Women At Work

An excerpt from Dermot Cole’s, Amazing Pipeline Stories: How Building the Trans-Alaska Pipeline Transformed Life in America's Last Frontier

When Melva Miller arrived at Pump Station No. 1 on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, the culture shock she experienced had little to do with her being an Athabascan from Fairbanks.

“I think I was the third woman in that camp,” she said. “There were about two hundred and fifty guys. “

The women who worked in the pipeline camps, who ranged in age from nineteen to over sixty, could never be anonymous faces in the crowd.

“It strikes home the first time a woman goes to eat,” one female worker said. “She walks down a center aisle, followed by five hundred pairs of male eyes that all seem to reflect the same thought. This starts at 6:00am and continues through all ten hours of the day.”

Melva was a “bullcook” at Pump 1, a job title that had originated with those who cared for oxen in logging camps. She made sixty beds and cleaned rooms at the pump station construction camp.

A high school graduate who had attended one semester of the University of Alaska, Melva had joined the pipeline work force when she was twenty-two.

“I thought, ‘This is okay until I make my big money, and then I’ll quit,’” she said.

It didn’t quite work out that way. While doing her daily chores in the trailer-like camp, Miller met some ironworkers. “It all started as a joke,” she said. “A couple of guys in the shop suggested that I come down one night and they’d teach me to weld. I immediately loved it.” 

After putting in a ten-hour shift cleaning rooms in the camp, she went to the shop and began to learn about “working iron.” 

“They’d set up plates like I was going to take the test. I practiced and learned how to weld in the shack after work,” she said.

Eventually she applied to become an apprentice in the Ironworkers Union, which put an end to her seventeen-week career as a bullcook.

Her story was told in newspapers across the country. Like many of the other women who worked on the pipeline, she was breaking new ground, taking on a blue-collar job at a time when there was no longer a consensus that a woman’s place was in the home. In 1975, Time magazine named ten women as the “Man of the Year,” and Americans debated the merits of the Equal Rights Amendment and “women’s lib.”

Women held about 10 percent of pipeline jobs in the late 1975, with about half working in nontraditional blue-collar jobs. The female workers, both those in office jobs and those in the field, signed on to the biggest private construction job in history for the same reasons as the men. Money and adventure.

Libbi Bonnee, a divorcee with a five-year-old daughter, worked at Prudhoe Bay to support her daughter Avery. She had a week-on, week-off schedule, which she said was a great boon.

“When you’re working a nine-to-five, you end up taking a sleeping child to the baby-sitter and picking a sleeping child up. Here I have every other week off and since I’ve been here, I’ve had more time with Avery than I had in the past two years.” 

Most of the women were dispatched to pipeline jobs by the Teamster, Culinary, or Laborers unions, but some, like Melva, pursued other trades.

Her work on the pipeline started her on a thirteen-year career as an ironworker that took her to job sites across the country.

“I love welding because it’s new every day. There is always something to learn. Welding is not difficult, but to do it well requires work and constant improvement. And I want to be good,” she said in 1975.

She said at first she faced a lot of skepticism from other workers and she had to prove herself every time she took a job. Now married and the mother of two in Fairbanks, she looks back on those years with pride.

“What’s amazing to me is that everyone worked together. We were all working toward this one goal, to get the pipeline built. Seeing it done gave you a feeling of satisfaction,” she said.