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Sheehan Pipe Line moves into 2nd century of service. (1903-2003: 100 Years of Success).

Only one American firm has laid pipelines continuously since the beginning of the 20th century. After 100 years, that Tulsa-based company, Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Co., continues to stand out as one of North America's pre-eminent builders of pipelines. From those early days when pipeline gangs used the brawn of horse or oxen teams to lay pipeline, a Sheehan has been supervising pipeline projects across the United States and Canada.

With David Sheehan marking the fourth generation of the family heading the company, it is a company quite different from the one that John (also known as Jack) Sheehan founded in Bradford, PA. Those many years of experience have taught David Sheehan the need to have a company that is flexible enough to adapt to today's strenuous business cycles. It is that ability to change with the times that will enable Sheehan Pipe Line Co. to maintain its role as an industry leader in the years to come.

Yet despite the new technology, environmental rules, corporate moves and social changes that have filtered through the pipeline construction business, it is still an industry that requires manpower to dig a hole and lay a pipe, often under the most rigorous of circumstances. For a century, each generation of Sheehan placed its own imprint on the company's history, and the result is a company of historic dimensions.

In its century of service, Sheehan Pipeline has worked for 250 clients, building more than 24,000 miles of pipe in 46 states and Canada.

The Pioneering Pipeliner

Jack Sheehan has born in New York City in 1854; at age 22, he moved to Bradford, PA, where he met and married Mary Teresa Nolan. Together they would raise five sons and five daughters. First employed as a blacksmith for a toolmaking company, in the early 1880s Sheehan became a contractor and with a partner named Patrick McGhan, picked up some municipal contracts to build streets in Bradford. They were considered among the best-paved streets in the East, according to records.

The first commercial gas pipeline was laid in the U.S. in 1872. Sheehan's first pipeline job was on a gas line built in 1886 by United Natural Gas Co. to Buffalo, NY from the McKean County gas fields near Bradford. A year later, he and partner Barney Kelley built a 6-inch distribution line for Manufacturer Gas Co., bringing gas from nearby fields into Bradford which had relied on fuel oil until then. The job took just 46 days, something that seemed unheard of at that time.

These were the days pre-underground construction, and it created a growing problem because people kept running into gas lines. Finally, after a number of fines were levied and a few deadly accidents occurred in Kansas, lawmakers ruled that they had to be buried, at least at road crossings.

Jack Sheehan continued to work on a number of pipeline projects in the Pennsylvania gas fields through the rest of the 1880s and 1890s. Records indicate that he was widely regarded as a pioneer in laying of lines and building tank pads.

By 1900, attention had shifted to the oil and gas fields of the Southwest and in 1903 Sheehan moved to Oklahoma where he formally established Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Company and began building lines and tank pads in the MidContinent fields. At one time he worked for the Prairie Oil Co. and built a 20-mile line. As the company grew, he was often plagued by a problem still heard from contractors today. "We're having trouble getting citizens to man shovels, so we have to resort to hiring foreigners," was his complaint.

Between 1905 and 1915, records indicate that family members traveled between Tulsa and Bradford about twice a year. From 1915-21, most of the family migrated to Oklahoma. One son, John B. Sheehan (David's grandfather), stayed behind in Bradford to run the brick factory. He was also involved in building some pipelines on his own. As they manufactured the bricks and then laid the streets, the company was vertically integrated.

Jack Sheehan continued to run the company until his death in 1921. John B. Sheehan would have been chosen to run the pipeline construction company, but because of a diabetes condition, the family felt a younger son, Ray, was better equipped for the rigors of the construction company. Ray took over and brother-in-law Joe Horrigan was named vice president with John B., who had now moved to Oklahoma, becoming secretary treasurer. John B. took over upon Ray's death in 1939 and ran the company until 1954.

While H.C. Price was knownfor pioneering electric welding, Jack Sheehan was one of the pioneers of acetylene welding. He was quoted as saying, "I think this acetylene welding might work; it's a real efficient way of joining pipe." This process could make a weld in 30 minutes and required just three men versus 30 who needed unwieldy tongs and screws to handle pipe.

The Roaring '20s

The oil boom of the Roaring '20s fueled the growth of energy business and Sheehan expanded rapidly. During that prosperous decade, the company completed some 200 jobs totaling 4,000 miles, including 1,500 miles for Prairie Pipe Line Company and part of Southern Natural Gas Company's original system in Alabama and Georgia. Sheehan was also involved in construction of the first large diameter gas pipeline in the Hugoton basin.

In the 1920s, the spreads became known as "gangs," and Sheehan employed five gangs, some of which had 150 men, for much of that decade. They were paid 45 cents an hour; a team of horses cost $1 per hour and foremen were paid $6.45 a day. Camp expenses as well as oats and hay for the teams, also figured in the accounting.

