The Story of the Canol Road, Part I

Canol history sign

Source: E. Horst, http://www.flickr.com/photos/46145831@N00/218983210/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

During World War II, massive infrastructure projects in remote and not-so-remote areas became much more common as fighting countries looked to exploit all available resources for the war effort.  These projects also served to open up these areas for further development once the war ended.  In Canada and the United States, the Alaska Highway helped open up the northwest section of North America by connecting it by road to the contiguous United States.  In Southeast Asia, when the Burma Road was captured by Japan, British forces responded by constructing the Ledo Road across the mountainous northern tip of Burma to help supply the Chinese army.  Above the Arctic Circle in the Soviet Union, prison labour was used to push a railway across hundreds of kilometres into the tundra toward the coal mines of Vorkuta and Pechora.

Some of these big projects never got off the ground.  The United Kingdom’s flirtation with using aircraft carriers made entirely out of Rocky Mountain glacial ice reinforced with wood chips(a concoction known as pykrete) never made it past the experimental stage (the ruins exist today at the bottom of Alberta’s Patricia Lake.  The Cross Florida Barge Canal, proposed as early as 1567, was finally authorised for construction by the US government in 1942 before being scrapped; it wouldn’t officially be tanked until 1991 despite construction never having been inaugurated.

One of the biggest abandoned projects of World War II was built in conjunction with the Alaska Highway.  The Canol Pipeline was to be a 925 km (1 490 mi) line that would pump crude oil from Norman Wells, Northwest Territories to the Alaska Highway at Whitehorse, Yukon.  From Whitehorse, more new pipelines would carry the crude to Alaska and northern British Columbia along the highway.  The main pipeline only operated for just a year, and the entire network of projects went from conception through construction to abandonment in less than three years, but the remote access road it left behind survives today as one of the most daunting hiking experiences one could ever home to embark upon.

In the early days of 1942, Allied forces were not doing well in the Pacific theatre.  Japan was rapidly capturing territory, and along the way they were destroying Allied oil tankers, particularly from the US.  With Pacific shipping lanes no longer safe, a new source of fuel was needed that was relatively domestic and located inland, well away from enemy threats.  Five years earlier, Imperial Oil had established such a place with a refinery in the at-the-time extremely remote Northwest Territories at Norman Wells, along the massive Mackenzie River.  The crude in this part of the Mackenzie River was so waxy enough that despite the oft-frozen nature of the region, it could flow at −62 °C (−80 °F) – the perfect grade of crude for an all-weather pipeline that could carry petroleum over long distances.

The refinery at Norman Wells is still in operation under Imperial Oil (Esso).

Seizing on this opportunity, US military planners met with Imperial Oil representatives in April 1942 to obtain more information on Norman Wells.  The result was a memorandum advocating a pipeline from Norman Wells to Whitehorse, where a new refinery could be built to service truck and air traffic on the Alaska Highway. It was believed that a production level of 3 000 barrels per day would be enough to justify construction.  In May, Imperial agreed to drill and operate nine new wells, and the Bechtel-Price-Callahan consortium was contracted to complete the project by the end of the calendar year.  By August, the project had evolved into a set of megaprojects devised to bring the petroleum from Norman Wells to American ports and distribution points along the Alaska Highway.  The system of pipelines and access was dubbed Canol (alternatively, CANOL), an abbreviation for ‘Canadian oil’.  The main pipeline would travel west across the Mackenzie River and Mackenzie Mountains via Macmillan Pass down to the brand-new Alaska Highway at Johnsons Crossing and thence to Whitehorse.  From Whitehorse, a second pipeline would be laid southward to Skagway, Alaska; a third pipeline would be built eastward along the Alaska Highway to Watson Lake; and a fourth line would be built into the heart of Alaska at Fairbanks.  A fifth line northward from Fairbanks to the village of Nenana was never inaugurated.  Along with the pipelines, access roads would naturally have to be built paralleling the pipes.  In addition, a long winter road would be constructed from north-central Alberta northward to Norman Wells to supply construction for the main pipeline, and a telephone line would be completed from Norman Wells to Johnsons Landing.  The entire process was conducted without the approval of either the Canadian or US government.

Despite the mobilisation of 2 500 soldiers, completing the projects by the end of 1942 proved to be far too optimistic.  While the branch pipelines already had easy-access rights-of-way in the form of the Alaska Highway and White Pass and Yukon Route, the main Norman Wells-Whitehorse line was virgin mountain territory only traversed by the occasional hunter, trapper or prospector.  Even aircraft had never flown over the Mackenzies prior to this point.  An ancient First Nations trail through leading through the mountains to Macmillan Pass was used.  To say that the survey process was difficult would be an understatement.  In contrast to the hoped-for construction date of 31 December 1942, surveying didn’t even get under way until October (6 men plus 25 sled dogs).  This was backed up by two reconnaissance surveys in December 1942 and March 1943 in the dead of winter.  These were conducted by tractor train, and temperatures were so cold that all of the diesel and engine oil froze as soon as any engines stopped, so all equipment was kept running 24 hours a day.  Workers considering applying to the project were warned well in advanced of the extreme conditions to be faced: extreme cold (frostbite could occur in 5-10 minutes in winter without protection), swamps, mosquitoes and black flies, months of isolation (this still didn’t stop the workforce turnover from being very high).  The lone community along the 945 kilometres was the remote fur trading post and First Nations community of Ross River, halfway between Johnsons Crossing and the NWT border or one-third of the way along the pipeline.  Amazingly, no mapping and no aircraft surveys took place during this stage; in fact, the constructed route was never mapped until after the pipeline was completed.

