In 2018, Doris Silva wrote the following letter to Anchorage Petroleum Women's Association members. Along with seven other women, Silva founded the Anchorage Petroleum Women's Association (then known as the Anchorage Petroleum Wives Club) in 1958 and served as the organization's first secretary (1958-1959) and eleventh president (1967-1968).
Read the letter below to learn more about life before statehood, our founding, and how our organization has changed--and stayed the same--over the years.
Oil Discovered in Alaska Anchorage Petroleum Women's Association: How We Began
1967: Silva as the Anchorage Petroleum Wives Club representative for the Mrs. Anchorage contest.
2018: Silva and her husband, Don, at the Anchorage Petroleum Women's Association Gala.
In 1957, ARCO geologists Bill Bishop and Ray Arnett needed to determine where to drill for oil in the Swanson River Field on the Kenai Peninsula, and legend has it that Bill chose a site near the Swanson River and with his boots, kicked the ground and said "drill here", and the rest is history... Those bronzed boots are on display in the Anchorage Museum.
I have to start at the beginning to tell this story... how it felt to be a young wife and mother of two small children leaving my family and the comforts of “California living” to go to Alaska: The Last Frontier, not even a State, but a Territory.
My husband, Don Silva, was working for Standard Oil Company of California (now Chevron Oil) in San Francisco and Standard Oil would take over as the operator for the Swanson River discovery. Don was given one weekend to decide if he would accept a transfer to Alaska to set up the Company office in Anchorage. We said yes, and little did we know we would be in for the adventure of our lifetimes for the next 30 years! Our furniture was brought up on a barge….but that’s another story!
The first commercial oil-producing well in Alaska drilled in Swanson River in 1957, brought many petroleum people from California, Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana for this major oil discovery on the Kenai Peninsula. In addition, that discovery was the “tipping point” to push Alaska in becoming the 49th State. The economy of Alaska would now be substantial enough to expedite Alaska becoming a State. Oil continues to be produced sixty years later, and in July 2017, Hilcorp Alaska, the current producer of oil for that discovery, hosted an event to celebrate the discovery well and to recognize the people over the last 60 years who have been associated with that first discovery.
My husband Don, was recognized at the celebration for being part of that first-generation era.
Now to continue….Leaving our home in Walnut Creek, California to fly to Alaska took two days. A night stop-over in Seattle, then changing planes to “Pacific Northern Airlines” was necessary, with refueling in Juneau....no jet planes back then. We arrived in Anchorage on April 18,1958. A couple from Standard Oil who had already arrived in Anchorage met us at the airport. The ride from the airport to downtown was on muddy, winding, unpaved and pot holed Spenard Road. I saw dirty snow, slushy streets, bare limbs on the trees, and no green grass or flowers... and it was April. My first thought was "they call this God’s Country because He is the only one that would want it”!!
I was homesick and isolated. Phone calls were too expensive to call my parents in California. We had only “land lines” and it was like making an International phone call. Sometimes it took hours of waiting for the circuits to clear. Mail took forever to arrive. The two television stations showed programs two weeks later than the "Lower 48”. Housing was almost non-existent. "Fresh" produce was trucked up the Alaska Highway, a variety of food items at the grocery store couldn't be found, and we shopped by snail-mail order from the Sears catalog. We lived at the downtown Travelers Inn for four months until we could move into a small upstairs, two-bedroom apartment on Fireweed Lane – no address – just a dirt trail between trees to get to the apartment. We came from a three-bedroom home on an acre of land...with green grass and flowers… in April.
Other wives were experiencing this culture shock, so a group of about 15 of us "Petroleum Wives" would meet for lunch at the Forest Park Country Club (now the location of the Atwood home). Eight women from this group who were from different parts of the “Lower 48”, and whose husbands were employed by the oil companies involved with the Swanson River discovery, decided to form an organization; a support club for petroleum wives. The eight of us met at Jean Gilbert’s home in Turnagain, and after much discussion, we chose a name that we felt identified us: “Anchorage Petroleum Wives Club". We wrote our by-laws and the first officers were elected. To be a member, your husband had to be employed by an oil company. It wasn't too much longer that we recognized the importance of extending the membership to include wives whose husbands worked for the oil service companies.
We knew the importance of newcomers being met and welcomed at the airport, and our first priority was to welcome families when they arrived. A Coffee or Tea was given almost weekly to welcome a newcomer to “Our Town”, and we would help them with where to live and shop, where to get a doctor, dentist, etc. and how to cope with the transition to the “Last Frontier”... the isolation, long winters, and lack of commodities! As a close knit support group, we found ways to make living in Alaska easier. Our group of women would work together to find solutions to get what we needed. Piggly Wiggly was our super market, and the variety of food items were limited. But, we found a solution for getting something we needed. If Piggly Wiggly didn’t carry an item we needed for a certain recipe...we passed the word around to the other wives, who would in turn go to the store and ask for that item...and with “supply and demand” we would soon find it on the grocery shelf.
When we started the organization, we thought of it as being a support and social activity club; and, as the first Secretary of the organization, my minutes reflected the social nature of our group (and the era)... who had a new hat, who was expecting visitors from the Lower 48, and who had traveled "outside" recently. But, we soon realized if we were going to live in this community, we had to be part of it and support the community. We decided to do a fund raiser, and our first fund raiser project provided $500 to a very needy organization in Anchorage. Over the years the “Charity Gala Balls” have been instrumental as a fundraiser event to give back to the community. And, of course, a chance to “dress to the nines”.
The Ball was just one of the activities available to members of this organization. We started an investment group, cross country ski group, book group, sewing group, golf group, bridge group, cooking classes...well, you name it — if there was enough interest in a particular activity...a group was formed…..and is still the case. Although it was for the wives, there were always functions that included the husbands and children. Those of us who had young children would take them sledding down Cordova Hill, ice skating on Blue Berry Lake, swimming in the summers at Goose Lake, just to name a few. We would pack our camping trailers to go in the summer for weekends at Finger Lake in Wasilla or head south to the Kenai Peninsula to the camp grounds and fishing at Seward, Soldotna, Homer…..before there was "combat fishing" and paved roads and stop signs!!!
We became “Alaskans” and fell in love with this “Great Land” of ice and snow in the winter, with its intriguing Northern Lights and the summers of long daylight where we could play outdoors in the “midnight sun”. Where just on the outskirts of Our Town, we stepped into a wilderness and the most majestic mountains in the world. Our 2 years stint became 30 years (on our request) Oh! The 1964 earthquake – Yep! We were there!!!
Sixty years ago, a group of us started an organization called the "Anchorage Petroleum Wives Club” to support each other and give back to our community. And today it continues to be a strong and viable organization with those same guiding principles. In 2017, the name was changed to the "Anchorage Petroleum Women's Association” to recognize that women are very much a part of the petroleum industry. It was the strength and foresight of the petroleum wives that started this great organization, and today it is the women of this organization who are very much a part of the petroleum industry and a strong force in this Great Last Frontier. It is truly an honor to have been a founding member of this organization and to have witnessed the blessings it has brought to so many and to the community.