Making History
The future of petroleum’s past
By Amy Newman
Alaska Oil & Gas Historical Society

laska’s relationship with oil began in 1902 when The English Company, soon renamed the Alaska Development Company, struck oil at Katalla, 47 miles southeast of Cordova. Katalla became a boom town, and a refinery was built in 1911, mainly supplying fuel to fishing vessels. A total of 154,000 barrels were produced over twenty years until Christmas Day 1933. A fire destroyed the Chilkat Oil Company refinery, and it was not rebuilt. Katalla disappeared from the map ten years later when the post office closed for good.

The history of oil in Alaska did not end there, of course. Discoveries in the ‘50s and ‘60s put the state’s economy on its present trajectory. The industry remains the state’s largest contributor to jobs and wages, employing up to one-third of Alaskans, directly or indirectly, and oil revenue is the largest component of the state budget.

Despite the industry’s lengthy and undeniable impact, there was no coordinated effort to preserve and document that history, no central location to store and share it.

Thus, the Alaska Oil & Gas Historical Society (AKOGHS) was born. Formalized in November 2022, the society’s goal is to collect, preserve, and share the history of Alaska’s oil and gas industry through archival collections, oral histories, exhibitions, and educational programs.

“There’s already a lot out there about Alaska’s oil and gas history that’s cataloged or captured in pictures or print by all of the large companies,” says the society’s co-founder, Rebecca Logan. “We’re really interested in complementing what’s out there with narratives of the people who worked in the industry and also making everything more readily available and in the forefront, so people are regularly reminded of it.”

Gap in the Market
Logan, the CEO of the Alaska Support Industry Alliance, got the idea for an oil and gas museum during a 2011 trip to Norway. The Scandinavian country is the eighth largest crude oil exporter and fourth largest exporter of natural gas in the world, and oil and gas is its single largest industry, according to the International Trade Administration.

What Logan saw made her recognize what Alaska was missing. “I saw a really fabulous oil and gas museum that, every day, there were kids pulling up non-stop and learning about Norway’s oil and gas history,” she says. “We were the only working state in the country that didn’t have a [historical] society or museum.”

Or so she thought. As she explored the idea, she found out that was only partially true.

“I learned there was an oil and gas museum in Gustavus, in Southeast Alaska,” she says. The Gustavus Dray store and Petroleum Museum has a pre-World War II replica Mobil service station with a working 1937 “Wayne 60” gasoline pump. But, on top of its remote location, the Gustavus museum barely covered the industry’s extensive history in the state.

Logan says industry insiders discussed the idea of a museum for years, but nothing moved beyond informal talks.

Katalla, 47 miles southeast of Cordova, was the site of the first commercial oil production in Alaska. Today, hardly any visible trace of human activity remains there.

Alaska Oil & Gas Historical Society

black and white photo of the first commercial oil production site in Alaska
Path to Society
Kara Moriarty, president and CEO of the Alaska Oil & Gas Association, became convinced that Alaska needed to memorialize its oil and gas history when she spoke at a Canadian conference several years ago. Moriarty was struck by how prominently the provinces and territories she traveled through displayed their oil and gas heritage, leaving no question as to the industry’s economic importance. It was a sharp contrast to Anchorage, she says.

“You step off the plane in Anchorage and there are a few banners about ConocoPhillips or BP, back when BP was here. But otherwise, you would have no idea the oil and gas industry has been such an integral part of the state’s history,” Moriarty says. “So when [Rebecca] called me and said, ‘I’ve been made aware that other states have museums and what do you think about it?’ Of course, I thought this sounded like an amazing idea and of course, we should do it.”

In 2015, with the industry coming off its biggest revenue year, talks became more formal, and the Alliance began searching for a museum site. “And then oil prices tanked, and we put a hold on that effort,” Logan says.

In 2022, discussions began anew. “We were starting to lose people, and that just gave us a sense of urgency,” she says. “And we had a really fabulous opportunity to record the oral histories of people who are pioneers in the industry. That sense of urgency was enough to get us from talking about it to formalizing it.”

What was formalized was the AKOGHS. Logan incorporated the society along with Joe Mathis, a founding member of the Alliance, and Brad Chastain, a long-time industry member. They assembled a six-member volunteer board of directors, which includes Mathis, Chastain, Moriarty, Dave Haugen, James Palmer, and Dave Norton. The AKOGHS filed articles of incorporation in November 2022 and received 501(c)(3) status from the IRS in January 2023.

“This concept and idea wouldn’t have gotten off the ground without Rebecca’s leadership and vision,” Moriarty says. “She’s not technically a board member, but she’s been the real driving force. Not that we all don’t think it’s a great idea, but she really deserves the credit.”

Preserving the Past
AKOGHS’ long-term goal, which Logan estimates will take five to seven years to realize, is to build a museum to serve as a repository of photos, videos, memorabilia, books, and other materials that document and illustrate the history and evolution of the oil and gas industry in Alaska. Like the Norwegian museum that piqued Logan’s interest more than a decade ago, the AKOGHS envisions busloads of school children walking through the museum’s doors.

