Pipe Dream Comes True

They sent the tankers to Britain and dug Canada an underground river of oil

LESLIE ROBERTS November 1 1941

Pipe Dream Comes True

They sent the tankers to Britain and dug Canada an underground river of oil

LESLIE ROBERTS November 1 1941

Pipe Dream Comes True

They sent the tankers to Britain and dug Canada an underground river of oil


BY THE time you are reading this—or soon after—crude oil from Colombia, Venezuela and Texas will be gushing, to the tune of 50,000 barrels a day, from the Montreal end of a twelve-inch pipe, the receiving end of which is on the shores of Casco Bay at Portland, Maine, almost 240 miles away.

Across the hinterland of Maine, through the gorges of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, down through the rolling farmlands of Northern Vermont, over the border and across Quebec’s Eastern Townships, precious fuel for Canada’s war forces and industry will flow unseen through a buried conveyor. Six electrically and two Diesel-driven pumping stations along the way will thrust the oil ahead to the south bank of the St. Lawrence, at better than infantry marching speed. There the oil line will dive under the river bed, to reappear on the north bank in the heart of the nest of refineries at Montreal East, where the vital liquid will be distributed to the five great companies. Ultimately it will fly bombers to Britain, fuel Brencarriers, armored cars, tanks, trucks and motorcycles, fill the reservoirs of naval and merchant ships, drive the trucks of war industry and—if any is left over—supply the householder with an occasional quencher for his thirsty sedan or coupe.

Nothing short of a construction miracle has made Eastern Canada’s new oil-transport system possible within the brief space of half a year. A miracle demanded by the crisis which dropped into Canada’s lap when it was announced that President Roosevelt had commandeered tankers for Britain, would take more if necessary, to keep the life line open. Canada, already faced with a fuel shortage caused by the demands of a mechanized war, suddenly awakened to the discovery that the tankers which used to bring millions of barrels a year into the port of Montreal, wouldn’t be coming any more, at least not until the shipyards could produce new bottoms to take up the slack.

Until that moment the Montreal-Portland pipe line had been a plan, a proposal, a possible solution to a problem which lurked around the corner. Now it assumed the importance of the last swallow of water in the bottle of a thirst-ridden traveller in the desert. Now the question was not, “Is a Portland-Montreal pipe a good idea?” but—“How quickly can it be rushed through?” What follows is the story of how it was done and, beyond that, what those 50,000 barrels a day, pumped from the tankers at Portland through mountain passes and across plains, will do for Canada and the Canadian war job.

At the outset let it be noted that these 20,000,000 barrels a year of crude oil do not constitute a new, or additional, reservoir. This is the oil which,

normally, would have come up the St. Lawrence in tankers. From now on the tankers will unload at Portland and save almost 2,000 miles of travel up the coast, through the Gulf and the St. Lawrence into Montreal. The result is the release of tankers for service elsewhere, and the substitution of another means of transport for tankers which have already gone to new and urgent tasks. Thus the shortage, so far as the mythical Common Man is concerned, remains.

But for the pipe line our problem might not have been what it was before the spinning out of supply —but a famine which might have slowed our war job to a standstill. Credit for averting that possibility belongs to the oil men a pleasingly profane corps of gentlemen adventurers who have spent their lives laying pipe in Iraq, Iran, the Southern States, and South America. They have stepped in and done in jig time what they describe as the toughest ] ipe line-building job ever tackled. The matters of which you are about to read constitute one of the minor miracles of the war. Come, then, to Portland, in the sovereign state of Maine.

Panzer Methods

OFFSHORE in Casco Bay considerable pother and to-do is going on. Tug whistles shriek. Great machines groan in labor as four gargantuan dredges tear into the sea bottom and hoist huge scoops of its black ooze, plus the occasional bewildered lobster, into adjacent scows. The tugs hook on, whistles rend the air again, lines strain taut and the muck-laden barges move slowly out toward the Atlantic, to be dumped.

On shore, huge tractors, bulldozers and other juggernaut equipment of our panzer age seem to be pulling mother earth apart. Gangs of workmen move here and there in well-ordered frenzy. Buildings and tanks, vast storage vats, are rising rapidly amid the clatter of man-swung tools and riveting machines.

