Modern history

Epilogue 2

In the wake of the closure of a BP oil field in Prudhoe Bay,

Alaska, oil prices shot up to $77 a barrel on Wednesday. . . .

The Prudhoe Bay oil field was discovered in 1968, and

began pumping in 1977. That first year, up to 1.5 million

barrels a day were pumped from the site. Now the site is

what is called a mature field and is far less productive,

pumping a maximum of about 400,000 barrels a day into

the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. . . . The future of oil production

at Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in the United States,

is tangled in issues like depletion of the fields, and global

pressure to find alternate sources.

The New York Times, August 11, 2006

In August 1886, as William Howland was expanding his mills in New Bedford, a twenty-three-year-old adventurer and part-time whaleman named Charlie Brower, a New Yorker by birth, was heading east with a group of ten men from Point Barrow in two small whale boats. They were exploring the feasibility of small-boat whaling from a fixed base on Point Barrow for the Pacific Steam Whaling Company, based in San Francisco. Brower and the others had traveled north by steamer and been dropped off at the company’s Point Barrow “station”—a shack above the beach. The company believed that newer, less exploited whaling grounds lay to the east of Point Barrow, along the Beaufort Sea coast of Alaska’s northern shore, where few whaleships had ventured.

Heading eastward around the point by oar and sail in their small whaleboats, they camped the first night on an island between the sea and Elson Lagoon, close to the spot where Jared Jernegan’s whaleship Roman had sunk fifteen years earlier. In addition to the wreckage of countless whaleships that littered the shore and barrier islands around Point Barrow, Charlie Brower and his men also found human skeletons and bodies in various stages of decomposition and preservation—probably some of the fifty men who remained behind with their trapped ships in the winter of 1876-1877, and had disappeared by the next summer.

After several days of hard rowing and beating to windward, camping ashore each night, the two boats were stopped by a storm at Cape Simpson, forty miles east of Point Barrow. The men aboard had seen no whales, and were discouraged. While the weather kept them pinned ashore, Brower and another man, Patsy Grey, headed inland over the marshy tundra with guns, hoping to shoot something to eat. Climbing over the top of a low rise of ground, they saw a small lake stretching out below them. It looked oddly black. They walked down to the edge of the lake. Liquid at its center, the “water” at their feet appeared to be “an asphalt-like substance.”

Oil, thought Brower. Grey disagreed, having never heard of such a thing. Brower had: his luckless father had unaccountably gone bust in the wild early days of the Pennsylvania oil fields. Brower lit a match and lowered it to the asphalt. “It burned with intense heat and lots of greasy smoke,” he later wrote.

They walked on around the small burning lake. Half a mile farther they reached a much larger “oil lake,” where they saw the black carcasses of caribou and eider ducks trapped on its surface. Brower and Grey had discovered the seeping surface of the vast oil reserve that lay beneath the northern rim of Alaska, which would eventually be tapped from Prudhoe Bay, 120 miles to the east of where the two men stood. Apart from blundering caribou and eider ducks, it would lie undisturbed for another eighty years.

The whaleboats had come as far as they could go. Provisions were running low. When the storm passed, the whalemen sailed west again, back to Point Barrow.

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