WITH CREATIVE ENGINEERING AND HEROIC ENDURANCE, FREEZING, BELEAGUERED WORKERS PUSHED THE CANOL PIPELINE THROUGH THE BRUTAL ARCTIC WILDERNESS DURING WORLD WAR II. BUT IT WAS A PROJECT THAT SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN STARTED.
AS SOON AS THE PEARL HARBOR RAID BROUGHT America into World War II, one of our chief concerns was protecting and reinforcing Alaska. In December of 1941, the territory contained few American troops, but Alaska looked strategically important for two reasons: It could help secure control of the northern reaches of the Pacific and it offered a promising route for getting Lend-Lease supplies to the Soviet Union.
As American operations in Alaska expanded, so too did the need to keep the area supplied. The U.S. government decided to bolster the territory’s defenses by building the 1,500-mile Alcan Highway from Dawson Creek, British Columbia, to Fairbanks. While the road was being built, its trucks, bulldozers, transport planes, heaters, and generators all would need fuel. Once the road was in operation, every vehicle traveling it would need its tank refilled along the way. Later, when America began ferrying warplanes to the Soviets through Alaska, airfields served by the highway would require large amounts of aviation fuel. In the war’s hectic early days, planners grappled with the question of how this fuel might best be supplied.
Bringing it in along the highway would be possible, but inefficient: Trucks would burn three gallons for every four they delivered. Most of Alaska and the Canadian Northwest could not conveniently be supplied by railroads or inland waterways. And although delivering fuel to Alaska’s seaports was a possibility, oil tankers were in short supply and might be attacked by Japanese submarines.
During 1942, in fact, the U.S. tanker fleet actually shrank. In the Atlantic, 55 American tankers were sunk in the first five months of the war, roughly one every three days. U-boats sank ships in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico as well. In the Pacific, most Japanese submarines were being used in support of military campaigns, but it was feared that they could easily be redirected to prey on shipping. Under normal circumstances, bringing oil to Alaska by tanker would be the only economical way, but under these extreme pressures, it made military sense to look for alternatives.
A local source of oil would help solve Alaska’s fuel problem. But where could one be found? In 1939 a veteran Arctic explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson had called attention to Norman Wells, a remote oil field in Canada’s Northwest Territories. This field, only 75 miles below the Arctic Circle, had been producing just enough fuel for the local trappers and prospectors; a primitive on-site refinery turned out 400 barrels per day during the summer. Yet it looked capable of much more. Here was the oil field the U.S. Army needed, underdeveloped but promising and close enough to Alaska to make it attractive.
On April 29, James H. Graham of the U.S. Department of War, along with a few other military and civilian administrators, met in Washington with executives of the company that owned Norman Wells: Imperial Oil of Canada, a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey. Graham was a “dollar-a-year man,” one of many prominent figures from industry and academia who were assisting the war effort for token compensation. In civilian life, he was the dean of engineering at the University of Kentucky. During World War I, he had earned medals from the United States and France for overseeing construction of railroad docks, and before accepting the Kentucky job, he had been president of an oil-refining company.
In January, Graham had been put in charge of oil resources for the Alcan project. In this capacity, he worked with Gen. Walter Pyron, the Army’s logistics chief for petroleum. At the April 29 meeting, Graham recommended increasing production at Norman Wells to 3,000 barrels per day. While output there was being expanded, a 580-mile pipeline would be laid through the wilderness to a refinery in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, near the midpoint of the Alcan Highway, which was then under construction. It would be a secondhand refinery; the plan called for dismantling a pilot plant originally built in Corpus Christi, Texas, shipping it north, and reassembling it at Whitehorse.
Under pressure from his boss, Gen. Brehon Somervell—a friend from World War I days—Graham asserted that the entire project could be completed by October, though he must have known how unrealistic that was. An investigating committee later called the deadline “on its face impossible of accomplishment when examined by any experienced engineer.” Nonetheless, Graham sent a one-page memo recommending the proposal to Somervell, who approved it the same day. Somervell later testified that he knew from the start that the pipeline could not be finished by October, though he did expect it to begin operation in the summer of 1943. In fact, it didn’t until April 1944.
While a detailed examination of the plan would have revealed many flaws, it was not as completely absurd as it sounds today. Not only was America short on tankers, but the Pearl Harbor attack had crippled the Navy’s Pacific fleet to the point where the nation was virtually defenseless in that region. When tankers and escorts did become available, other war theaters might be given a higher priority for oil shipments, and the Army did not relish having to bargain with the Navy or civilian authorities for the fuel it needed. These concerns increased in June 1942, when the Japanese attacked the Aleutians, occupying two outlying islands and bombing the Army outpost at Dutch Harbor.
