Inside the Rowdy, Reckless Boomtown Bars of Alaska in the 1970s

As pipeline money poured into the city of Fairbanks, the Wild West saw a brief revival

July 31, 2020 9:33 am
fairbanks boomtown bars
In the bars of Fairbanks in the 1970s, the Wild West was still alive and well
Anna Ruprecht

“Back then, in this industry, you didn’t have to be competitive,” says longtime bartender Larry “Hack” Hackenmiller. “You just had to be open.”

Hackenmiller had started working at The Boatel Bar right as the Fairbanks bar scene, and the city in general, was about to blow up. Between 1974 and 1977, Alaska’s second largest city would become America’s last great boomtown as construction workers, teamsters, labor leaders, politicians, hookers, gamblers, bootleggers, drug dealers, organized criminals, environmentalists and a young George W. Bush left the contiguous 48 and infiltrated the sleepy permafrost town to build the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline. And with temperatures often below zero, everyone eventually needed a drink. Fairbanks quickly became a kind of Deadwood for the disco era, a lawless, dipsomaniacal zoo set 125 miles south of the Arctic Circle.

Spanning 800 miles across the entire state, from the North Slope of Prudhoe Bay to Valdez Marine Terminal in the south, the project would eventually cost $8 billion — that’s more than $42 billion in today’s numbers — and immediately inject a small fortune into the humble towns along its route, especially the pipeline’s midpoint, in Fairbanks. 

The two main employers were the Bechtel Corporation and the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company, a consortium of eight major oil companies, both of which would throw money at any welder, plumber or pipe-fitter who could help quickly get the job done. The eventual goal — of extracting 10 billion barrels of crude oil from underneath this frozen tundra — was a tall one. Soon, the city of only 38,000 added 30,000 out-of-towners looking to make a quick fortune.

“These were men and women from all walks of life who had never seen this much money before,” says Jake Hart, a Los Angeles-based screenwriter currently developing a project based on the era.  

A salaried man could earn $36,000 (about $190,000 today) working a mere 22 weeks a year, with alternating weeks off, free room and board, and company-paid flights home. Skilled pipeline welders — typically union workers brought in from places like Texas and Oklahoma — could pull $2,000 per week (at a time when mainland welders made $1,000 a month), though it wasn’t necessarily easy. These welders had to work 80-hour, seven-day weeks for nine to 12 weeks straight before finally getting two weeks off for “R and R.” Though, there was very little rest and relaxation.

“They didn’t know how to handle it,” recalled Lazar DeVorkin, a New Yorker who moved to town to open a pawn shop. “The ones from the outside who had a wife back home making the house payments, they sent the money out. The local people spent it as fast as possible and thought it’d last forever.”

That usually meant hitting up bars like The Boatel, a formerly peaceful little dive which offered a fireplace and outside deck overlooking the Chena River. Hackenmiller recalls pipeline workers walking into his bar with $5,000 cash on them (you could differentiate locals from outsiders by the fact that the latter carried bank rolls consisting solely of $100 bills). Instead of buying the entire house a round, they’d say “six pack everybody” — in other words, get everyone in the house six free drinks courtesy of the buyer. It became a tradition, and Fairbanks bars eventually had to buy more glassware just to keep up with all this freewheeling spenders. 

“One older pipeliner once walked into a Fairbanks bar with a wad of cash, started drinking, and then died right there while sitting at the bar,” explains Hart, who is quick to note the hijinks that was typical of the time. “The guy next to him proceeded to buy more drinks with the dead guy’s cash until it was all gone.” 