In 1920, John's son Robert D. Sheehan was born. He would become known throughout the pipeline business as Bob. Bob served in England as a B-24 pilot. He returned in 1945, with plans to re-enlist in the service. His father had other plans for him. Since Bob had never had a honeymoon, John B. told him to take a week off. When he returned, he was promptly handed the keys to the pipeline company. John B. said he wanted to retire and do some traveling.

The Great Depression

Like the rest of the business world, pipeline contracting suffered greatly. During the height of the Depression--1932-33--the pipeline company was down to a single employee, the shop foreman. Today, David Sheehan still shakes his head and says "how they survived, I don't know." It's also why today he considers his--and the industry's--greatest challenge as trying to figure out new ways each day to make money.

"Surviving the cyclical nature of the business is a constant challenge. You get used to them but they're difficult to adjust to because each one is different. You just know they're coming. But they're hard to deal with."

Business did pick up later in the decade and the company began to work nationally. By the time the time decade ended, Sheehan had completed more than 125 jobs totaling 2,100 miles of pipe in 12 states. Among its projects were completion of the original line for Great Lakes Pipe Line Co. to Kansas City and more than 500 miles of pipe for Stanolind Pipeline Co. in Illinois and Missouri.

The '30s were also marked by the presence of a legendary superintendent. As his nickname implies, a pint-sized pipeliner named Toughie Griffith was said to be so tough that he supposedly could whip any four men twice his size. As a result, perhaps, Sheehan projects were known to be done in a timely manner.

The War Years

One of Sheehan's hardest workers started on the job in 1937. Bob Sheehan was just 17 when he first worked on a pipeline. During the war years and up to his enlistment, he knew Pennsylvania like the back of his hand, having chauffeured his father back and forth in an old Packard nine times to check on the War Emergency Pipeline, which later became known as the legendary "Big Inch" pipeline. In Illinois and Indiana, Sheehan built 200 miles of the Texas to Pennsylvania oil pipeline along with three pump stations. Sheehan also worked on the sister pipeline known as the "Little Inch." Today, those pipelines remain among the greatest accomplishments of all of those involved.

The Illinois oil basin provided a major boost to Sheehan's activities, and along with Indiana and Ohio, became a stronghold for work. The company had as many as six spreads working at one time in the early 1940s for the Illinois Pipeline Company.

After the war, the company completed projects throughout the nation, cementing its reputation as a national pipeline contractor. During the '40s, the company built a total of 2,500 miles of pipelines working 160 separate jobs. These included work in the Elk Basin Field in Wyoming for Ohio Oil Co. The company built a 12-inch line in Minnesota for Great Lakes Pipeline and a line in Pennsylvania for Sinclair Refinery. Sheehan returned to the South to build additional looping for Southern Natural Gas Co. in Georgia.

The Gas Boom

Natural gas became a major fuel of choice during the 1950s and development of the infrastructure helped spur the nation's growth, especially for the industrial sector. Sheehan's first major project was the installation of 250 miles of 16- to 24-inch pipe in Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia for long-time customer Southern Natural Gas. This work included five major river crossings.

The end of World War II marked James H. Nolan Sr.'s entry into the company. He became Bob's partner in the early 1950's and continued as such until he retired. Upon his father's retirement, James H. Nolan II became a partner. Jim has worked for the company since 1958, and today Jim and David manage the oldest pipeline construction company in the country.

In the '50s, Sheehan also established a continuing relationship with Buckeye Pipeline Co. That Pennsylvania-based company hired Sheehan to lay more than 1,000 miles of pipe. The company also completed over 180 miles of the pipe in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for Sun Pipe Line, including several major river crossings. Sheehan marched across the border for the first time, working on the Interprovincial Pipe Line System (now part of Enbridge) in a joint venture.

David Sheehan, growing up during that decade, remembers being awed by the business, at least by the equipment which seemed larger than life to a little boy.

"My first memory came when Dad took me out to a crossing we were doing on the Red River when I was about 8 years old. I remember riding on a bulldozer and getting wet as it crossed the river. I just thought it was neat to see the big equipment and lots of big piles of dirt and sand, a lot cooler than the little piles I was playing with in the backyard," he said. During the summers, the Sheehans would vacation in Florida, except for Bob, who would pipeline around the nation.

Natural gas continued to fuel the nation's growth with a large part of today's pipeline network built in the 1960s. By the end of the decade, Sheehan had performed 195 jobs and completed over 3,500 miles of pipe. One of its largest projects ever was the installment of 800 miles of gathering and trunk lines and the hook-up of 500 wells for Transwestern Pipeline Co. in New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. Atlantic Pipe Line Co. hired Sheehan to complete 76 miles of 14-inch pipe across 12 mountain ranges and the solid rock crossing of the Susquehanna River. In mid-decade, Sheehan installed 70 miles of 14-inch pipe in Colorado for Cascade Natural Gas Co., one of the highest pipeline projects in the nation at that time.

