Small Frye Episodes

Small Frye’s Pipeline - Part One

Leonard Lea Frazer
Giant steel pipes piled in a field near Valemount, left over from the original Trans Mountain Pipeline construction.  L.L. Frazer photo.
Giant steel pipes piled in a field near Valemount, left over from the original Trans Mountain Pipeline construction. L.L. Frazer photo.

Mike rides a freight train, gets a job in the bush, near kills his boss with a barrel of tar, gets stuck on Hell’s Gate Hill with a load of pipe and flips his truck into the North Thompson River. 

I just don't know how I ever got mixed up in the construction of pipelines and of all the engineering that’s involved in the construction of the right of way. I helped lay huge pipes through the Rocky Mountains, and although it’s been many years since I worked with the engineers, I can still taste the mud and realize the feeling of utter fatigue, so tired and hungry at night after a sixteen hour day in the mud and mosquitoes and black flies that I could not sleep some nights. But, I lived and helped build many huge pipelines that now carry gas and crude oil to refineries.

This is very exciting type of work and if you are employed by engineers like Canadian Bechtel you can depend on it that you will be well rewarded both in experience and financially. Of course, you will get your share of mud and mosquitoes too.

I got a job of unloading pipe and tar for one of the contractors working for Canadian Bechtel and Trans Mountain. I had been laying around Vancouver spending my hard earned money, from falling for McMillan Bloedel at Port Alberni, but I was getting tired of cutting trees for a living and wanted something different. I had heard of the huge pipeline being built through the Rocky Mountains and, not very far from my home village of Albreda, a crew had started to unload tar pipe for the line.

So, I hit a freight train out of Vancouver heading toward Wire Cache, where the unloading was taking place, but when I got to Wire Cache the train was going too fast for me to jump out of the boxcar, so I had to go on to Avola, where I knew they would at least have to slow down. However, they did not slow down. I had to jump, so I did, first throwing my pack-sack out the door, and then I took leave of the train. As hard as I could I was unable to hold my feet and ended up rolling down the grade into the ditch alongside the railway. I sure got shook up and feeling rough from no breakfast and riding in that freight car, I was in no mood to try to get to work. But, I knew I had to get a job or go hungry.

After washing my torn and dirty face in a stream close by, I took off back to Wire Cache. The contractor had a camp there unloading huge pipe and then hauling it along the pipeline right of way with huge trucks. This right of way was no highway, as I found out later.

I walked back the four miles from Avola to Wire Cache where I found the contractors camp and soon found the cook shack. I got acquainted with the cook right away and talked my way into a meal. Then, I went on down the railway siding where I saw a huge pile of pipe and a big crane. It was not working when I came on the scene. I saw the driver climb out of the cab and start back to the camp. Then, I saw a very prominent looking little fellow standing near the crane and talking to a man in the door of a boxcar. This man, I soon found out, was a Tong Hooker, and had been hooking tongs to large barrels of tar that were in the car. I also found out this tar was used to wrap the pipe before it was laid in the ground.

From the gist of his talk with this man I understood that he was trying to get said hooker to drive the crane, but he would not take the job. At last the boss turned to me and asked what the Hotel Bill I wanted. His loud voice did not scare me as I was desperate for a job. I told him I would like to work for him in some capacity. "Can you drive a crane?" he asked.

I looked up at the huge crane and, as I looked, it seemed to get bigger and bigger. I needed a job badly and though I had never driven a crane of this type, I told him, "Sure, I can drive anything with wheels or tracks."

"Well, Mister, you’ve got yourself a job. Climb into that beast and get rolling. I need that car unloaded tonight."

The crane was idling and already sweating like a coon. I climbed into the cab, slowly looking the controls over. I gave a tug on the swing boom handle. I must have had it going too fast, as the tongs that had been set into the barrel inside the car swung right out and started to go around. I knew the fundamentals, but I soon found out that there was a lot I didn’t know. I had seen barrels unloaded from a boxcar before. The crane was supposed to swing out clean at right angles from the car toward the pile of barrels already unloaded. Then, as the barrel came to the pile I was supposed to give it a fairly fast jerk with the crane and tear the tongs out of the barrel. Next step was to continue to swing the boom back to the car door and stop it so the Tong Hooker could re-hook another barrel.

However, I got excited, and as I came to where I was supposed to snap the tongs out of the barrel, instead of giving it a snap I got a hold of the wrong control and it kept right on swinging back toward the car with the barrel still hooked on. I hauled back on the gas and as the barrel came to the railway car it hit the door and near tore it off the car. It kept on going with the barrel still hooked on. My head was pounding and I was sweating so bad it filled my eyes. I knew I had to control the stop lever and try to get the darn machine under control, but again I missed the pile of barrels and was already on my way back to the car. By now the barrel of tar was swinging straight out from the boom and moving going like the ‘mill tails of Hades.’

As it headed back for the car I saw the Tong Hooker leave the car on the run (I did not blame him as if it had hit the car this time it would have gone clean through and possibly have killed him). But, thank goodness, as the barrel came to the car it was up in the air and was going to pass right over the car roof. It was then I found the brake. And, I hit that brake. The crane shook and shivered and the barrel snapped out of the tongs and went clean over two railway tracks and I saw it splash into the Thompson River clean out into the middle.

