By Clark Fair
It was an odd sight, but few people witnessed it: A large bulldozer clanking in reverse, towing an 8-by-14-foot wooden shack on skids, which in turn was cabled to an old school bus, which was trailed by a Jeep, all creeping like some malformed mechanical inchworm down a freshly made dirt path through the wilderness of the Kenai National Moose Range.
That scene occurred in the fall of 1956.
Today, while many residents of the Last Frontier are aware that the 1957 discovery well on Swanson River Road produced the first major commercial oil strike in Alaska and heralded a new economic future for the territory, few are probably aware of the work involved in creating the road that allowed the strike to happen in the first place.
The strange procession in 1956 was part of that work.
In an article in the April 1959 issue of The Alaska Sportsman, Manila Coursen, who served on the crew that carved out the pilot road to the drilling site, related her first-person version of the efforts involved.
The road-building, as it turned out, became something of a family affair for the Coursens, beginning with Manila’s son,
Morris, a Caterpillar operator who had already spent years on the Kenai Peninsula clearing land for homesteaders and building area roads. In 1956, Morris was hired by officials of the Richfield Oil Corporation, and Morris in turn hired his father, Ken, and his neighbor, Jesse Robinson, to help with the road construction.
Once it became apparent that a movable camp would be expedient on a project that might last several months, Manila asked for the job of camp cook and was also hired.
Two other peninsula homesteaders, Blaine Saunders and Jimmy Hovis, were brought on by Richfield as scouts to round out the crew.
When Manila Coursen first heard about what her son was up to, she was initially confused by the concept of a “pilot road.”
“I wondered how a pilot could use a road,” she wrote. Morris had to explain to her the alternate use of the word “pilot,” and how Richfield would benefit strategically and financially from the creation of an avenue over which to transport its drilling equipment, supplies and employees. Richfield geologists, she learned, had “more than a hunch” that a rich deposit of oil lay beneath the remote site, but the site itself lay 23 miles of swampland, lakes and forest from the Sterling Highway.
To start the process of road-building, Morris boarded a helicopter with Richfield officials and flew several times over the area, seeking the “most feasible” route, and cross-checking their observations with data from available topographic maps. Once they had roughed in a suitable course, they also determined that the new road would branch north off the Sterling Highway near the Sterling schoolhouse (about where Sterling Elementary stands today).
The next step involved more flyovers, with officials dropping rolls of white toilet paper — “one roll to each two slow counts” — to mark the path for the scouts, who would blaze the trail for the bulldozer operators.
The scouts began their work in mid-September, followed shortly thereafter by the heavy equipment: Morris’ Cat and a rented bulldozer operated by Robinson and the elder Coursen. The first bulldozer stripped off the trees and overlying moss, and the second graded and ditched a road about 16 feet wide.
Soon, however, it became apparent that their time and fuel were being spent inefficiently by traveling back and forth from their homes each night, so they planned for a portable camp, which is the point at which Manila entered the picture.
The white-painted wooden shack, with its tall and ungainly stovepipe wired into place, was hauled in to the worksite, as was the old bus, which was “unable to move under its own power but (was) towable.” The shack served as a cookhouse and portable sleeping quarters for Manila and Ken, while the bus became the storage facility and men’s dormitory for the remainder of the crew.
Inside the bus, the seats had been removed and replaced by four cots, an oil heater, a makeshift dining table, and cases of groceries. When the bus was being towed behind the cook shack, Hovis had to sit behind the wheel and steer to keep the vehicle moving as smoothly forward as possible. From September through December when the job was complete, they moved the camp four times, through mud and dirt, through sand, through snow.
“No cook ever served a more congenial, less complaining crew,” wrote Manila, “and I promptly observed that fresh, hot rolls and meringue pies were supper favorites.” When bitter cold weather arrived in November, the crew supplemented Manila’s grocery supplies with fresh moose meat, which was kept frozen under a canvas on the back of the cook shack.
But the cold weather created difficulties, too, making cold steel brittle as the men worked, and exacerbating the problems of keeping warm the interiors of both bus and shack.
As winter wore on, the temperatures at times dipped well below freezing, at least once all the way to minus-40 degrees.
“Our magazines did double duty,” wrote Manila of the struggle to stay warm. “After everyone had read them, I put them under the bedding on our cots as insulation. During one very cold spell I hung my housecoat in the corner to keep the cold draft from our heads at night.”
Despite the occasional strains, however, Manila enjoyed the work. “I love that remote wilderness, just as I have always
loved our homesite here in these rugged mountains,” she wrote. “I enjoyed the daily outside chores — filling the lanterns, carrying in the wood, getting the necessary six pails of water from lake or stream.”
The crew got along well, she said, discussing the experiences of the day over dinner, and sometimes listening to the strains of Hovis’ and Saunders’ harmonicas after a meal. They listened to a battery-operated radio to keep tuned in to current events, and the men made trips home when possible to visit family and gather more groceries.
After the snows arrived and covered or ruined the trails of toilet paper, more T-P arrived — blue, this time — to re-mark the trail and keep the crew on track as they marched slowly forward, building log bridges or changing course whenever necessary.
On Nov. 25, they reached the designated drilling site, where Richfield officials directed Morris to strip about 4 acres of forest — except for a single, tall spruce which they decorated like a Christmas tree and gave rise to the nickname of the eventual discovery well.
Under the Christmas tree, starting April 15, 1957, drilling began. The bit went down more than 11,000 feet, and on July 15 Richfield struck oil, dramatically changing the course of events for the Kenai Peninsula and all of Alaska.
The month after the discovery was announced to the public, Manila made her first trip to the well site since she finished her job as camp cook, and there she saw her old cook shack, “with its stovepipe still askew.” No longer a location for hot rolls and meringue, however, the sign on the building indicated the changing times: OFFICE.