. In the same year, ARCO, Humble Oil, and British Petroleum (BP) formed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Project (TAPP) to design and construct a pipeline to move Prudhoe Bay crude oil to market.

In February 1969, the name of this joint venture changed to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS). The State of Alaska and Standard Oil Company (SOHIO) began the Prudhoe Bay field development in 1969, following congressional approval of a pipeline right-of-way.

Construction Begins on the Largest Private Pipeline in North America

Actual construction of the pipeline — the nation's largest, crossing three mountain ranges and hundreds of rivers and streams — began with laying the first pipe at Tonsina Creek on March 27, 1975. Frank Moolin Jr., construction manager for the pipeline, enforced hard-driving work standards throughout construction.

Bechtel Corporation and Fluor Corporation were management contractors, but neither company did the work. They subcontracted the work to River Construction Corporation, Perini Arctic Associates, H. C. Price, Associated-Green, Arctic Constructors, Morrison-Knudsen, Kiewit, Chicago Bridge & Iron Company, and General Electric. Other construction companies, such as Houston Contracting Company, built the interconnecting, cross-country pipelines over the tundra, connecting the gathering centers to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline today remains managed by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a consortium of oil companies.

One of the more important aspects of the TAPS construction included the James B. Dalton Highway (first called the "haul road"). This highway provided supplies that were the lifeblood for the Alaska oil fields and remains the main access to the oil fields today. Although some materials are transported by barge via the Arctic Ocean, many materials are trucked up the Dalton Highway.

The Dalton Highway allowed the construction of camps along the road. Eleven pump stations were constructed (twelve were planned), with only a few in use today. Thirty camps along the pipeline housed workers who built the line. Many of the camps were dismantled and sold after construction of the pipeline ended. The largest camps included the camp at Isabel Pass, with 1,652 beds, and one at Valdez, where the Terminal Camp contained 3,480 beds. In all, more than seventy thousand people worked on the TAPS construction. Some reports indicate that women numbered less than ten percent of these workers.

Finally ... a Pipeline

The first oil flowed on June 20, 1977, starting at Pump Station 1 and ending 798 miles away at the marine terminal in Valdez, where large tankers transported the oil to refineries. Eleven pump stations built along the line boosted the oil through the pipeline, but only a few remain functioning today, moving an average of 500,000 barrels of oil each day compared to 2.1 million barrels a day in the 1980s.

The oil development impact to the state was historic, changing the politics and people forever. Vast lands changed ownership and were redefined.

Travel by commercial jet between Anchorage and Prudhoe Bay took more than an hour over the area's 200,000 acres of numerous mountain ranges, lakes, rivers, and villages, with hundreds of pipelines snaking their way across the tundra, meeting together at gathering stations. There, the oil was separated from the gas and water and sent down pipelines, while excess natural gas was injected back down the wells.

More than seventeen billion barrels of oil flowed down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline to Valdez between 1977 and 2011. New oil companies, new technologies, and new service companies extended the life of the Alaska oil fields through multiple new technologies, including heavy oil extraction. As a result, Alaska's oil overshadows the state's other natural resources and plays a significant role in the economy.

In today's dollars, the pipeline cost thirty-three billion. Much of the money over the years helped create Alaska's infrastructure and the savings account called the Alaska Permanent Fund, which has given Alaskans millions in dividends and will continue to fund the economy long into the future.

In recent years, oil and gas accounted for 84 percent of Alaska's total resource production value, with fishing and mining falling far behind at 11 percent and 5 percent, respectively. However, the state's economy fluctuates with oil prices and oil company revenue goals. Opening closed reserves and wilderness areas will likely dominate politics in the future, since oil is king in this vast region.



It was the call of the wild to the frozen north, a time unprecedented in the history of working women's rights, set in both a harsh environmental terrain and a challenging oil-field world where only a few women dared to tread.

A spark ignited across the frozen tundra, giving new meaning to women's work and empowering women workers everywhere as the women's movement gathered momentum like a wildfire.

"North to the Future" became the call in 1974. The news traveled to far corners of cities and towns throughout the continental United States. It was the new Alaska gold rush, with men and women arriving by the hundreds to reap their riches in the remote Alaska wilderness.

People from across the country packed their bags for the journey: by air, ferry, or the Alcan (Alaska-Canadian Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Delta Junction, Alaska). Women and men alike felt the excitement and enormity of the pipeline project. Women fulfilled their newly found ambitions by flexing muscles in the workforce and pushing gender and economic barriers through the immense baby boomer generation momentum.