Another consideration was that the arrival of war had made aviation fuel extremely scarce. It might be years before enough refineries could be built from scratch to meet the demand. The same was true for all types of fuel, of course, but the shortage was by far the greatest for the high-octane gasoline that airplanes used, for war had multiplied the use of planes beyond anyone’s imagining. Pre-war estimates in 1941 had forecast a peak requirement of 59,000 barrels per day of aviation fuel in the event of war. By mid-1943, the nation’s military effort was consuming nearly 10 times that amount.
ALASKA’S NEED FOR AIRPLANE FUEL LOOKED MUCH greater in the early days of the war than it eventually turned out to be. As late as January 1943, plans called for transferring 5,000 planes a month to the Soviet Union through the base at Fairbanks. This proved to be about Z5 times the actual figure. In addition, although the Soviet Union and Japan were not at war with each other, there was always a chance that the Japanese would launch an attack. That would make Alaska even more strategically important. Army planners felt a lot safer knowing they would have their own private source of oil, complete with a dedicated refinery.
Even before the war, government and industry had started crisscrossing the country with pipelines to connect refineries on the Gulf of Mexico with Eastern cities and Midwestern rail centers. Thirty-three such pipelines would be built in the 48 states by the war’s end. A similar solution seemed a natural for Alaska as well.
The idea, then, was far from outlandish. In fact, it was precisely the sort of resourcefulness that wartime demanded. What should have made everyone think twice was the size and expense of the project. For comparison, at the time it was approved, plans were taking shape for a crude-oil pipeline two feet in diameter between Longview, Texas, and Norris City, Illinois. When completed, the Big Inch, as it was called, would have a main line of 1,254 miles and a capacity of 300,000 barrels per day. The proposed pipeline from Norman Wells to Whitehorse would be almost half as long, but its capacity would be a mere 3,000 barrels per day, and it would have to be built through some of the most remote and inhospitable terrain on earth.
Even in the spring of 1942, when America’s war fortunes were at their lowest point, someone should have realized what a waste of resources the project would become. In fact, many people did, even within the Army; one general commented that barges could deliver 10 times as much fuel to Alaska for one-tenth the cost. Once the decision had been made, however, all such considerations were pushed aside, as were the objections of consultants, civilian administrators, and Imperial Oil executives. (The views of the Canadian government, in whose territory the great majority of the pipeline would be laid, were barely acknowledged, let alone taken into account.)
In charge of the project, which came to be known as Canol (for Canadian oil or some similar phrase), was General Somervell. His title, after a reorganization in March 1942, was Commanding General of the Services of Supply (later changed to Army Service Forces). This meant he was in charge of logistics for the entire Army. Somervell was part of a triumvirate reporting directly to George C. Marshall, the Army’s chief of staff; the other two members were Henry (“Hap”) Arnold, head of the Army Air Forces, and Leslie McNair, head of the Army Ground Forces.
Somervell, a take-charge figure, was no stranger to controversy. In 1940, as administrator of New York City’s WPA office, he had ordered the destruction of murals created for the Federal Art Project on the grounds that they were communist propaganda. In 1941 he would make the momentous decision to put Gen. Leslie Groves in charge of the Manhattan Engineer District, which later became the Manhattan Project. Somervell was sometimes called “dynamite in a Tiffany box,” a reference to the temper that lurked beneath his urbane exterior. The chaos of the war’s early days did not improve his disposition, nor, presumably, did his wife’s death in January 1942.. (The general remarried a little more than a vear later.)
Construction of Canol was contracted to BPC, an ad hoc partnership of the construction firms W. A. Bechtel, H. C. Price, and W. E. Callahan. Design of the pipeline and the refinery complex was assigned to another ad hoc firm, J. Gordon Turnbull and Sverdrup & Parcel. The construction workers on the project would be civilians, but the Army assumed responsibility for transporting men, materials, and equipment to Norman Wells, including the building of roads to bring them in. Much of this work, particularly in the early days, was done by the 388th Engineer Battalion, an all-African-American unit trained in materials transport. The 388th was assigned to carry 30,000 tons of materials to Norman Wells. Other Army units that worked on Canol were the 89th and 9oth Engineers, both all-white.
The only way to bring heavy construction equipment to the remote site was to float it down a 1,170-mile series of rivers and lakes from the railhead in the tiny settlement of Waterways, Alberta, 290 miles north of Edmonton. To meet the construction deadline, everything would have to be in place before the fall freeze-up. Locals advised the engineers that the route could be dangerous and difficult because of rough water on Great Slave Lake and a lémile portage around a section of rapids on the Slave River.
