The women who built the Trans-Alaska Pipeline
It took a small army to build the Trans-Alaska pipeline. Seventy-thousand workers flocked to Valdez and all the way up to the rugged North Slope to bring oil to market and wealth into state coffers. Just 1,000 of those workers were women and some of them faced down sexism and tough working conditions to do their jobs.
Diane Benson still owns the trucker’s cap she rode thousands of miles in during her long hauls up to Prudhoe Bay. When she misses the smell of gas and the freedom of the road, she takes it out and remembers what she calls the good ol’ days.
“A thousand dollars a week? That sounded really good.”
Benson says the money made the men tolerable. Benson grew up on the streets of Fairbanks, bouncing around between boyfriends and jobs. One day, she left for work and never returned. Benson went to the Teamster’s hall and was shipped north to work in a warehouse. Her paycheck tripled, but she had to put up with a lot of male shenanigans.
“Dealing with an entire wall of naked women– we’re talking about 100 feet of wall of just centerfolds and some of them really graphic.”
Diane got into a lot of fights the first few months. One time, she got so angry after some guy made a cruel comment about Alaska Natives, the next thing she remembered was being dragged off him by her foreman. Benson says the only reason she kept her job was because of two requirements: that Alyeska Pipeline hire women and natives. Diane is both.
“But then I decided I wanted to be a truck driver ’cause I always loved driving.”
Again, Diane went down to the Teamster’s office and bid on a water truck. She won the bid but there was one little problem: she had no idea how to drive it. Luckily she found help in an unusual place.
“In a bar on a bar napkin, yeah,” Benson recants as she chuckles to herself.
Now Benson hadn’t had much luck working with men up to that point. However, this man was impressed with Benson’s spunk.
“He says ‘you have more balls than most men I know so I’m gonna teach you whatever I can in an hour ’cause that’s what we have.’”
Benson figured out the rest on the fly. She wasn’t offered training by the Teamsters until a year and a half later. By then, she was hauling pieces of the pipeline on a trailer truck and worked as much as she could and that was a lot. Benson says there was so much pressure to move equipment that some trucks weren’t properly cared for.
One day, her breaks failed and Benson says there was no safe place to crash. She chose a snow mound and hoped for the best. Her truck bounced off the snow and crashed into a vertical support member. Her truck was destroyed along with her face. Her nose was broken and so puffy she was unrecognizable for weeks. Even in the face of extreme pain, Benson refused care.
“I refused to be medevac’d because I figured they will give that job to someone else and I liked doing that job.”
Nearly 800 miles down the line, Dorothy Moore was telling tuckers like Diane where take to take their haul.
“I got to climb all over huge equipment and make sure their serial numbers were right and I really enjoyed that.”
Moore had just graduated from seminary school. The Southern Baptist Church told her she couldn’t be a missionary, so she ran the Valdez pipe yard.
“I found the job interesting and I could walk away and not have to deal with the soap opera behind the scenes.”
Moore lived at home and avoided confrontations. However, Benson taught women like Moore how to fight back. Benson recalled a particularly naïve blonde haired woman from the Midwest who was having trouble getting the guys to leave her alone. Benson told her to stick up for herself.
“So I taught her how to swear. Sorry, but I did! She was such an innocent thing it just blew my mind how she even got there.”
In the end, women exceeded the federal minimums and made up 10 percent of the pipeline workforce. Together they shattered the stereotype that construction was a man’s job. Benson says the pipeline transformed her from a scrawny street kid into a trucker. She worked as long as she could and even though the jobs eventually dried up, the memories always flow through her; just like the oil inside the pipeline she helped build.