“History . . . will record a line of steel that inched its torturous way across seemingly impassible terrain to bring oil — a new prosperity — to the Pacific Northwest.”
— Standard Oil
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They had a nickname in the industry for the Trans Mountain oil pipeline when it was under construction. They called it the roughest inch, and with good reason.
“Oil across the Rockies,” the slogan went.
Texas had its famous Big Inch and Little Big Inch pipelines. Texas is big, but mostly flat. Western Canada, between the Rocky and Northern Cascade mountains could lay claim to the boldest pipe construction imaginable.
Sixty years ago this month, the first petroleum was pumped from the oilfields of Leduc, Alta., to Burnaby via the new, 1,150-kilometre pipe.
Completion of the pipeline in 1953 drew comparisons with that of the CPR across Canada seven decades earlier. It was seen as nation-building and an engineering epic due to the steep, rugged terrain along two-thirds of the route.
When retirees and employees gather in Kamloops next week to mark the anniversary, there will be no lack of stories hearkening back to those days.
“Looking back at it, it’s a long time and still it’s looked at as a helluva feat,” said Maurice Bridgeman, a retired electrician who worked for Trans Mountain for 30 years starting in 1961. “It certainly was claimed to be in ’53.”
“It was the first big-inch through the Rocky Mountains,” recalled Urb Rolin, another Trans Mountain worker who retired in Kamloops. The term was coined in reference to the 24-inch pipe.
“Yes, it was actually quite new to a lot of pipeline construction people through that sort of terrain.”
Some slopes were so steep that a bulldozer couldn’t climb them without help. They didn’t have the advantage of hydraulics in those days, so cables were used instead.
“They would still have to do what they call yo-yo-ing. One bulldozer would go down and another would pull it back up with a winch.”
Trans Mountain is tied to the discovery of light oil south of Edmonton at Leduc in 1947. At the time, there were only three pipelines in Canada, none of them shipping west. Oil supply became an issue during the Second World War and later the Korean War. The only means of getting oil to the West Coast was by marine tanker, a strategic vulnerability from a military standpoint.
Completed in just 18 months at a cost of $93 million — a vast sum in the day — the pipeline employed a peak construction workforce of 6,000. While its operating workforce was a fraction of that, retired workers still speak of camaraderie up and down the line.
At one time, workers lived in company housing provided by Trans Mountain. That included a string of houses in Kamloops along Lorne Street. Company housing is still provided in Jasper and Blue River.
“I’m sure it was the best company in the world to work for,” said Bridgeman. “Nobody got treated badly. I think everyone along the pipeline looked at Trans Mountain employees as being fortunate.”
“I think we behaved more like a family,” Rolin said. “You knew everybody on the line.”
Rolin worked for a time with Jim Boydell, another Kamloops resident. Boydell’s memories date back to the earliest days of operation. In the summers of 1954-55, it was his job to walk the entire length of the pipeline from Edmonton to Vancouver. He stopped every 100 paces to inspect for signs of corrosion.
Boydell loved the outdoor work the job entailed. Next door, there was a teenager who was intrigued by the stories he brought back.
“It sounded very interesting to me,” said Greg Toth. “I did always have it in the back of my mind that it would be someone interesting to work for, not knowing what a pipeline engineer would do.”
After obtaining his engineering degree, Toth joined Trans Mountain in 1990 and now serves as senior project manager for the proposed expansion project. He’s become well acquainted with its history.
“It was really a co-ordinated effort with the federal and provincial governments that culminated with the formation of the consortium and construction of the pipeline,” he said. “The complexity of the project and the tools used to construct it were pretty extraordinary.”
Much of the route was remote, since neither the Yellowhead nor the Trans-Canada Highway into Vancouver was built. There was no Canadian pipeline industry in the early ‘50s, so much of the expertise came from the U.S.
“It’s interesting to think of where the province was 60 years ago and where it is today,” Toth said. “Pipeline infrastructure was a big element in the growth and development of the province of B.C.”
Ninety per cent of the province’s petroleum supply is shipped through the existing line.
He describes the pipeline as “a silent energy carrier,” one that long functioned below the public’s radar until a number of high-profile spills on other pipelines. Construction of the Anchor Loop along the Trans Mountain five years ago received scant public attention; times have changed since then.
The public has grown vigilant, not only about pipelines, but about fossil fuels in general as climate change awareness develops.
“You don’t have to go very far back to see that public perception or awareness has changed.”
Kinder Morgan Canada, which now owns the pipeline, proposes to triple its capacity. Its facility application goes to the National Energy Board for review later this year. If all goes according to schedule, and pending approval, the two-year, $4-billion expansion project would begin in 2015.
“I think the onus is on us and it’s our responsibility to raise the level of knowledge and public awareness of what’s involved in constructing the pipeline and operating the pipeline,” Toth said.