Back in the town, a strange-looking machine, not unlike a small boy’s concept of St. George’s dragon, breathes fire and roars as it tears a deep, but sharply defined, three-foot trench through the heart of the state metropolis. Just out of town, at Pleasantdale, more storage tanks and a pumpingstation are under construction. Thence a survey line and a deep ditch snake northwest toward New Hampshire, Vermont and the Canadian border at Highwater, Que. Up and down this narrow zone of activity go lean, high-booted gentlemen who talk the drawled lingo of far-away Oklahoma and Texas, giving orders to locally-employed labor, to construction gangs, and to Texan college lads who earn the trifling sum of $1.60 an hour per ten-hour day, seven days a week, driving the bulldozers and other machines of destruction employed in shoving a pipe line through in emergency time.

This was the scene on a late summer day, hard by the city of Portland, Maine. And this tremendous activity had been building up to a crescendo since last spring.

If you had been down around West Burke, Vermont, or Crawford Notch, or Gorham, New Hampshire, about then, you’d have marvelled at low-flying airplanes, whose pilots seemed to be trying to ascertain how close a man can fly to the tips of the trees without snaring his undercarriage.

They belonged to the aerial-survey party, out to examine the contours of the country in search of the best route along which to throw a pipe line in double-quick time. Meanwhile, legal-minded citizens in Washington and Ottawa were busy knocking together a couple of corporate structures, the Portland Pipe Line Company, to build from the seaboard intake point to the Canadian border, the Montreal-Portland Pipe Line Company, Ltd., to look after construction and operation from Highwater, Que., to Montreal East. Ottawa hurriedly passed an order-in-council giving the Canadian operators rights to step in and make quick right-of-way deals with property owners. The Interstate Commerce Commission in Washington extended the privilege of something called Eminent Domain for the same purpose, south of the Line.

Scarcely were the reconnaissance planes back on terra firma than the surveyors were out, following the general course set out from above, amending it to meet local ground conditions, charting the final route. Once out of Portland the route they chose swings northwest into the mountains and through a gap into Raymond. Veers slightly west through North Waterford to the tumbling Androscoggin River. Here it right-angles up the valley into the heart of the cliff-steep White Mountains, wriggles through Crawford Notch and into Lancaster— approximately half-way to Montreal. It runs almost due west through the hills for thirty miles into West Burke, Vermont, after which the going is considerably easier, north and west to the border at Highwater.

Meanwhile, on the Canadian side, in much easier country, except in the mountainous region around Sutton, Que., a similar survey was in hand. Northwest from the border the route swings through the mountains to Sutton, down through the country about Dunham and into the flatlands to St. Cesaire. On the same bearing it continues across country toward the river to reach the St. Lawrence near Boucherville, immediately opposite the urban refinery area. An underwater pipe carries the line ashore adjacent to the refineries, where a tank farm, in which oil is stored for all refiners, completes the job of transporting crude into the metropolis.

Meanwhile the legal gentry were on the surveyors’ heels, dickering with property owners and reporting nothing much to argue about. Not merely on the Canadian side, but clean across rockribbed New England, farmers and villagers alike manifested only a desire to help — This thing is needed badly, isn’t it? Has something to do with Saving Democracy, hasn’t it? All right, mister, bring out your paper, and I’ll sign—That was the keynote.

Never, in the history of pipe lining in the free countries, has less anxiety to bargain been shown by the Little Fellow suddenly faced with a chance to turn a dollar at the Big Fellow’s expense. Of 285 proprietors, over whose land the pipe line passes on Canadian soil, only eight failed to co-operate at once. These were expropriated without ado.

Right-of-way gangs were out in force almost before the surveyors and the legal people were gone from the scene. By mid-June they were preparing the most difficult places—and there were plenty, once the White Mountains began to intrude—by removing trees and boulders, ditching, building rough roads in from highways to facilitate the movement of pipe, doing all the jobs of preparation for the main

Down Goes the Pipe

NEXT CAME the stringing gang to distribute pipe to the points at which it was to be used, alongside the Big Ditch. Behind them the pipe layers arrived, ready to drop the conveyor system in place. Not so long ago pipe laying was a slow and arduous task. Every length had to be screwed tight to its neighbor, and fifteen or twenty men wrestled with the huge lengths to get them into place. But welding cured that. Now two young men encased in visored metal headgear do the trick, with the help of bulldozer machines and a couple of fellows named Jake, armed with eables to manoeuvre the pipe lengths into position and “stovepipe” the ends

