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The Canol Project: Oil for Victory

by Murray Lundberg


    In the latter half of the 1930s, Alaska and the Yukon were truly one of the civilized world's backwaters. Although the mining output from the region was quite significant, there was still an enormous amount of empty, inaccessible country, and transportation facilities were minimal. That situation, however, was to change dramatically, and those changes would alter the face of the North forever. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, the United States was taken completely by surprise. The nation recovered quickly, however, and started making plans to defend the North American mainland from invasion. On June 3, 1942, Japan attacked the edge of the continental U.S., launching a massive force which quickly captured the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska.

    The counteract the initial threat, the first joint effort of the U.S. and Canada was to start construction of the Alcan (Alaska) Highway (construction had actually been approved by a Bill in Congress in 1929, but was never pursued). One of the logistical problems involved ensuring a supply of oil for the thousands of pieces of equipment that would be used. Tanker traffic from California was now subject to attack by enemy forces, threatening the oil supply to both the highway project and the airfields along the Northwest Staging Route from Montana to Alaska. Those airfields were rest and refueling points for aircraft bound for Alaska, and for the Lend-Lease P-39s bound for Russia, to aid their fight against the Nazis.

    At the time, the safest potential oil supply appeared to be at Norman Wells, on the Mackenzie River. Oil had been reported at this spot as early as 1789, but the oil seeps were not staked until 1915. Five years later, the first drilling was undertaken, in August, oil was struck. A small refinery was built, and by 1939 an 840-barrel-per-day refinery was producing enough oil for local needs. It was therefore decided to expand the Norman Wells field, and build a pipeline from there to a new refinery to be built at Whitehorse; this pipeline would be 600 miles long, passing through a virtually unknown land containing everything from swampy valleys to high mountains and raging rivers. From Whitehorse, a smaller pipeline would be built alongside the new highway, to Ladd Field, the Army Air Corps base at Fairbanks.

    On paper in Washington, the project, those certainly one of the most massive ever attempted, appeared relatively straight-forward. In the summer of 1942, U.S. engineering troops and pipe were dispatched to the end of rails in Alberta, 285 miles north of Edmonton; from there, they were barged almost 1,100 miles to the river bank opposite the Norman Wells refinery. At that point, a new camp - Camp Canol (for "Canadian Oil"), would be set up to house the thousands of workers who would be needed.

    At the main hiring office in Edmonton, the following poster warned of the conditions to be expected on the job:


June 15 42

THIS IS NO PICNIC

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 and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Temperature will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitos, 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


Bechtel-Price-Callahan

    In the spring of 1943, the first women arrived at Camp Canol, and a distinct change in the social nature of the camp occurred - variety shows were held, choral groups started, and a regular newsletter was produced.

    Morale on the project hit the highest highs, and the lowest lows, judging by comments of the day. The project was regularly under fire from many directions, for reasons ranging from cost over-runs to a rumoured lack of enough producing wells to ever fill the pipeline. For the black regiments in particular, being assigned to the hardest labour work of the project was compounded by a critical shortage of Arctic-weight clothing, so that they were forced to burn lumber and bridge timbers to keep warm.

    Despite all the weather, geographic, logistical and political problems, though, the pipeline did reach the new Whitehorse refinery - the final weld was laid on February 16, 1944. With more pipeline having been built to Fairbanks, Watson Lake, Skagway and Haines, 25,000 men (and about 150 women) had built 1,800 miles of pipeline and 2,000 miles of road in only 20 months. It was a short-lived success, however; on April 1, 1945, the Whitehorse refinery was shut down. Due to the inaccessible locations of some of the camps, a complete clean-up of the project sites has never been attempted, despite much attention to the problem. Artifacts such as Studebaker 6X6 trucks and other vehicles continue to fascinate adventurous photographers to this day.

    Today, the Canol Road is passable for smaller vehicles from the Alaska Highway to the Yukon/Northwest Territories border. From there, it is designated the Canol Heritage Trail, one of the outstanding long-distance wilderness hikes in North America.

Suggested Reading:

  • Garfield, Brian, The Thousand-Mile War (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1969)
  • Harris, P.A., The Canol Pictorial (self-published?, 1944)
  • Kadmon, Jean, Mackenzie Breakup (Whitehorse, YT: Pathfinder, 1997)
  • O'Reilly, Kevin, "A Postal History of the Canol Project" (unpublished manuscript, available from O'Reilly in Yellowknife, NWT)

©1998-2007 Murray Lundberg: Use for other than research purposes must be approved by the author.


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