Potlatch at Moosehide, July 4, 1907. : Eagle Dancers: Paul Peter, Ken Joseph, Old Alex, Charles Steve, Edward Jonathan, Esau Harper holds potlatch stick, Chief Isaac, David Rabit. Courtesy Eagle Historical Society.
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When was oil discovered and developed in Alaska?

Oil explorers drilled Alaska's first oil well in 1896 on the shores of Cook Inlet, southwest of present-day Anchorage. They found modest amounts of oil, insufficient to justify development. Six years later, however, a well drilled at Katalla on the Gulf of Alaska struck oil. More wells were drilled at Katalla and eventually a refinery was built. The Katalla oil field continued production until a fire crippled the refinery in December 1933. Private investors and the federal government explored for oil in many areas in the territory for the next two decades, but no production ensued until the discovery of the Kenai Peninsula's Swanson River field in 1957. Oil companies built two refineries on the peninsula to process the oil. Drillers found numerous additional oil fields and more than a dozen gas fields in Cook Inlet. The gas, once transported by pipeline to Anchorage, dramatically reduced heating costs for the state's largest city.

Today, however, when most people discuss Alaskan oil, they are referring to oil produced on the state's North Slope. Atlantic Richfield struck oil at Prudhoe Bay in 1968. The Prudhoe Bay field is the largest oil field ever discovered in North America. After necessary government studies and obtaining necessary federal legislation, the oil companies began constructing the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in 1974. Three years later the 800-mile-long pipeline was completed, at the time the most expensive privately funded construction project ever built. Oil flowed south through the pipeline to Valdez, where it was loaded onto tankers to be shipped south to the contiguous states. Oil companies have also discovered and developed other oil fields on the North Slope, including the Kuparuk field, the second largest field discovered on the continent.

Information extracted with permission from Joan M. Antonson and William S. Hanable, Alaska's Heritage (2d edition, 1992) and Robert W. King, "Without Hope of Immediate Profit: Oil Exploration in Alaska, 1898 to 1953" Alaska History, Spring 1994, 19-36.

Additional Reading

Robert W. King, "Without Hope of Immediate Profit: Oil Exploration in Alaska, 1898 to 1953," Alaska History, Spring 1994, 19-36.

Peter A. Coates, The Trans-Alaska Pipeline Controversy: Technology, Conservation and the Frontier (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1993)


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