Ranked high among its list of achievements was the construction for Shell Oil of a 350-mile, 12-inch pipeline from Wood River, IL to Lima, OH. This was a record for one single spread east of the Mississippi in one season.

The end of the '60s also marked a subtle change in the work relationships between contractors and operating companies. Where once a handshake and a man's word were all that were needed to seal a deal, a distance began evolving as the structures of many companies began changing, either through consolidation or downsizing. Engineering departments were no longer the same, and as more auditors and regulators began looking over their shoulders, competitive bidding became the norm.

"In Dad's day it wasn't unusual to develop a relationship with a company and not have to bid jobs for maybe years at a time. Instead, you'd sit down and negotiate a fair price and go do the work," said David Sheehan, who adds that competitive bidding comprises nearly all of the company's jobs today.

Sheehan began in the 1970s completing 150 miles of 16-inch for Williams Brothers Pipe Line Co. in Missouri and Iowa. The company displayed its versatility by completing 31 miles of 26-inch and 48-inch welded steel water line for Bechtel Power and Montana Power in Montana. A unique feature of this job was its internal coating with coal tar.

The company expanded to 42-inch maintain pipe by installing 13 miles in Illinois for Michigan Wisconsin Gas Co. and laid a 104-mile, 20-inch line to Southern Natural Gas Co.'s new LNG plant in Savannah, GA. In 1979, Sheehan bought a double-joint rack and completed 5,900 welds that year. As a result of the gas industry's emphasis on safety and pipeline integrity, Sheehan also participated in pipeline rehabilitation by hydrostatically testing more than 2,600 miles of pipe, including 1,600 miles for Natural Gas Pipe Line Company of America.

As the 1980s emerged, the industry matured and pipeline projects were fewer and far between. The era of natural gas deregulation was approaching, but had not yet resulted in a substantial growth of pipeline construction. Sheehan completed 154 jobs and 1,100 miles of pipelines, but was continuing to find important work in rehabilitation projects. It hydrostatically tested more than 1,400 miles of existing pipelines and its young double-jointing business flourished, completing 27,000 welds or nearly 400 miles of pipe welding. Among its notable projects were sections of Northern Border Pipeline and the Trailblazer Pipeline. A major pipeline construction job in the south was 84 miles of 20-inch and 30-inch in seven loops in Alabama and Georgia with two major river crossings for Southern Natural Gas Co.

In 1986-87, Sheehan was hired by Texas Eastern Transmission Co. on a massive pipe replacement program. Operating under a call-out agreement, Sheehan furnished as many as eight spreads working from Kentucky to New Jersey. Ultimately, these spreads replaced pipe in more than 1,200 locations. Some of 36-inch pipe in place of the original 24-inch War Emergency Pipeline.

Deregulation Is Here

The 1990s was a period of sustained growth for natural gas pipelines as gas became the fuel of choice for powering the increasing demand for energy and led to construction of numerous power plants. Sheehan worked in most of the major projects built in the decade and was among the top three PLCA contractors in work volume every year of the decade. Sheehan spreads worked in 38 of the 50 states, handling 110 jobs and laying 2,100 miles of pipes.

In 1991, Sheehan built two sections of the Kern River gas pipeline in Nevada and Utah. The next year that same spread started work on a two-year program for Pacific Gas & Electric's pipeline expansion project. This massive project stretched from the Canadian border to central California. Sheehan's work was comprised of 118 miles of 42-inch and 110 miles of 36-inch. This was the largest contract ever completed by the company with a total value of $108 million.

In 1995, Sheehan completed 100 miles of 20-inch pipe for Tuscarora Gas Transmission Co. in Oregon and California. The same spread moved to Wyoming the following year and built 107 miles of 24-inch oil pipeline for The Express Pipeline Partnership.

The last two years of the decade were some of the busiest years in the company's history. While running as many as five spreads on different projects, the company completed many notable projects, including 72 miles in Illinois and Iowa for Northern Border Pipeline's expansion.

The last year of the decade saw Sheehan spreads completing sections of new pipeline for the Alliance Pipeline and for the cross-border Maritimes and Northeast Pipeline. The company used automatic welding for the first time on the Alliance project. The Maritimes project was widely praised for the handling of the sensitive environmental conditions in the state of Maine.

The New Millennium

In 2000, Sheehan was again working on a section of a major gas pipeline expansion project. With completion of the Northern Border Expansion and the Alliance Pipeline into the Chicago area, the need to move the gas farther eastward resulted in construction of the Vector Pipeline to Detroit. Sheehan's section of 103 miles of 42-inch pipe was completed on a tight schedule through some extremely difficult areas. The job required a peak manpower of 850 men, making it the largest single spread ever fielded by Sheehan.