They started by building pontoon rafts, the first of which set off down the Athabasca River on June 6, 1942. The four-man crews had no detailed maps and no idea of what faced them. Since the rafts lacked any covering, had only six inches of freeboard, and were loaded with up to io tons of freight, it was no surprise when some of them swamped and sank. Later, the Army began assembling a fleet of prefabricated barges with a capacity of ioo tons. Everything arriving at Fort Fitzgerald, at the southern end of the Slave River rapids, had to be offloaded from the barges, portaged, and then reloaded at Fort Smith. The barges were placed on huge trailers and pulled by crawler tractors.
The late start and short navigation season meant that the men could not get everything they needed to Norman Wells before the waterways froze. (Somervell had recognized this reality in late June and moved the deadline for completion back more than a year, to December 1943.) To make matters worse, the Army had increased its total freight requirement to 50,000 tons, as planners added extensions and spurs to the Canol project. The engineers’ solution was to carve out a i,ioo-mile winter road to Norman Wells. They managed to accomplish this over four months in the teeth of the severest winter in more than two decades.
A winter road is a simple path bulldozed through trees and brush. Because it is not built until the ground is frozen hard, it can cross terrain that would never support an all-weather road. On Canol’s winter road, freight was hauled by truck or, if there was sufficient snow cover, convoys of steel-shod sleds called “wanigans” that were pulled by tractors with caterpillar treads.
Like so many aspects of the Canol project, the winter road expanded greatly in scope as time passed. Before spring came, it had been supplemented by 488 miles of connecting roads and a string of airstrips for cargo aircraft. The Army’s workhorse plane for Canol was the rugged C-64 “Norseman,” built by the Canadian firm of Noorduyn Aviation, which could be fitted with wheels, pontoons, or skis as conditions dictated.
WHEN THE SPRING BREAKUP came in 1943, the winter road had completed its job and was abandoned, since most of the necessary equipment had arrived at Norman Wells. By mid-1943, the Army engineers had been reassigned elsewhere and Canol’s work force was almost entirely civilian. The soldiers were glad to get out, as a lack of planning by higher-ups had left them with inadequate protection against the cold.
That summer, as workers began laying pipe, it became clear that the war in the Pacific was turning in favor of the United States. At a considerable cost in lives, the Japanese were driven from the Aleutians in May 1943, and with the tanker shortage easing, the threat to Alaskan shipping, which had been the original rationale for Canol and the Alcan Highway, had vanished. One tanker a month could have supplied as much fuel as the pipeline, and a fleet of four could have provided all the fuel that was needed for Alaska’s defense and ferrying needs for a tiny fraction of what was spent on Canol. In fact, between deliveries of fuel, construction equipment, and other supplies, the Canol project had already used far more shipping resources than it was designed to replace.
Before the pipeline was laid, workers built a primitive all-weather service road alongside the route to carry men and supplies. Much of the area that would be crossed by the road and the pipeline was virtually unexplored. BPC’s engineers were used to bulldozing roads through virgin forest and carving away impeding terrain, but unfortunately, techniques that worked in temperate and tropical zones were not applicable in the Arctic. Canol crews produced an ever-deepening, equipment-swallowing morass when they stripped off the topsoil or muskeg (swampy bog consisting of decaying vegetable matter, such as leaves and moss) and exposed the permafrost (ground permanently frozen to great depths) to melting.
They soon learned to avoid disturbing the surface, insulating it instead with a roadbed of gravel hauled from glacial deposits. In difficult cases, they first laid down corduroy—logs and brush cut from the right of way and piled crosswise on the road. Then drainage ditches were excavated along either side to carry away standing water, and the spoil was thrown on top of the fallen trees. When possible, road builders tried to avoid the spongy muskeg entirely, since heavy traffic over a muskeg base could cause the road to sink. Glacial ice presented another hazard, even in winter, subsurface springs would unexpectedly break through the surface, covering the roadway with ice. Despite all these difficulties, by January 1944 a 550-mile Canol road from Norman Wells to Johnsons Crossing on the Alcan Highway was passable, though barely.
As for the pipeline itself, engineers decided to lay the pipe directly on the ground without expansion joints. Doing this was easier than putting it on supports, like the aboveground portion of the present-day Alyeska pipeline, and the line’s meandering route around obstacles would allow it to absorb some of the stresses from expansion and contraction (though not all, as it turned out). No insulation was needed to keep the oil flowing, since it remained liquid to 70 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and in any case, the snow blanket would provide some protection against cold air. Because of its exposed position, though, the pipeline did suffer damage from construction equipment, rock slides, river washouts, and even rifle bullets.
