Brennan: A historic voyage

By Tom Brennan |

Long before global warming began to open the Arctic Ocean for shipping, the tanker Manhattan made a historic voyage from the Delaware River through the Northwest Passage to Prudhoe Bay.

That was in August 1969 when Humble Oil was still hoping to avoid building the trans-Alaska pipeline. If the Arctic route proved viable, the company hoped to save billions of dollars by shipping North Slope oil directly from Prudhoe Bay through the Canadian Arctic to the U.S. East Coast.

The voyage was successful and the ship arrived at Prudhoe Bay in early September, but it created a storm, both with environmentalists and the Canadian government, which considered the route an imposition on its sovereignty. At one point, a Canadian Inuit chieftain ordered the ship to halt and refused to allow it to pass unless the ship’s captain requested permission. The skipper did that and the Native leader allowed it to pass.

The Manhattan was fitted with an icebreaker bow and was accompanied by both Canadian and American icebreakers, which seemed to work just fine at the time. But when the Manhattan tried to make the passage again the following year it was blocked by thicker ice and the voyage was abandoned. That opened the way for construction of the pipeline and directed Alaska crude oil to markets on the U.S. West Coast and the Orient.

The Manhattan did deliver one thing to Alaska on its successful passage in 1969. That was C. H. “Hank” Rosenthal who was the public relations guy on the voyage and stayed in Alaska to represent Humble, which shortly afterward changed its name to Exxon. Hank Rosenthal became my longtime close friend and fishing/hunting partner. He later married Heather Flynn and spent many happy years here before passing away a few years ago.

The tanker arrived at Prudhoe Bay shortly after I started work for Atlantic Richfield Co. (which later became best known as ARCO). It provided one of my more embarrassing moments.

I was just settling in at my job (after two years as a reporter/columnist for The Anchorage Times) when I was approached by another Atlantic Richfield employee saying that when the Manhattan arrived at Prudhoe, Humble Oil asked that it be delivered a symbolic barrel of oil for the return trip.

The problem was that there was no such thing as an actual barrel container of oil, which measures 42 gallons. The closest thing we could come up with was a 55-gallon drum of oil, which was the standard container size. The employee said all of the 55-gallon containers had Chevron’s logo on them, which would have been a no-no for Humble Oil. They asked me what color to paint the drum.

In a flash of naive brilliance, I said “gold.” I realized my mistake when I got to Prudhoe Bay on the day of the Manhattan’s arrival and watched in horror as a crew removed the covering from the “barrel” and you could see it in all its glory. What I failed to realize was that there was no such thing as an unused oil drum and that the gold paint would emphasize every ding and dent in the thing.

I tried to hide but fortunately everybody, including the assembled media, pretended that it was beautiful and that it was indeed “the golden barrel.”

Nobody seemed to think it was ugly except me. But egad, it was.

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