Expensive CANOL project still raises eyebrows

The achievements of the Alaska Highway construction are well known and its impact upon shaping the future of the Yukon is profound. Because of it, Whitehorse became the transportation hub of the Yukon.

The achievements of the Alaska Highway construction are well known and its impact upon shaping the future of the Yukon is profound. Because of it, Whitehorse became the transportation hub of the Yukon.

Another project, equally ambitious, but disastrously unsuccessful, was the CANOL pipeline. If you haven’t heard much about the project, don’t be alarmed. The U.S. Army was too embarrassed by the project to publicize it. Today, reference to the CANOL conjures up images of rows of abandoned trucks rusting away along the old road. So what really happened?

My interest was renewed recently by a well-attended talk given at the MacBride museum. Organized by Pat Ellis, it was a presentation by author S.R. (Sandy) Gage describing his 1988 walk along the eastern portion of the old CANOL route from MacMillan Pass to Norman Wells. His book, A Walk on the Canol Road, was a product of this 21-day solo hike across the wilderness of the Northwest Territories.

The CANOL project was, like its sibling, the Alaska Military Highway, a product of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. With coastal shipping exposed to possible attack from Japanese submarines, an interior land route to Alaska and an alternate supply of petroleum were considered to be strategic priorities.

CANOL, or Canadian American Norman Oil Line, was given the green light by General Brehon B. Somervell in a one-page, two-paragraph memorandum, on May 30, 1942. Somervell was the second-most powerful man in the United States Army, and once touted as a future candidate for the presidency of the United States.

Canada was slow to get on board, but finally rubber stamped the project, which was already underway on June 29, 1942. With the Japanese invasion of American territory on the Aleutian Islands commencing June 3, this seemed like an obvious decision.

The project consisted of several elements: more drilling at Norman Wells, N.W.T., to boost oil output, construction of a pipeline and service road from Norman Wells to Whitehorse, the construction of a refinery in Whitehorse and a pipeline system to distribute the product where it was needed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set a strict timetable. A transportation system would be in place from Edmonton to Norman Wells by June 15. A pipeline would be constructed and completed by September 15, and a refinery capable of processing 3,000 barrels of crude a day would be operational by October 1. The problem was that neither General Somervell nor the Corps of Engineers had ever seen the proposed route, nor had they any idea of the challenges that lay before them.

Norman Wells was only accessible by a tenuous supply line down the Mackenzie River. The pipeline was to go through uncharted isolated territory. The weather was a factor that the engineers were unprepared for, and they would have to deal with something that none of them had ever encountered before: permafrost.

The project did not meet its original timetable. In fact, it took a year to establish the supply lines to Norman Wells before the pipeline construction could commence. Roads gouged through rough terrain turned into quaking bogs as the permafrost was disturbed. Forest fires were so extensive that poor visibility prevented air supplies from being landed.

The engineers soldiered on. With a seemingly endless supply of money, they managed to construct a string of three-kilometre-long airstrips along the Mackenzie River. Simultaneously, a pipeline was constructed from Skagway to Whitehorse to supply fuel. Not one tanker that supplied oil products along coastal Alaska was ever sunk by enemy action.

The year 1942 came to an end, and there was no oil. The 1943 rolled by and there was still no oil. The Japanese were driven from the Aleutians by mid-August of 1943, so the urgency and threat had lessened, but the army forged ahead. General Somervell stubbornly refused to let go of CANOL, stating in a memo: “the project will be completed in December or January. It is utterly foolhardy to talk of discontinuing the project at this stage of the game.”

Not everybody agreed with Somervell’s assessment. There was a squirming can of self-interested worms involved in the CANOL project. Disgruntled opponents in the bureaucracy voiced their opposition to continuing. Turf wars were rife. The Canadian government was up in arms over the threat to sovereignty posed by the friendly army of occupation, and American officials withheld vital information from Canada. CANOL was a major irritant in American-Canadian relations. There were also conflicting interests of the competing oil companies to take into account as well.

In September 1943, an obscure senator from Missouri, heading the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defence program, turned his attention to the CANOL project. The committee originally came into existence to look into problems that plagued the war production: waste, inefficiency and profiteering. By war’s end, it was said that the committee had saved billions of dollars from being pocketed or misused.

Responding to the inquiry, the army retreated behind the standard shield of national security and dragged its heels, obstructing the efforts of the Senate committee, while retrenching its commitment to CANOL, stating that it was essential to the war effort.

Finally, on February 16, 1944, the last weld was made on the pipeline. The first oil passing through the pipeline arrived in Whitehorse two months later. Two and a half years had passed since the bombing of Pearl Harbor and almost a year since the Japanese were driven from Alaska. The strategic importance of the pipeline had long since vanished, but the U.S. Army retained its bull-headed determination to complete the project anyway.

The refinery that had been built in Whitehorse operated for less than a year before being shut down. During that time, a million barrels of oil were processed. A quarter of that production was used to operate the refinery. It is said that the CANOL project consumed more oil than it ever produced. CANOL was shut down, and millions of dollars in assets were simply abandoned. Nor was the army eager to publicize the embarrassing failure of the project.

General Somervell never made it to the White House. But the senator who chaired the committee that investigated the military misspending of CANOL and other military projects did. His name was Harry S. Truman.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net