In turn, gross receipts at all Fairbanks bars soared from $1.4 million (over $8 million in today’s numbers) in 1973 to $3.2 million ($18.5 million) in 1975 and 1976. It helped that Fairbanks offered 22 hours of sunlight a day, creating a bit of a casino effect where no one was ever tired and everyone was always raring to go, despite the painfully frigid temperatures. Wrote Wallace Turner of the New York Times:

“In the endless daylight nights of what now are remembered as the ‘pipeline summers’ of 1974, 1975 and 1976, Second Street was busy as a beehive entrance when clover is in blossom.”

alaska boomtown bars
Anna Ruprecht for InsideHook

The bar district was actually on downtown’s Second Avenue — though “Two Street” is what it became known as — which offered 24 watering holes within a square mile. There were places like Mecca Bar, sister bar of the original location in Kodiak. The downstairs had originally been a sports bar, but by the time of the pipeline it had become the Tiki Cove, a spot that became extremely popular. A few doors down from Mecca was the Cottage Bar. On the next block you had Savoy, Chena Bar, Tommy’s Elbow Room, Polaris and Cabaret. Across the street was the Fairbanks Bar, and next to it, the Flame Lounge, then the Arctic Bar. The was Fairbanks’s Traveler’s Inn, where you could drink yourself silly downstairs then get a room upstairs for $36. There was the Malamute Saloon, a holdover from the gold rush of the early 1900s that had built Fairbanks, and a former hangout for “sourdoughs,” where steaks were $20 and beers ran a whopping $1.50 apiece — though everyone could afford these “New York” prices. There wasn’t much that differentiated any of these bars. As Hackenmiller said, you really just had to be open to attract customers.

“When it doesn’t get dark in the summer, a lot of people stay up all night and bar hop,” claimed Thomas A. Snapp, editor of the All Alaska Weekly, which had offices on Second Avenue. No pipeline workers wanted to go back to their shabby rooms, which were often tiny and usually lined with aluminum sheets painted to simulate wood. “By August every year they’ve built up cliques and have things they think they ought to fight about.”

These tussles were usually started by the “pointed-shoes,” cowboy boot-clad Oklahoman and Texan welders “who had reputations for being rude, crude and always looking to start fights.” (A popular bumper sticker among locals of the era read:  “Happiness is 10,000 Okies going south with a Texan under each arm.”) The elite of the elite came from Local 798 out of Tulsa, so skilled they traveled the world welding pipelines and getting into trouble during any free time they had. They weren’t concerned about being fired — everyone was expendable except the welders — so why not take a swing at a local?

“At night, the district is frequently the scene of wild, brawling fistfights reminiscent of saloon battles in Western films,” reported Robert Lindsey in 1975. “There haven’t been any fatalities, but several persons have been knifed, and policemen have been injured. Some pipeline workers claimed to have been drugged and robbed by the streetwalkers.”

Yes, by the summer of 1974, the prostitutes had also arrived, and watching them became a spectator sport for locals. None of these Alaskans had ever seen the sort of suede dresses, platform shoes and large handbags that made them easily identifiable, not to mention the high-coiffured hair, overdone makeup and “big city slick,” according to Mim Dixon, author of What Happened to Fairbanks? 

“My friends and I came up here from Chicago or L.A. because it’s a new part of the circuit, where the money is, almost as good as Vegas,” recalled a prostitute named Estelle. “It’s easy pickings, honey; most of the pipeline johns have all the money in the world; they spend like there’s no tomorrow and not too many of them are freaky. Trouble is, some of those Eskimo chicks are pretty, and they’re getting wise now.”

There were pimps on Two Street too, usually skinny and African-American, and driving brand-new Cadillacs they had somehow brought to town from the continental U.S. According to the New York Times, between 1974 and 1975, “the price for a quickie has gone up from $50 to $100.” (While a whole night was running $300, and a whole day $1,200,)

Fairbanks had a remarkably liberal attitude toward this prostitution, however, with The Alaska Women’s Liberation Group even pressing hard for legalization within the state — many thought regulation would prevent sexual crimes in an area that had become around 90% male. 

The All‐Alaska Weekly once carried an editorial urging the throngs of prostitutes to please be polite and at least try to not bother any husbands walking down Two Street with their wives. One Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reporter joked that he was “working on my doctoral thesis entitled ‘Adaptation of the Eastern U.S. White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Prostitute to the Alaska Environment and Her Attitudes Toward Ecology.’” By 1976, however, supply was exceeding demand, with perhaps 500 prostitutes working Two Street, even during daylight hours. They were thus forced to get more aggressive, sometimes jumping into cars at stoplights hoping to land a date.