When it came time to cross a stream, whether the pipeline used a bridge or ran along the streambed, it risked being carried away during spring breakup, when ice jams regularly cause streams to overflow their banks. Sixtyfive bridges were eventually built, and for speed and economy, they were usually located at the narrowest, and thus fastestflowing, place in the stream, making them the most susceptible to being washed away.
AND THEN THERE WERE MOUNTAINS. THE PIPELINE reached its highest elevation, 5,500 feet above sea level (and 5,150 feet above Norman Wells), at Macmillan Pass. To keep the oil flowing, 10 pumping stations had to be built. (Fortunately, the Norman crude was so light that it could be used right out of the pipeline to power the diesel-driven pumps.) The planners’ offhand decision at the project’s inception to use four-inch pipe had come back to haunt them. If they had specified six-inch pipe, only two pumping stations would have been needed—and pumping equipment was a lot scarcer than steel pipe. (In a late change, six-inch pipe was used in the westernmost 119 miles. This reduced the required number of pumps to 10 from the original 12.)
Pipe welders were the elite of the construction crews, the most skillful and the highest paid. The pipes came in u-foot lengths and required two arc-welding passes, part of which had to be done with the welder lying on his back on ground that might be swampy, bitterly cold, or swarming with insects. In good weather, a welding team could complete a mile and a half a day. To speed construction, the pipeline was built from both ends at once. The final joint was welded in mid-February 1944.
In Arctic latitudes, atmospheric disturbances, such as the aurora borealis, often complicate radio communications, so a telephone line was built to connect all the pumping stations and terminals. Typifying the grand scale of Canol, it was called the longest continuous telephone line in the world. Much of it was strung during the winter, and every five-foot-deep pole hole had to be jackhammered, dug, or blasted out of rock or permafrost. The U.S. Army Signal Corps finished the job in only eight months.
Other factors besides the cold made living conditions on Canol close to intolerable: short days, lack of recreation, loneliness, inexperienced foremen. Recruiting posters for the job had been headlined THIS is NO PICNIC, and they weren’t kidding. Besides mosquitoes that were said to be big enough to shoot with rifles, workers were afflicted with biting flies and clouds of “no-see-ums.” The men defended themselves against the cold and insects by building fires, some of which got out of control in the surrounding forest. Lengthy supply lines made fresh food a rarity for both civilians and soldiers. Game and fish, however, were plentiful and provided a welcome change from dried eggs and canned corned beef.
Not surprisingly, work units suffered from high turnover despite draft deferments, premium wages, and generous overtime. More than half the civilian workers did not finish out their nine-month contracts. An additional obstacle to recruitment was that at first, for reasons of secrecy, prospective employees could not be told where they were going to work.
The project was hard on equipment too. Replacement parts and trained mechanics were scarce. The rugged terrain, harsh climate, and lack of maintenance caused excessive wear. In cold weather, diesel fuel would not flow, and fuel tanks became blocked with ice. Smart operators kept their machines running continuously, since once they stopped, the cold would make them unstartable.
Canol’s pipelines and storage tanks, hastily built with little concession to the extreme conditions, suffered spill after spill. In one incident, a large storage tank on the Mackenzie River ruptured and released some 35,000 barrels. During the year the pipeline was in operation, there were more than a hundred line breaks, most of them due not to faulty welds but to weakness caused by handling or by construction equipment damaging already laid pipe.
Since both thermal effects and line breaks could produce pressure changes at pumping stations, pressure drops were not a reliable indicator of breaks. In some cases, leaks could be confirmed only by comparing input and output flows between the stations, a method that could detect a spill only long after it had begun. At least 10 percent, or 4.9 million gallons, of the nearly 1.2 million barrels of crude pumped from Norman Wells spilled during construction, operation, and postwar salvage of the line. In spite of this loss, there was little lasting environmental damage in places where the lightweight oil was quickly dispersed by swiftly flowing rivers.
Long before the first crude reached Whitehorse in April 1944, the Canol project had become controversial. One of its severest critics was Harold Ickes, the Petroleum Administrator for War. In December 1943, Ickes, along with the Secretary of the Navy and the chairman of the War Production Board, recommended abandoning the pipeline. By the time their recommendations could be addressed, however, canceling the project would have saved only $17 million, so it was allowed to proceed. Still, Canol took a beating in the press. In response to the criticism, Somervell quoted Matthew 25:3-4: “They that were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them. But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.”
Meanwhile, the matter had come before the Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, commonly called the Truman Committee after its chairman, Harry S. Truman of Missouri. In a report issued in January 1944, the committee uncovered a tale of shockingly profligate expenditures at a time when men, materials, and money were all desperately needed elsewhere.
