It was back in 1918, and the young California oil worker was on his first job, one he would always remember.
By Duane Valentry, written February 1967
“My first job with Union Oil was walking pipeline. We used threaded pipe in those days, which had a tendency to leak where the lengths were screwed together. Since the pipeline followed almost a direct route through the mountains and valleys, at some distance from the farm roads, we had to inspect it afoot or on horseback. In the flat areas around Junction, some of our line walkers enjoyed the luxury of a horse and buggy.”
The company gave Bob Fleig a saddle horse, a pick and shovel, and several days of schooling with the man he was to replace. Then he and the horse were on their own.
“Lucky for me, the horse knew the job better than I did at first. All I had to do was to give him his head. He followed the buried pipeline as if it was a beaten trail to the barn.”
Because of his recollection of those early days and the important part the savvy of the horse played in doing the job, Fleig doesn’t go along with those who try to maintain the intelligence of a horse isn’t up to that of some other animals. He remembers differently.
That horse, and this Bob recalls especially well, even knew when not to follow the buried pipeline. Even the man riding had to think twice about this at times.
“For instance, the line at one point went through a farmer’s grain field. The farmer, naturally, didn’t want any livestock trampling down his crop. So the horse would always stop to let me off at the edge, then walk around the field and meet me on the opposite side.”
In those days pipeline walking wasn’t considered a bad job at all for a young man. Particularly if he had the desire to be outdoors instead of stuck in an office, and especially if he liked to ride a horse.
A man, going along well, might average about 14 miles a day, taking him from one small town to another for a day’s work.
Says Bob: “Yup, I remember the first day – from Creston to Shandon – the second from Shandon to Antelope – the third from Antelope to Junction. Then I’d turn around and reverse the three-day march back home. We always had a week to rest up.”
Although the horse also seemed to like his work, both man and horse were glad of that week between to loaf around before starting out on the next rugged march.
Not that there was any real hardship. In those days, the company maintained boarding houses at several of the pumping stations, and the man and his horse never lacked for good food to eat or a place to sleep.
Since the job meant spotting pipeline leaks, eyes were kept to the ground and there was no time for letting the gaze wander around the landscape and possibly missing a leak.
“As I remember it, we used to spot an average of about two pipeline leaks a day,” says Bob, who stayed with Union Oil Company in the years that followed. “The leak would appear to be a darkened area, as if someone had poured a little oil on the ground.”
When keen eyes noted such a spot, the pipeline walker would dismount and set to with pick and shovel to bare the pipe and locate the trouble. Usually the line walker could hammer some calking material into the break to patch things up until the maintenance crew could get there with saddle clamps or new pipe.
“But if the break was a bad one, you rode as fast as you could to the nearest pump station and called for help. The line walker then waited ’til the repair crew arrived, then led ’em to the trouble spot – even if it took all night. We never worried about hours or overtime, just leaks.”
Tales grew up about the line walkers and their mounts – both usually sturdy and accustomed to all kinds of weather and all kinds of terrain. Was a black storm hanging over ready to drop its torrents? Was lightning streaking through the woods ahead – was the trail rough, steep, and sometimes hard to see and follow?
Neither the man or his mount let things like this hold them back. Sure it was no work for a sissy, man or beast, but there was a man’s job to be done and somebody had to do it.
Line walkers like Robert Fleig were healthy men, good riders, and, in a sense, dedicated men. They had, along with a feeling of doing a big job in a big country, a love of the open spaces and, inevitably, a keen sense of humor.
In later years, when he worked the “wheel” instead of the reins, Bob often remembered those days out there in the saddle and he had to admit he often missed them once they were gone.
According to Bob, who retired in 1964 at age 65, they tell some great stories “about us line walkers, especially the buggy riders. One of ’em fell asleep one day as his buggy rolled along. When he awoke, the buggy had stopped and the horse refused to move. Jumping down to investigate, the line walker found himself standing right over a pipeline leak. At least the horse hadn’t been asleep. Guess that’s where the expression common horse sense came from.”
Horse play, too, was often a means to lighten the labor, at least for some. Not that the line walker they called Pete the Greek, one of the luxury men in the horse-and-buggy class, would agree. One day, the boys at a company boarding house, Fleig among them, decided to have some fun at this easy riding, luxury man’s expense, and reversed the wheels on his buggy, putting the small ones behind and the large ones up front.
“Pete spent most of the day wondering why the old route seemed all uphill. It wasn’t until he tried to apply the buggy brake that he caught on.”
Well, times change and things move along. Like other uses of the horse, this one gave way in the name of progress, with planes later scanning the lines and making up in speed and efficiency what they lacked in plain horse sense.
Days of pipeline walking and riding may be gone forever, but even over the span of most of a lifetime the memories still stick – of the old horses that knew the work they were supposed to do as well, and sometimes even better, than the men and boys who rode them.