“One thing I know that everybody wants is a place where Alaska school children can come and learn about the oil and gas industry because it’s so out of sight for them,” Logan says. “It’s either a drill right in the inlet or a drill rig on the North Slope, and nobody really sees the industry unless you drive along the Pipeline.”

AKOGHS’ work toward the museum is guided by an 800-page document from the American Association of Museums. Logan says one goal for 2024 is to expand both the board of directors and the committee working on the museum, whose initial focus is on identifying and engaging stakeholders, creating a vision for the museum, and determining costs.

With no physical location to store items, the AKOGHS is not actively soliciting donations yet, but Logan says that hasn’t stopped people who have learned about plans for a museum from reaching out.

“Almost every day, I have someone who says, ‘When are we going to have a museum? I have so much stuff,’” she says. “I had two huge boxes sent from Pennsylvania, somebody I didn’t even know, whose dad had been a geologist in the early 1950s, with six rolls of 8mm film with a narrative to go with it of that geologic work. People are hearing about it, and it’s just an exciting thing to be a part of.”

In 1960, Wilma Rudolph won the 100-meter dash in Rome. In 1983, she consulted on Prudhoe Bay recreational facilities.

IanDagnall Computing | Alamy

black and white photo of Wilma Rudolph running in a 100-meter dash
Repository of Stories
Some of the history AKOGHS is uncovering is new even to Logan. She had no idea, she says, that ARCO hired Olympic athlete Wilma Rudolph—who in 1960 became the first American sprinter to win three gold medals—to help design recreational facilities for its workers at Prudhoe Bay.

“There is so much good stuff like that,” she says. “It’s fun, and, of course, those are the stories that people love to hear.”

Not every story in the oil and gas industry’s past is positive, but Moriarty says the museum will provide a “full capturing” of its history, positive and negative. “We know we’re going to talk about and have some type of [exhibit] at the museum on the Exxon Valdez oil spill,” she says. “We’re not going to shy away from some of the points in our history that we would have preferred never to have happened, because they did. But we can look at what we learned from them and how has the industry changed because of those types of events.”

Central to the AKOGHS’ mission is capturing the oral histories of the people behind the industry.

“The focus is really, to me, the people, because without the people, this industry wouldn’t be successful back then; it wouldn’t be successful today,” Moriarty says. “And without the people helping to shape policy, we—the oil and gas industry—wouldn’t have been such an integral part of the state’s economy.”

AKOGHS is compiling an “endless” list of current and former industry workers and prioritizing recording the oral histories of older pioneers, Logan says. The society also attends industry events to capture stories tied to specific historical points. For example, 2024 marks the 50th anniversary of the start of construction on the Dalton Highway haul road, so the Alliance had a camera crew at its March Meet Alaska conference to record stories from people who worked on the road.

timeline showing the history of Alaska's Oil and Gas industry
“We’re really interested in complementing what’s out there with narratives of the people who worked in the industry and also making everything more readily available and in the forefront, so people are regularly reminded of it.”
Rebecca Logan
Alaska Support Industry Alliance
What People Remember
“We’re really focused on the oral histories right now,” Logan says, adding that the goal is to record at least forty. “We did fifteen of those last year, which was wonderful because of what we got out of them. And two of them—one in their late 80s and one in their early 90s—passed away after we recorded them, which is exactly why we’re doing this.”

The society is keeping those oral histories mostly private so far, highlighting snippets at industry presentations, pop-up exhibits, and the AKOGHS website. Stories include reminiscences from Ted Stagg, who worked on the discovery well at Prudhoe Bay and provided an engineer’s perspective, and Jesse Wade, who began working in the industry when he was 20 years old.

“He had a lot of stories to tell, [including] one about being the drill rig hand sent down into the discovery well at Prudhoe Bay, with a rope around his waist and a five-gallon bucket, to send up mud and broken pieces of the drill that hadn’t ever been used with permafrost,” Logan says.

Some stories aren’t directly tied to oil and gas production but drive home the idea that people are at the heart of the industry, like the story about a production manager at the Endicott field who loved music so much he brought in a piano to play.

“That’s what people remember, are stories,” Moriarty says. “They aren’t going to remember facts and figures per se, but who were the people at the Prudhoe Bay lease sale that made that so unique. I think that’s exciting.”

History's Future
The AKOGHS’ founding members campaign, which provides start-up funds for the organization, will run for another year, Logan says, after which it will shift to an annual membership campaign.

Outside of that, Moriarty says the board’s focus for 2024 is capturing oral histories, increasing membership, creating a broad communication plan, and working on a collection policy for accepting donated items.

“I just think there’s a lot of really fun and exciting opportunities for the historical society,” Moriarty says. “I envision twenty years from now, when my grandkids are going on a school trip, that it’s to the historical society museum so they can learn the history of the oil and gas industry as part of what makes Alaska so great.”