Highway #6 - Canol Road

The Canol Road

Photo from The Canol Road

U. S. Army Black Engineers

In 1942, the United States Army sent four regiments of white soldiers and three regiments of black solders to work on the Alaska Highway and associated projects. The black soldiers of the 388th Engineers received five months of training in Louisiana before they were assigned to the Canol Pipeline project.

Building the supply road and hauling in materials for the Canol Pipeline was difficult. The soldiers had to contend with temperature extremes, inadequate winter clothing, swarming insects and 9,000 tonnes of pipe. The black soldiers on the Canol were slow to receive the heavy equipment of a general service regiment, so most of their work was manual labour.

The 388th Engineers and the Canol

Men from three black regiments (the 93rd, 95th and 97th) and four white regiments were sent north to work on the Alaska Highway and related projects. The black 388th Engineers Battalion had 26 officers (all but the chaplain were white) and 1,238 enlisted men. It was one of three engineer battalions posted to the Canol Project.

Teslin River Bridge No 416

During the seven months of construction of the Alaska Highway pioneer road, American Army regimental pontoon companies, ordinary troops and engineers spanned 8,000 creek and river crossings with wooden stave culverts, floating pontoons and trestles. They battled ice, floodwater and driftwood that scoured, jammed and swept away structures. In 1942, rain alone took out 133 bridges.

The Teslin River Bridge is one of only three permanent steel bridges on the Alaska Highway built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers. It was the second highest bridge on the highway and was completed in 1944 for $1,200,000. The Nisutlin Bay Bridge, built in 1954–1955, was the longest; it is located 40 kilometres south of here.

In 1943, the United States Army, Royal Canadian Engineers and Northwest Service Command generated thousands of bridge designs, estimates and plans. A huge contingent of men, cement, I-beams and trusses, bulldozers, and camp equipment were shipped to Skagway and transported by train to Whitehorse. From Whitehorse, three sternwheelers, each pushing a barge, travelled down the Yukon River and then up the Teslin River to this key crossing. Each boat made nine trips to move all of the equipment and men needed to build the Teslin River Bridge.

The Canol Pipeline Project

During the Second World War, construction and maintenance of a string of northern airfields and the Alaska Highway required enormous quantities of gas and oil. Fuel was normally carried north by ship but, after the Japanese landed in the Aleutian Islands, there was fear that west coast shipping lanes were not safe. A project was conceived to bring crude oil from the interior, refine it and distribute it along the highway corridor.

In 1943, George Blondin and his father Little Edward Blondin led surveyor Guy Blanchet over traditional hunting trails to establish the pipeline route across the border between Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Canol, short for Canadian Oil, was funded by the American military and built by the construction consortium Bechtel-Price-Callahan. A pipeline connected oil fields at Norman Wells, Northwest Territories to the refinery in Whitehorse. Another pipeline connected Whitehorse to Fairbanks. A line between Whitehorse and Skagway was built for the oil shipped from the south and that line supplied Watson Lake. Telephone lines, airstrips, and pumping stations were built to service the pipelines.

The final cost of the Canol Pipeline Project ballooned from an initial estimate of $30 million to over $134 million. Production costs for a barrel of Canol oil was four times higher than the world price so it was cheaper to ship southern oil via Skagway. The Canol Project was shut down in 1944, less than a year after the Whitehorse refinery opened.

In 1942 the importance of Alaska to the war effort prompted the U.S. Army to begin construction of an oil pipeline from Norman Wells, N.W.T. to Whitehorse. The Canol, or Canadian Oil project, was completed in 2 years at a cost of $134 million. The ill-fated project was abandoned in the mid 1940s. Many relics may still be seen which provide proof of the extreme construction conditions.

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