Deadhorse lies on what its residents call `The Slope`, the coastal plain along the Arctic Ocean formally known as the North Slope. For a town with a population of only 5000, it has a very lively airport. Several large planes fly to and from Fairbanks and other Alaskan cities daily. Formally, Deadhorse is not a municipality, but an industrial zone. Its facilities and security are not provided by the government, but by privately owned businesses.
At the end of the Pan American Highway, in the extreme north of Alaska, lies Deadhorse. The place owes its existence to the oil which has been being extracted from the ground around it since the 1970s – generally by international companies which lease the land from the indigenous peoples. Almost all of the residents of Deadhorse are migrants from ‘the Lower Forty-eight’ (the rest of the United States) or from Latin America.
At almost 600,000 square miles, Alaska is by far the largest state in the United States. It is also the least populated. Fairbanks, the second largest city in the state after Anchorage, lies in the middle of the state. The Dalton Highway runs north from there, ending at Deadhorse and the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay, on the Arctic Ocean. The road was built in 1974, to support the construction and maintenance of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. About 250 semi-trailer trucks travel the road daily to supply the oil businesses around Prudhoe Bay.
The work sites of the oil companies, are mostly leased from the Iñupiat, the indigenous communities to whom the land belongs. The Iñupiat receive a considerable income from the leases, but not everyone is happy with the oil extraction. One Iñupiat owned company, called NANA, is active in mining, the hotel sector, the oil industry, tourism, catering and security services. The profits go to projects benefiting the 12,500 members of the community.
The Trans-Alaska Pipeline runs nearly 800 miles, making it one of the longest in the world. It was built between 1974 and 1977, just after the 1973 oil crisis. There was considerable protest against its construction from environmental groups and native peoples, on whose territory the oil extraction takes place. Every day 700,000 barrels of crude oil are pumped through this pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to the southern port city of Valdez, just east of Anchorage. Oil is by far the largest source of income for Alaska.
Hundreds of migrants who work in the oil sector live at the Prudhoe Bay Hotel. Daily, they drive to work at oil rigs or businesses connected with the oil industry in the area. Most are there primarily because the work is well paid. Life in Deadhorse consists of working hard, often four weeks on and two weeks off. There is no time for pleasure. Moreover, there is hardly any amusement, and alcohol is banned.
This story is part of Via Panam, Kadir van Lohuizen’s project about migration in the Americas.