a call for oil ends in disaster

It was 1941, and the United States had just waded in to the Second World War. The country had planes and cars and trucks that it needed to defend…

It was 1941, and the United States had just waded in to the Second World War.

The country had planes and cars and trucks that it needed to defend Alaska and the Northwest. And those planes and cars and trucks needed fuel.

But the fuel was not easy to get.

The Allies were experiencing loses — from the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, to the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands off Alaska — and the US navy could no longer guarantee safe passage through the Pacific Ocean.

It needed to find another route to get oil to the area.

So the US government looked to the Canadian North.

Norman Wells, Northwest Territories, had been the northernmost producing oil field in North America since the 1920s.

It was a major find of quality crude, but there was no way to bring that oil south to market so it had remained mostly untouched.

In 1942, the US government decided to build a pipeline to move the valuable resource from Norman Wells to Whitehorse, where it could be easily piped or transported where needed.

The Canol, short for Canadian Oil, pipeline was constructed between 1942 and 1944.

The US Army Corp of Engineers headed the project; Bechtel-Price-Callahan (BPC) was responsible for design and planning and American and Canadian civilians were hired as labourers.

It took more than 30,000 people to cut an access road through the wilderness, install 1,600 kilometres of telephone lines and lay 2,655 kilometres of pipe.

The workers toiled under harsh northern conditions, facing bitter cold, permafrost, muskeg, glaciers and insects.

“This is no picnic,” read the recruiting poster that hung in Bechtel-Price-Callahan’s Edmonton office.

“Working and living conditions on this job are as difficult as those encountered on any construction job ever done in the United States or foreign territory. Men hired for this job will be required to work under the most extreme conditions imaginable.

“Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitoes, flies and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions DO NOT APPLY.”

The pipeline followed a 1,000-kilometre route passed through the Mackenzie Mountains and included the 1,500-metre MacMillan Pass.

It led to a refinery in Whitehorse, and was then transferred to points along the recently completed Alaska-Canada Highway — southeast to Watson Lake, northwest on the Alaska Highway to Fairbanks, Alaska, and south to Skagway, Alaska at tidewater.

Equipment needed to build the refinery and pipeline was staged from Edmonton by barge and winter road.

It was also moved into Alaska via the Yukon River, the Alaska Railway, and the Richardson Highway.

Ten airfields were built between Edmonton and Norman Wells before freeze-up in 1942 to accommodate continuous communication and the movement of manpower.

Initially, the construction practices used were identical to those used in the south. However, ice-rich permafrost and muskeg created problems that plagued the engineers.

The frigid winter climate threatened to freeze the oil and so equipment had to be run 24 hours a day. If it was stopped it could not be started again.

Oil was pumped through the pipeline for 16 months, from December 19, 1943 to April 1, 1945. Although oil entered the pipe at Camp Canol in December 1943, it did not reach Whitehorse until April 16, 1944.

Between July and November of 1944, the project fueled all of the military motor vehicles between Watson Lake and Fairbanks, Alaska.

It also exported between 20 million and 40 million litres to Skagway.

Eleven months after the oil first reached Whitehorse, on March 8, 1945, the changing fortunes of war caused the US Army to terminate the project.

During this period the Whitehorse refinery processed 156 million litres of crude oil from Norman Wells.

Thirty-six million litres was refined into fuel oil to operate the refinery. It also produced 51 million litres of vehicle gasoline and 44 million litres of diesel fuel.

And, although aviation gasoline was sorely needed, only 3.2 million litres were produced because of mechanical difficulties.

The US military planned to sell the entire Canol project to the highest bidder, assuming that the new owner would reactivate it. Instead the vehicles, construction machinery, pump station installations and pipe became the focus of salvage operations.

In 1947 Imperial Oil acquired the salvage rights to the project for less than $1 million and all of the US assets at Norman Wells for $3 million. 

Salvage companies removed brass valves, power units, motors, and pipe from the project.

The refinery, which cost $24 million to ship from Texas, was sold to Imperial Oil as part of the $1 million salvage operation, and it was moved to Edmonton, Alberta.

The project’s official cost was $135 million, almost five times its original estimate. Unofficial estimates range as high as $300 million.

Today, the Yukon portion of the road, though unpaved, is still drivable and the northern section is accessible by ferry from Ross River.

The Northwest Territories portion of the road is used as a hiking trail. Abandoned mining camps, pipeline sections and pump stations are still visible along the route as a reminder of the amazing yet ill-fated engineering feat.

This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail lchalykoff@macbridemuseum.com.