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July 2019

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The Electrician at the End of the Earth:
An Antarctic Adventure

A globetrotter at heart, John Murphy was already adept at swapping his Queens apartment for digs in Europe, Asia, South America and the Caribbean.

Then he had a lightbulb moment — a way to see a part of the world few people ever do.

"I was watching a nature documentary about Antarctica and they made a passing mention of the McMurdo Station," said Murphy, a New York City Local 3 journeyman wireman. "I starting Googling."

He quickly realized that the gateway to the South Pole was more than a frigid outpost for a handful of lonely scientists. He saw assorted buildings, even stores and a post office — a small town of sorts running on its own power grid.

Where there's electricity, Murphy figured, there have to be electricians.

With a few more clicks, he found the government contractor that supplies seasonal workers to McMurdo, the U.S. National Science Foundation research center on Antarctica's Ross Island. He emailed his resume and got a swift response. The contractor — despite being nonunion — clearly understood what IBEW-trained electricians bring.

"It definitely gives you a leg up," Murphy said. "It tells them that you meet a certain criteria. That streamlined it for me."

The logistics took longer — interviews, medical checks, security clearances. Meanwhile he pursued his everyday adventures as a Local 3 electrician at New York City landmarks like Grand Central Station and the Empire State building.

Look toward the midtown Manhattan sky at night and you'll see some of his handiwork. He was proud to work on the famous skyscraper, part of an IBEW team changing old inefficient flood lights to new computer-controlled LEDs that allow them to do many more colors, effects and light shows, he said.

Some 9,300 miles away, the landscape surrounding the South Pole couldn't be more different. But it has its own sightseeing thrills — graceful pods of orcas, mama seals and their babies emerging from cracks in the ice-covered waters, and, of course, the famous penguins waddling on the frozen shore.

"As cute as advertised," Murphy confirms.

'Like the Last Frontier'

The sheer vastness of it all struck Murphy when he got his first look at Antarctica in early November 2017. It was springtime.

"It's intimidating, kind of like being on the last frontier," Murphy said. "I remember studying the explorers and how they went places that only a few people had laid their eyes on. That's what sunk in."

In Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier that day, Murphy buckled himself into a jump seat on a U.S. Air Force C-17 for the five-hour flight to Antarctica.

He had lots of company — scientists, trades workers and support staff heading to jobs for the Antarctic summer or longer stints. Murphy's contract was three months, a project running a high-voltage feed over tricky terrain to a NASA satellite tracking station.

He'd approached Local 3 leaders about his plans, ensuring that as long as he returned within six months and his dues were paid, there'd be no issues with his status or health insurance. "They were incredibly supportive," he said.

"Brother Murphy showed another continent what it means to be a Local 3 member and how IBEW's unparalleled training gave him the skills to excel as a journeyman electrician anywhere in the world, whether it's the South Pole or New York City," said Business Manager Chris Erikson, also chairman of the International Executive Council.

Erikson noted that as part of Electricians Without Borders North America, four Local 3 members are went to Angola in June to help power a hospital. "Wherever our members travel for work — whether it's for public service, an adventure like John's or in the aftermath of a hurricane or other natural disaster — they make us proud," he said.

Murphy, 35, grew up in a union home in Queens and understood the value of unions. But he took an unusual path to Local 3.

He'd hurt his knee while playing college hockey and lost his scholarship. Healing back home, he joined friends for league games, planning to return to school. Meanwhile, Local 3's team needed a goalie. Word of mouth led to Murphy, who signed on to play and then — at his teammates' urging — applied to be an apprentice.

"I am so lucky to have ended up where I am," he said. "Sometimes you find the right path and sometimes the right path finds you."

Summer at the South Pole

Murphy was among as many as 1,100 Americans at times populating McMurdo Station during the polar summer. They even had neighbors. A smaller New Zealand base with a popular bar and an "American night" on Thursdays was less than two miles away.

He bunked and ate meals in a dormitory, but spent as much time as possible outdoors in round-the-clock daylight, where temperatures often weren't as numbing as he'd expected. The thermostat hit the upper 20s some days and felt even warmer at times.

Still, an unusual amount of snow fell for the summer months and biting winds were beastly. When the wind kicked up, he said, "you always have to be careful what you let go of, making sure everything is kind of weighted down."

That was one of the challenges as he navigated volcanic gravel and permafrost to replace the weather-beaten high-voltage lines serving the satellite tracking station above McMurdo. NASA says it's a perfect location for data-collecting spacecraft to connect with users around the world.

Murphy's job, which sometimes involved one partner and other times as many as 15 people, upgraded the power infrastructure that makes that possible.

"It was mostly running three-inch conduit cable tray and also pulling the cable over a 4,000-foot run to the tracking station on a top of a hill overlooking McMurdo," he said. "You definitely have to take it slow. It's very rocky where we were working, a lot of loose rocks."

In Murphy's spare time, McMurdo offered cross-country skis, bicycles and loads of activities — chili cookoffs, foot races, softball games, and Sunday-night science lectures. For letting loose, weekend bar nights and parties featured bands of worker-musicians. The biggest bash was New Year's Eve, a blowout known as IceStock with live music under the midnight sun.

Murphy particularly enjoyed hiking, which let him observe seals and penguins on the ice below. He heeded warnings not to get too close to the tuxedoed birds, mostly of the petite Adélie variety, but watching them was still a rush.

"I saw three of them running around and they were talking, engaging with each other," he said. "I was giggling like a schoolgirl. It was pretty incredible to see."

But, he cautions, "it's not all penguins and parties." For interested IBEW brothers and sisters, he doesn't want to paint too rosy a picture.

"It gets very boring at times and it's tough work in tough conditions" he said. "And you're away from your family at the holidays. You can feel very disconnected from the outside world."

Travel Fever

Murphy flew back to New Zealand in February 2018, taking an extended layover to indulge his travel bug and explore Asia before heading home.

"After you finish your contract, you can postpone your flight home from New Zealand for a month and a half," he said. "That was a big selling point for me."

He flew to Tokyo, then South Korea, where he saw the USA hockey team play Russia in the Winter Olympics, then on to Vietnam, Singapore, the Maldives and Bali, capping off his journey with a quick stop in Sydney, Australia.

These days, back in the fold at Local 3, he's doing electrical work on runways at JFK Airport as part of a $355 million reconstruction project.

The irony isn't lost on him.

"I see the planes taking off all day," he said. "My mind is thinking, 'Where's that one off to?'"

Find more photos and additional details about John Murphy's polar journey at


John Murphy's work laying cable tray and pulling cable over a 4,000-foot run upgraded the power infrastructure that allows NASA's satellite tracking station to deliver research data to users around the world.


John Murphy shows his Local 3 pride at McMurdo Station, the U.S. research center established in Antarctica in 1955.


For three months, the journeyman electrician traded the lights of New York City for a job with polar thrills that included massive Weddell seals.