Larger-than-Life Union Bosses

Powerful union bosses promised and delivered huge paychecks like candy to kids. The crowds inside and outside the Alaska union halls ballooned with people pushing and shoving to get inside to hear the calls. They arrived early to stand outside the cramped, weathered, repurposed buildings where dust caked the windows.

Inside, union representatives gathered behind large tables or desks in a room packed with people. A distinctive locker room odor wafted between the smell of rubber boots, dirt, and cigarette smoke. The bosses waited behind closed doors in the back, ready to manage disorder if required. Some workers carried worn duffle bags packed with gear, ready to go. The early, raw dispatch locations served one purpose: hire as many union workers as possible and send them to the pipeline camps as quickly as physically possible. The days of luxurious union halls with shiny tile floors and beautiful surroundings came later. In the beginning, the hiring halls were rough and crude.

Noisy men quieted as the boss men shouted out the lucky work numbers, for missing a call meant returning to the bottom of the list. It was all about the A, B, C, and D lists and list status. If the calls made it to the C or D list, the crowd's energy heightened; people on the D list who just arrived in town might land that coveted job on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

As all this occurred, I was interested in a position for myself, so I found my five-foot-three-inch, one-hundred-and-twenty-pound frame politely pushing forward through a wall of tall, burly men as they called the numbers for laborers. My boyfriend was a Teamster surveyor, so I knew the ropes from the many hours spent with him standing at the Teamsters Union Hall. Did I really want to be a laborer?

They called for a powderman.

"YES ... pick me ... CALL MY NUMBER!" I thought as I stood on my toes to see over the crowd. "I want to be a powderman ... whatever that is ... I want to do THAT!"

I found out later, to my surprise, a powderman inserts dynamite into blasting holes.

I appeared at the union hall twice a day for weeks, but my number never came up, and I finally stopped the pursuit and dream of big money. I would, eventually, go to the North Slope another way, but many women DID get their number called and their exciting adventures are recounted here.

Cradle-to-Grave Financial Security

Formidable unions provided financial security with generous retirement plans, which many workers enjoy today. The Teamsters Local 959 even had its own multistory hospital, providing free health care for the entire family. The hospital doled out first-rate care without cost to members. "Livin' the dream," many said at the time.

However, although women were allowed — and even encouraged — to join the unions, such union jobs remained elusive for them. The union men brought the women in through back doors (see Kate Cotten's interview) and sometimes required a personal connection to proceed through the union hall's hiring process. If a woman was lucky enough to find a job through organized labor, the union would sometimes provide mentors. With most unions traditionally structured as men's organizations, mentors were often male.

Making History

Becoming part of a historical event, while at the same time making more money than they ever imagined, brought both men and women to Alaska. Car and gas commercials in the fifties and sixties permeated most people's homes, so employment in the oil industry was like working for a family friend.

With jobs in oil, they could now afford the luxuries that took their parents a lifetime to achieve. Workers imagined buying new homes, toys, and cars on their "R&R." One of the women, Lianne Rockstad, returned to North Dakota after her first weeks on the North Slope and bought a new truck with her first two paychecks!

Plentiful Opportunities

But, it wasn't just about money; women wanted satisfying job opportunities in which they could flourish.

Irene Bartee mentions in her interview how her company left her to manage everything simply because she possessed the skills necessary to handle leadership responsibilities. She went on to become a powerful force, butting heads with Teamster bosses and threatening them with bombs if they tried to mess with her company.


Excerpted from "Wildcat Women"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Carla Williams.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ALASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword ix

Preface xiii

Acknowledgment xvii

Introduction xix

Part 1 Oil Rush: Above the Lower 48 and Below Zero

Pipe Dreams: A History of the Alaska Pipeline 3

Frozen Assets: A Women's History of the Alaska Pipeline 11

Persistence and Perseverance 19

Part 2 Wildcat Voices

We Can Do It! 27

Irene Bartee 29

Kate Cotten 45

Lianne Rockstad 60

Debora Strutz 67

Norma Carter 83

Donna Ford 90

Dana Martinez Parker 108

Onice McClain 115

Marlene McCarty 123

Roxie (Hollingsworth) Majeske 135

Robin Connolly 143

Rosemary Carroll 156

Clara King 162

Samantha George 167

Part 3 North to the Future

The Flow Continues 173

Afterword 179

Femininity on Alaska's North Slope 185

Glossary 203

Endnotes 209

Index 213

About the Author 231

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