They said it couldn’t be done, and perhaps it shouldn’t have been attempted. Shouldas and couldas aside, the oil crisis of the 1970s paved the legislative way for an 800-mile pipeline across the Alaskan frontier, and so the project began. The 48-inch diameter pipe sections would be milled in Japan and shipped to Alaska. Sounds simple enough. But of course, it wasn’t, since the black gold was under Prudhoe Bay in Alaska’s North Slope, far away from her balmy southern climes.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline System was constructed in three sections: from Valdez to Fairbanks, Fairbanks to a point in the Brooks Pass, and south from Prudhoe Bay to the mountain handoff. Getting pipe to the Valdez and Fairbanks is no big deal, but there is no rail, no highway, and no standard maritime passage to Prudhoe Bay. How on earth would they get 157 miles worth of 58-foot sections of pipe weighing over 8 tons each up to the bubblin’ crude?
Barges! Ridiculously huge, specifically-built barges with 35-foot stanchions to hold pipe sections stacked on decks as large as football fields. Four barges were built close to the steel mills, two in Japan and two in Hong Kong. Several other barges were constructed stateside, departing regularly from Tacoma to meet the demanding timeline of the project. The barges headed for Prudhoe Bay from Asia would be towed 3300 miles by a pair of heroic tugboats to rendezvous with the other barges at Nome.
About 150 miles from Prudhoe Bay, the tugs encountered the arctic ice floe as expected. What they didn’t expect was no sign of an open channel. Time was of the essence here: if they didn’t make it to Prudhoe and back within about a month, they’d be mired in ice all winter long. Each tug was towing two barges in tandem. Since no channel ever opened, they decided to anchor each tug’s rear barge, take the lead barges through the ice all nice and easy, and come back for the rest. Ninety miles of ice cakes and cursing later, they reached the open waters of the Arctic Ocean and floored it for Prudhoe Bay. Pretty slick stuff, eh?
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