By the time it was finished, the committee said, the main pipeline from Norman Wells to the refinery at Whitehorse would cost $31 million. Road building would add another $2.7 million. The price tag for expansion of the Norman Wells oil field would be $17 million, and shipping and reconstruction of the Whitehorse refinery would cost $2.4 million. Thus, the original version of Canol—the oil field, the refinery, and the pipeline between the two—would cost a total of $99 million, exclusive of the Army’s manpower and air-transportation costs. That amount would be equivalent to about a billion dollars today.
By way of comparison, over the course of the war, oil companies built 9,850 miles of pipeline in the United States for an estimated $izy million, and the government built another 3,750 miles for approximately $161.5 million. At the end of the war, the combined public-private pipeline system was carrying more than 700,000 barrels per day.
The final version of Canol included another 970 miles of smaller pipe to distribute refined products from Whitehorse to key strategic points. One branch went southeast to Watson Lake to service refueling stations along the Alcan Highway. A 110-mile spur ran between the Whitehorse refinery and Skagway, a secure Alaskan port. (This spur, completed in January 1943, followed the right-of-way of the White Pass & Yukon Railroad, the same narrowguage line from gold-rush days that many visitors to Alaska ride on today.) Yet another pipeline went northwest to Fairbanks, where ferried aircraft were transferred to Soviet control. Except for the Skagway line, all these pipelines had been added to the project after Canol was approved. While they further inflated the cost, the Truman Committee recognized that whatever the source of fuel, a pipeline network was needed to connect with Skagway and supply the highway, so the $35 million spent on them could not be called a waste.
AFTER DETAILING THE LACK OF ANY PRIOR FEASIBILITY study or consideration of costs and benefits, the committee’s report stated, “The committee has never seen a similar situation in either business or in government.” A follow-up report noted that Canol’s “waste in manpower and materials was greater than any act of sabotage by the enemy.” At its peak, Canol employed more than 10,600 civilian workers and 4,000 engineer troops, yet despite the huge drain on resources, Somervell had refused to consult or even notify the Navy, Ickes’s office, or other civilian bureaus, on the mysterious grounds that the project did not concern them.
Under questioning from the senators, Somervell admitted that Canol’s contribution to the Alaska theater’s oil supply would have been “a drop in the bucket during a major engagement.” In fact, during its less than a year of operation, the pipeline carried less than 10 percent of the amount of oil that was being delivered to Alaska by tankers. The Whitehorse refinery did not go on-line until the summer of 1944, several months after the first delivery of crude from Norman Wells, and at the outset the only fuel it oroduced was diesel. Not until October did the refinery start turning out aviation gasoline.
In April 1945, finally giving in to critics and reality, the Army shut down the crude-oil pipeline and the Whitehorse refinery. Canol’s aviation gasoline had set the government back $43 per barrel for production costs alone, many times the price of fuel from conventional sources.
Little remains of Canol’s infrastructure. The refinery at Whitehorse was once again torn down, and once again relocated, this time near Edmonton, Alberta. An agreement called for the pipeline from Norman Wells to be offered to Canada when the war ended, but the Canadians had no interest in buying it. All improvements made at Norman Wells belonged to Imperial Oil. Vehicles, equipment, and pipe were mostly salvaged, though decaying pieces can be found here and there. The eastern end of the pipeline’s service road is now the Canol Heritage Trail, a very challenging 222,-mile wilderness hiking path. The western, or Yukon, 350 miles of the road is still used as a summer road, Yukon Route 6.
Today, the Norman Wells field produces 30,000 barrels of crude per day, 10 times the 1944 rate. Oil is sent south in a 12-inch pipeline that is buried and insulated. The small 1920s-era on-site refinery was shut down in 1996, and now a year’s supply of refined petroleum products is sent to Norman Wells by rail and barge each summer. With the renewed interest in Arctic drilling, two natural-gas pipelines through western Canada to Edmonton and the lower 48 have recently been proposed. Meanwhile, in Alaska, the 48-inch Alyeska pipeline, built in the 1970s to connect the North Slope with Valdez, moves more oil each day than Canol did in its entire history.
World War II holds many examples of inspiring technological achievements completed under overwhelming pressure: the Manhattan Project, the proximity fuze, mass production of penicillin, numerous code-breaking projects, and many more. Canol exhibited its own share of heroism and ingenuity, but all in pursuit of a goal that, in retrospect, should never have been undertaken. Canol’s story shows that while the exigencies of war can lead to great accomplishments, they can also lead to great waste.