Canol Trail

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The route of the Canol pipeline/road. The Northwest Territories section is in the Flash animation at top; the Yukon section is in the terrain map at bottom.

Those who have seen the Trans Alaska Pipeline up close know that it is mostly built elevated above the ground so as not to disturb underlying permafrost.  This is a lesson taken in part from Canol, which was built directly on the ground and thus could be prone to sinking into any ground it thawed underneath.  As the project was to be built as quickly as possible, environmental concerns were far down on the list of priorities.  Hasty construction not only led to multiple breaks in the pipeline that spilled an estimated  7 million litres of oil, but a two-thirds-full storage tank (capacity: 12.7 million litres) burst and sent most of its contents down the Mackenzie River.  Erosion and flooding also became issues because of permafrost disturbance, and an abnormal amount of forest fires were reported in the summer of 1943, but accidental and deliberate in nature.

The final result saw 200 000 metric tonnes of equipment hauled up the winter supply routes, and an astounding 50 000 people having worked on Canol.  Ten pumping stations constructed at incremental points along the Canol Road.  Each station had a pumphouse, storage tank, light plant, mess hall and dormitory.  Staging airports were also constructed along the line.  Six telephone repeaters stations with their own employees were also constructed along the road.  The pipeline, the road, and the telephone lines were completed on 16 February 1944 and the first oil reached the new Whitehorse refinery on 16 April 1944, having entered the pipeline at Norman Wells the previous 19 December.

Canol Footbridge

This bridge at the community of Ross River carried the Canol Pipeline over the Pelly River.  Today, it remains in use as a footbridge as an alternative to the car ferry that joins the current North Canol Road to the North American highway grid.  Source: A DeLorenzo, http://www.flickr.com/photos/delorenzo/163985133/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution- ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence.

The official final cost of the Canol project was US$134 million (today, that would be around US$1.6 billion), although it may have actually been more than double that figure.  Even the official figure was more than five more than estimated, which did not impress the US government, and the Canol Project was one of many that under came under the scrutiny of the Truman Committee, a committee formed during the autumn of 1943 to monitoring wasteful spending during the war effort.  Because of the effort required to obtain the petroleum, a barrel of Canol oil cost four times as much as the average world price.  In 1944 dollars, Canol aviation fuel was 27¢/L to produce; gasoline was 4¢/L.  While that may seem cheap to us now, at that rate in 1944 it wasn’t worth the estimated 1 858 000 barrels (though the actual number may have been less) that ultimately made it to Whitehorse even though it was well above the initial 3 000 barrel-per-day figure given at the beginning of the project.  The Japanese never proved to be the threat to shipping lanes that was anticipated, and it was actually found to be cheaper to send oil to Skagway and up the pipeline to Whitehorse in the opposite direction.  On 8 March 1945, the US Army stopped the flow of oil in the pipeline, and in April Canol was officially terminated.

While the Army hoped to sell off Canol for someone else to refurbish it and continue production, it would be for nought.  Imperial Oil bought the salvage rights in 1947 for just US$1 million and the assets of Canol at Norman Wells for another US$3 million.  Almost all of the piping, generators, and motors were stripped from the entire length of the main project, leaving behind the various dumps, caches, and camps, as well as surplus equipment, for the elements to corrode.  The branch lines to Fairbanks and Skagway remained in operation (though, as aforementioned, the Skagway pipe now operates in the opposite direction, sending petroleum to Yukon), but the line to Watson Lake was dismantled, and the Whitehorse refinery was dismantled and moved to Edmonton to capitalise on the Leduc oil strike that would transform Alberta from an province dependent upon agriculture to one centred around oil and gas.

old trucks5

old trucks10

Abandoned trucks equipment rust away at the side of the Canol Road.  Old dumps along the canol are preserved by the Yukon government as heritage sites.  Source: D. Helling, http://www.flickr.com/photos/dhelling01/561374074/ and http://www.flickr.com/photos/dhelling01/561374100/.  Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licence.

While the Canol pipeline never succeeded, Norman Wells remained, and remains, an oil company town.  Around 800 people live in Norman Wells.  Imperial Oil’s refinery sends oil south via a newer pipeline to Zama City, Alberta.  There remains no year-round road access to the town, with only air service and a winter ice road to get residents and visitors in and out.  As for what became of the road paralleling the pipeline?  Initially, it was gated off, but as we will learn in Part II, the Canol Road today has a much different function.

Further Reading

Government of Yukon (1992).  Canol Project.  In The Alaska Highway: A Yukon Perspective, 49-53.  Available at http://www.alaskahighwayarchives.ca./en/chap5/index.php.  Accessed 3 November 2011.

Government of Yukon (2009).  Canol Road.  Sights and Sites: Yukon Point of Interest Signage.  Available at http://www.yukonheritage.com/Sign/central/canol-road/canol.html.  Accessed 3 November 2011.

Johnson, K. (2004).  The Canol Pipeline: A Cold Region Project with No Future.  Cryofront: Electronic Journal of Cold Region Technology.  Available at http://www.members.shaw.ca/cryofront/Canol%20Pipeline.htm.  Accessed 3 November 2011.

Norman Wells Historical Society (2009).  Canol Trail Heritage Park.  Available at http://www.normanwellsmuseum.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/NWHC_CANOL_BROCHURE_web.pdf.  Accessed 4 November 2011.

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