Perhaps the most odd date during this time, however, happened at the International Hotel & Bar on North Turner Street, just across the Chena River from Two Street. The oldest continuously running joint in Fairbanks, it had started serving beer in 1927; by 1971, John “Jack” Sexton and Bert “Hap” Ryder had turned it into more of an Irish pub. By 1974 it employed an exclusively female bartending crew, which might have helped lure in a 27-year-old George W. Bush, who was living in Fairbanks that summer while working a desk job with a CIA-affiliated construction company.

“We went to the International Bar, kind of a hangout for people in the arts and people who write for the newspaper,” Sally Smith recalls of the blind date she had with the future president. “I remember we had a beer. That’s all I remember.”

It wasn’t all harmless shenanigans. By 1976 Fairbanks was “struggling with growing crime,” according to the New York Times, who wrote that the “sun outlined the map of alcoholic excess in the faces of Indian and Eskimo men squatted curbside on Second Avenue as they groped for a way to spend yet another day on the road to becoming alcoholic derelicts.” Murder was rampant amongst the Teamsters in town, as were other violent crimes, not to mention drug-dealing, gambling and the frequent theft of the bulging registers at bars like The Club Manchu, a Chinese-style cocktail lounge next door to strip club Morry’s (“Have a ball with them all”), which was cleaned out in 1975.

“We’ve got a boomtown situation,” insisted Judge Gerald J. Van Hoomissen of Superior Court. “People hang around bars and [create] a lot of lawlessness — a natural reaction to conditions here. But criminal justice is not breaking down.” In fact, it was always safe for people who didn’t choose to play the game, thought J.B. Carnahan, a well-liked policeman of the time. “I don’t recall anybody wandering down there selling Bibles who got bumped on the head and robbed,” he said.

And, then, just like that, it was over. The pipeline was finished on March 31, 1977, and bar business for that year quickly fell back to $2.8 million. It would plummet even more the following year. Everyone who had gotten rich quick was fleeing Fairbanks, and by 1978, “for every three hookers who come into town, two leave because they can’t make a living.” The pimps and their Cadillacs had fled too. And so had the free-spending welders.

“Like a hungover drunk after a week-long binge, Fairbanks is coming down hard,” wrote the Washington Post.

By 1978 Alaskan unemployment was at 18 percent, the highest in the nation. The only bars still attracting customers were places like Sunset Strip, a bar and diner featuring an Inuit hillbilly band, and Ken’s Pipe Line Bar, run by Ken Levigne, originally from Manchester, New Hampshire. His customers had always been mostly Native-American men, with a few working-class white Alaskans (a sign on the door specifically instructed prostitutes to stay out).

“It’s mostly beer in the daytime, and cocktails at night — pool tables busy all day, and at night a native rock-and-roll band, which shifts to country and western or whatever,” Levigne told the New York Times. In fact, he added, “Business is better than during the pipeline days. They’re here and are going to be here, not come and go like the pipeline crowd.”

Nevertheless, those rowdy four years had made an indelible change to the community in general, which many people believe is still felt today, though no one agrees whether it was ultimately a good or bad thing. The pipeline boom was “large and unhealthy for Alaska,” thought DeVorkin, though Hackenmiller disagrees, believing the jobs and immense tax revenue were a huge boon. “Since day one, Fairbanks has benefited from it, and we’re still benefiting from it,” he says. “It’s just that the volume may have gone down. Like on the radio. Might have been at 8, now it’s at a 2.”

If during the pipeline era, downtown was home to dozens of bars, almost immediately after the out-of-towners left, they started disappearing. A statewide recession hit Alaska in the 1980s and then all businesses started to drift away. The Big-I is still around, and so is Boatel, but Mecca Bar is the only one of the famously rowdy Two Street bars still standing from its glory days, invoking memories that some people will always hope to recreate.

“When it was all over and everybody went back to their regular lives, there was this one laborer who was having one last drink at the bar at the Fairbanks Airport,” recalls Hart. “He’s sipping a martini and he hears two suits down the bar talking logistics for building the next pipeline, for natural gas. So now after all this money was spent and all of this pristine wilderness sullied, here’s more men talking about how much money they will have to spend tearing up the Earth to get to the next boom. Or as that laborer put it, the next billion-dollar roller coaster ride.”


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.