1945 Yukon Nuggets
THE CANOL PIPELINE & REFINERY
Most Canadians didn’t know what was going on. It wasn’t exactly a top-secret military project, but the Americans were playing it pretty close to the vest. Hardly anyone in the Yukon knew about this massive construction project.
On June 4th, 1942, an American military contingent known as Task Force 42 arrived at Waterways in Northern Alberta. Twenty-five hundred soldiers loaded massive amounts of equipment onto boats and barges and began the river trip to Norman Wells. The Canol pipeline project was underway.
The Canol pipeline was approved by the Canadian government on May 8th, 1942. It was designed to ship 3000 barrels of oil a day from the Imperial Oil Field at Norman Wells to a refinery in Whitehorse and then send the refined oil to Fairbanks. The American military feared a Japanese attack on Alaska and wanted a safe reliable source of oil.
Canol, short for Canada and oil, was a four-inch line which would eventually stretch over 1600 miles. By the spring of 1943, the American troops were gone and construction was being carried on by civilian contractors.
In the two years it took to build Canol, over 52,000 people worked on the project. At its peak there were ten thousand people working on the project at one time. It was actually three projects in one: the pipeline from Norman Wells to Whitehorse, a distribution system out of Whitehorse, and the Canol Road from Johnson’s Crossing.
The refinery at Whitehorse was shipped in from Texas and cost 24 million dollars. The route for the pipeline was chosen by aerial surveys and from talking to local native people who used a trail over the MacKenzie Mountains.
On February 16, 1944, they met and the line was joined. Two months later, oil was flowing from Norman Wells, through ten pumping stations, to the Whitehorse refinery.
But the 3000 barrels a day the line could deliver was a drop in the bucket compared to the needs of the American military in Alaska. The line operated for just nine months before the refinery was shut down. The official cost of the line was put at 134 million dollars, but many believe it cost as much as 300 million… and that was in 1944 dollars.
Was the project a success? Throughout the construction and afterward, a committee of the US Congress investigated Canol. In part, the report said that the project was a greater detriment to the US war effort in waste of manpower, and money was greater than any act of sabotage by the enemy. It also said that the project was a blot on the records of the high-powered military commanders who supported it.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.