I shut off the motor and looked for the boss. I saw him hiding under a pile of cedar poles about five hundred feet back in the bush. I climbed out of the crane and tried to wipe the sweat off my face and when he saw I had the machine stopped he came back. Walking up to me he said, “Well, you sure can drive a crane." Then snarling at me, he said, "Just what are you trying to pull off? Get back in the cab and I'll show you how to run a crane." I got back in and he was as good as his word. He did show me how to do it, then stopping the crane he said, "Now try it again." The Tong Hooker hooked another barrel for me, but as soon as he hooked it he hit the dirt and lay under the car.

I had the car unloaded about ten o'clock that night. I worked for my new boss all summer. I considered him a tough man to work for, but he taught me a lot.

I found the stockpiling of tar barrels very tame work, compared to the trucking of the huge pipe along the new right of way through the swamp and rough grade. I found out in later years that the right of way had to go as straight as it could regardless of the terrain, as bending the huge steel pipe was no kids play. The line ran straight through swamps, mud, clay and we even had to change some rivers beds to suit the pipe.

This sort of driving separated the men from the boys, when it came to holding those big White trucks, loaded down with ten huge steel pipes. Hauling them through the mud, sometimes involved being towed by huge cats for miles. When you went out in the morning there was no definite time to say when you would be getting in for the night. On many days I could expect to get into bed around midnight, all covered with mud and clay and so tired I could not eat my supper. Then, back on the trucks at daylight.

It was funny the way that I got to drive one of those monster White trucks.

I had been unloading tar and pipe for almost a month when the boss came to me one morning, and with a smile, asked me if I had ever driven a pipe truck before, through mud and clay.

"Now, Mike, I know your answer to that. Of course you have driven a truck and you want a chance to drive my trucks and you have proved you can drive crane. We won't have any more pipe in for over a week, so I won't have any work for you unless you want to take a try at truck driving. The only other job I have is camp cook. What do you say?"

Well, I wanted to work, so I said, "Bring on your truck, I'll either make it or break my neck trying."

I was getting tired of sitting on that crane all day swinging back and forth with the sun beating down on me. It was getting darn monotonous. So, I welcomed the chance for a break.

"Well Mike, I hope you don't start in like you did on the crane. With a truckload of pipe, there is no second chance to make mistakes. Your first will be your last. I need a driver for number Sixteen as we have to keep the pipe moving. I sure would hate to see you go over the grade with fifty ton of pipe over the top of you. It would be a terrible waste of pipe and truck. However, I am going to give you a chance. Tomorrow you take the truck and get that pipe moving. And, watch that Hell’s Gate Hill!

I had been working ten hours a day on the crane and getting huge wages as I got double time after so many hours. Now, I would double my income if I could hack it driving truck. I was very happy about it at the time but in the days to come I wished I had taken the cooking job for the crew. I found out it was no picnic driving through that mud on steep hills.

The next morning I fired up the big truck and was the first one out with a load. I was sure happy to get away from that crane. I had it figured out that if I had stayed with that, swinging back and forth, much longer, I'd get dizzy in the head. I was dizzy enough already without that.

I had no trouble at all that day. The huge ‘White’ ground its way through the mud and clay and the only place I had to be towed was up the Hell’s Gate Hill at Avola. I was in on time that night. Of course, I was a bit shook up, but feeling ok.

The next day, I really had trouble. The first I had was just as I got off the ferry, crossing the Thompson River near Avola. I suddenly met another truck coming in and I turned out for him to pass and down my wheels went into the mud. There I was stuck and one side went deeper than the other. This caused the pipe to slew all to one side. I was leaning over into the mud till I had a hard time to open the door. Bill, my boss, came along with a big cat and he looked the situation over. We hooked onto the truck and gave a heave on the cable. As he did, the truck went deeper into the mud and it was all he could do to get me moving at all but he hauled me out and, without a word, he unhooked and took off back up the road.

I felt pretty good to be back on ‘terra firma’ again with solid road under me. After tightening my binders again, I took off. I thought I was all through with old tough luck, but when I got to Hell’s Gate Hill, Bill was there ready to hook onto my truck to tow me up the hill.

I had failed to look at the tow cable till I got started up the hill and when I did get moving I glanced at it and saw that in one place it was starting to get jagged and I could see it was getting worse by the second. Then, I watched it start to shred. There was nothing I could do as we were already halfway up the grade. I held my hand on the horn and I saw Bill look back. The cable was shredding to pieces but all Bill could do was keep a steady haul on it and hope to get me to the top of the hill. Just when as I thought we would make it, I felt a lurch and the cable snapped. I lost control of the truck. It slid back in the mud.

With all my wheels still going forward, I still slid back. Then, I tried to stop the truck by breaking but the terrible strain on the breaks did not help. I was moving backward and as I looked out the window I could see the river below me with nothing to stop me from rolling right into the deep water.

Then, I looked back up the hill and saw Bill running down and waving me to jump! I watched my chance and, opening the door, I jumped out on the uphill side and landed in the mud up to my knees. The truck rolled and the binders broke. All hell seemed to burst as pipe and truck took off through the small brush rolling over and over until, with a roar, it landed in the water and disappeared. Bill was right there and helped me get out of the mud.

The first thing he said was, "Don't feel bad Mike. She is insured and old ‘Sixteen’ has had the bird for a long time and this was not your fault.” That was then I found out just how kind he was under that coat of hard talk. He washed the mud out of my eyes with his handkerchief.

"I sure hope this won't make you chicken out on me. I need you on this job," he said with a rye grin.

My remark to that was, "Oh that is nothing Bill. I hired out as a tough Joe and I can't let a little thing like this upset my career as a truck driver." After that, we went back and got another truck loaded and I had no more trouble the rest of the day.

To be continued . . .