The next year saw Sheehan again participating in a pioneering effort. The Gulfstream Natural Gas System began onshore in Mobile, AL, crossing the Gulf of Mexico to come onshore near Tampa, FL as the first new pipeline system in Florida in more than 40 years. Sheehan built all of the Florida mainland system consisting of 126 miles of pipe from 12- to 36-inch. The work was successfully completed ahead of schedule without any project environmental citations.

Sheehan begins its 100th year working on major projects for Transco, Kern River, and Kinder Morgan totaling over 200 miles of large-diameter pipe. But David Sheehan, who joined the company full time in 1970, became a partner in 1977, and began managing the firm in 1981, knows his company has to be more resourceful than ever to survive during these tricky economic times.

"We just finished three or four years that I wouldn't call a boom, but were fairly moderate to heavy activity. My opinion is that 2003 might be one of the toughest year's I've ever faced in my 35 years in the business in terms of volume. There's some work out there, but most of it has been bid and if you haven't got a job already, the chances of you finding one the rest of the year don't look good," Sheehan said.

His own company will likely have to return to some of its roots and do a lot more rehabilitation work, specifically testing and pipe replacement.

"We cut our teeth on rehabilitation in the '60s and '70s when that started. The new Pipeline Safety Act is going to generate as much as $5 billion worth of work over the next 10 years. That's not to say there's anything wrong with the pipeline system, but a large part of it is 50-75 years old. In order to be prudent, the gas companies are going to have to take a hard look at pipeline integrity management systems they run and determine where their risks and what the benefits are of replacing it," he said.

Sheehan said a restructuring of the company may be in order with concentration on the core company.

"It may mean going back to smaller jobs and more of them to get the kind of volume that our company needs to survive," he said. "We've tried a few levels of diversification, but in tough times, I've learned that you better stick with what you know."

Is there a future for the family-owned construction company?

"I hope so. Family-owned construction companies add a lot of value to the owners. The people that have been in the business a long time should be trusted to do a good job because they know their livelihood depends on it day in and day out. Their reputation, too. All of us are proud of what we do and proud of what we built and we don't want to do anything that would tarnish that reputation.

Changes In the Industry

"Thinking about the old times, I marvel at how tough those guys must have been," Sheehan said. "Some of the old superintendents we had, like Roughhouse Brown, you don't imagine that he got a name like that by doing things the way we them today. In my generation, it's become a big business requiring sophisticated management technique and lots of dealings not only with clients but regulatory agencies, the public, environmentalists, etc.

"In my lifetime, I've seen the environmental aspects of the business go from 0 to as much as 15 to 20 percent of the costs now are expended on satisfying those concerns with permits, etc." The company employs a permanent staff of 70, including a full time person involved only in environmental issues.

On each spread, there is usually person charged with overseeing all of the environmental work who might have several foremen under him.

"From my point of view, I don't think pipeliners ever ignored the environment, but we never really got credit for what we did. In the early days our mantra was that we'd come in, tear up things, but we'd always restore them to as good or better than they were. That's what I was taught."

Landowner issues are also at the forefront today and require another specialist who acts as a contact man on every job.

"Back then, they probably looked for guys who could do a little bit of everything. Those people are still valuable today but because of the complexity of some of the work you tend to look for different skills and hire someone else to do something slightly different. For example, the environmental guy is not going to be your someone different from your engineering guy as well.

"Today, a pipeline spread man has to be a lot more things than he had to be in past generations. He has to be really good people person. The ability to maybe fire or run someone off like you did back then is not available today. The social requirements, harassment, all kinds of things come into play today. The work force is a lot more diverse. You see resistance in some of the old time field managers, some are retiring, but the ones that still do well have been able to learn and adapt.

And the bottom line is still the same.

"Maybe the methods are a little more sophisticated, but the work is still digging the ditch and putting pipe in the ground."

As he looks back on his company's 100 years, Sheehan ponders the individual who may have meant the most to the company. It's no surprise that he selected someone with whom he often fought, but never stopped loving or respecting.

"Dad molded it to what it is today. Of all the people I've known in my years, I never heard anyone say a bad word about Bob Sheehan (who died in 1998). That's something to be proud of. He built the reputation. There are companies that are bigger and laid more pipe that we did, but the name Sheehan deserves that credit, because of his character."

(Jessica Renard of Sheehan Pipe Line Construction Company contributed to this article.)
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Comment:Sheehan Pipe Line moves into 2nd century of service. (1903-2003: 100 Years of Success).
Author:Share, Jeff
Publication:Pipeline & Gas Journal
Article Type:Company Profile
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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