Kenneth Slater talks about his career working in the Swanson River oil field during an interview last week at his Kalifornsky Beach home.
Photo by Will Morrow
Kenneth Slater spent 27 years working the Swanson River oil field, but if you ask him about his career, what he'll tell you about is people.
"I'll brag about everybody," Slater said.
Slater even started jotting down a list of some of the people he worked with during the early days of exploration and production on the Kenai Peninsula, and it includes more than a few people who have helped this area become what it is today. His list includes a man who started an oil field services company, another who started an aviation outfit, and still another who opened a small engine repair shop. Their common thread? They all got their start working in the Swanson River oil field.
"They stuck around once their contracts were over," Slater said during an interview last week. "There's so many people like that. They've done well for the community, and given so many people jobs.
"It all boils down to people."
Starting as a doodlebug
Slater brought his family north to Alaska in 1959, two years after Richfield's discovery of the Swanson River Field. At the time, Slater said, he had never even thought about working in the oil field.
"We left Sacramento, California, in May of 1959. We came up to homestead with another family," Slater said.
Slater said there wasn't really a reason he chose to bring his young family to Alaska.
"I was young and thought, 'What the heck? Go for it,'" he said. "We gave it a year, and that year is still going on."
Slater said the group probably looked like a typical homesteading family as they traveled north. He, his first wife and his two small daughters, then 3 and 1, loaded up a pickup truck and towed a house trailer, and had a two-ton mail truck to haul the rest of their possessions. The family spent a few weeks in Soldotna before heading out to their new homestead in Sterling on July 4.
Slater said he had been a Teamster in California, and that summer took a contract job working in the oil patch. The job title was "doodlebug," and it involved following the geophysical crews after they drilled seismic exploration holes.
"We were dropped off by plane with a shovel and a rifle. Our job was to fill in the holes so the moose didn't break their legs. I did that job for five or six weeks, then I went to work for Weaver Brothers."
That job involved work around the yard, and hauling equipment and supplies out to the Swanson River field. Slater said he spent a little bit of time working on a drilling rig for Mountain State Drilling, and did some work for Glen McCollum, a driller who went on to found his own company, Northern Oil Operations.
Work for McCollum involved maintenance, but at the time, none of the pumps in the field had any structures over them.
"I worked out of my truck year-round," Slater said.
He also subcontracted to wrap pipe no easy task. Slater said he had to cover each section of pipe with tar, then take 4-inch-wide plastic tape and spin the pipe while holding the tape at a 45-degree angle.
"Everything was by hand in those days," he said.
Even shipping the oil was done the hard way; with no pipeline out of the field, Weaver Brothers would fill one or two tanker trucks a day and haul the oil to Seward to be shipped to the Lower 48.
Slater said in 1961, Chevron decided to hire its own workers, and he was one of eight or nine people hired at the time.
"It was really good," Slater said. "... The oil field was perfect for me. I'm a nuts and bolts guy, and it was all nuts and bolts."
Housing was built in the Swanson River field; Slater said his family lived there until it was time for his daughters to go to high school, and the family moved to the Longmere Lake area so the girls would be able to participate in extracurricular activities at Kenai Central High School.
One of the highlights of life in the Swanson River area came when electricity was installed not all the way to the house, but to the highway at the end of the road. Slater said everyone brought their freezers down to the end of the road to plug in.
"It's crazy, if you can picture six or seven deep-freeze boxes in a row," he said.
Slater said he stayed in the Swanson River field for another 25 years, eventually becoming foreman, a position he said might be called superintendent with another company. He said later in his career, when North Slope production ramped up, Swanson River became a proving ground for workers. There was a big turnover as workers left the peninsula for the higher pay in Prudhoe Bay, but he said he takes pride in the quality people who cut their teeth in the Swanson River field. Slater said they didn't send any "duds" up to the slope.
"Most of them were real aggressive people for their job, and they did a good job," Slater said.
Working on the Kenai National Moose Range, now the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, kept things interesting, Slater said. One day, he got a call to come to the shop, and he was told to go have a look at his office.
"There's a cow (moose) giving birth right on my front door," he said.
Being on federal land, Slater said he always tried to maintain a good working relationship with moose range and refuge managers. He said issues and plans were always discussed face to face, and never by memo.
"That made a huge difference. We talked together, one on one, and it was great," Slater said.
When ARCO acquired the Swanson River field, Slater said he decided to retire, rather than be transferred. His last day on the job was Dec. 1, 1986.
People made the job
While he enjoyed the daily challenges of his work, Slater said the reason he enjoyed his career always comes back to the people with whom he worked.
"The most important thing about working out there, was there were so many nice people," Slater said. "They all had that homesteader deal. Homesteaders don't know they can't do something. If you need to do it, you do it."
Slater said he sometimes bumps into workers he supervised, and is always pleased to see them advancing through the ranks. Chevron's current Swanson River production foreman, Greg Merle, is one of those people.
Other names on Slater's list of Swanson River oil workers to brag about include George Herr, who started K-Beach Small Engine Repair, Dick Morgan of Morgan Steel, and Bob Bielefeld, who started Kenai Aviation. He mentioned workers from the early days, including Otis Webb, a field foreman, Red Norton, Frank Bush and Clarence Waite the list goes on, and Slater described every one as "first class."
"The people made the job that's all there is to it," Slater said.
Slater said most of the Swanson River oil workers had that homesteader attitude, and it made a big difference in developing the field.
"What a difference that makes in people," he said. "... If you were going to put up a roof, you didn't ask for help, help showed up. We didn't know we were broke, and we didn't know who had money. Everybody lived the same way."
The peninsula has grown by leaps and bounds since Slater first arrived, some of it good, some, not as much. Slater lost his first wife to cancer but is happily remarried. He remembers the days when you could float down the Kenai River, catch fish at your leisure and scarcely see another boat.
Those days are long gone, but Slater said if he had to do it over again, he wouldn't change a thing.
"I'm glad I came to Alaska. I've never, ever been sorry I moved here," Slater said. "Times have changed, like it or not, we're a tourist place now, ... but the bottom line is, I'm happy I came here when I did. I've enjoyed the people in my life."
Will Morrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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