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together. All told, the welders throw five welds onto each stovepiped joint, until an even joint surface is established. Then a soaplike paste is spread over the welded area and the joint is attacked with compressed air to find weaknesses. After that the pipe is ready for its preserving coat of asphalt paint, and to be laid to rest in the ditch. Pipe, you might like to know, comes in what an oil man calls “random” lengths averaging forty to forty-seven feet. It weighs 49.56 pounds to the square foot and, therefore, approximately a ton to the length. The welders work above ground until a section nearly a mile long has been put together. Then the pipe goes down and is buried by the last crew of all, the ditching gang.

Dominion Day marked the beginning of pipe laying, with Lancaster, New Hampshire, chosen as the jump-off place, principally because it is approximately the dead centre of the Big Ditch. Gangs worked out of Lancaster in each direction, each gang putting away about one and three quarter miles of pipe in a day,

seven days a week. Soon six gangs were at work along the route, those working to Montreal being about twenty miles over the border into Canada by Labor Day, a matter of eighty odd miles out of Lancaster, less than fifty to go to reach the St. Lawrence. “If we don’t get held up for pipe,” President Simpson told the writer just about then, “we’ll be into Montreal days before they expect us, and delivering oil long before we told Supply Minister Howe we could make it.”

On the Canadian side difficulties were encountered in the mountains, between the border at Highwater and Sutton. But recalcitrant mother nature took a beating. Five river crossings plus nine rail traverses were the only other obstacles. In the stretch drive, gangs started south from Boucherville to meet the crews laying pipe north from the Border. Turn on the heat. Don’t spare the tractors. Don’t worry about money. These were the orders of the day. But that is only part of the story.

You can’t move heavy crude oil through a pipe of twelve-inch interior

diameter, 236 miles long, by the simple act of pouring it into one end at Portland, Maine, and waiting hopefully for it to come out the other end in Montreal, Que. Science must provide help, en route. Thus, while the bulldozers were hoisting pipe lengths into position around Gorham, N.H., and Sutton, Que., and welders were blistering the insides of their metal headgear with the folk words of distant Oklahoma, other people were building electric and Diesel pumping stations along the way, at Raymond and North Waterford in Maine, at Gorham and Lancaster, N.H., at West Burke, Vermont, and at Quebec’s Highwater and St. Cesaire, these in addition to the initial pumping plant at Pleasantdale, on the Portland outskirts. Every one of these, with its associate buildings and staff houses was under construction simultaneously. At each pumping station a 30,000 barrel tank—“floating on the line,” in the oil - man’s vernacular — was being rushed to completion to provide for continued flow of oil in the case of inter-station breakdowns.

Meanwhile, in Portland, four huge dredges were digging 250,000 cubic feet of clay and 15,000 cubic feet of rock from the bottom of Casco Bay, preparing an anchorage for the tankers which will bring the crudes from Venezuela and Colombia to be poured into the gaping jaws of the new carrier system. Thus the tankers, each bearing 100,000 barrels of crude, can unload about 1,000 feet offshore into a twenty-four-inch pipe which comes out from the storage vats on the land. At the unloading point stand two huge tanks, each built to hold 140,000 barrels of crude, to receive the incoming oil. Then it is piped for two and three quarter miles, under the city of Portland to Pleasantdale, starting point of the pipe line proper, where there is adequate storage room for 560,000 barrels, a matter of eleven days’ supply. At Montreal, huge receiving tanks were under construction, and the line layers were burrowing under the bed of the St. Lawrence to bring the line to its terminus. All these matters were in hand simultaneously and, as matters seemed when this observer was visiting around, all were going to be tied into a neat bowknot about the same time. It seemed like something of an achievement. But Jack Simpson and some

of the gentlemen from Oklahoma looked on the suggestion with what might be called a slight touch of askance. In their blunt language, it had just been a devil of a lot of work.

It’s a Three Day Trip

THE PIPE line means oil can be in Montreal three days after it reaches Portland, in a pinch. By what means? How is it done?

First the reservoirs, the “tank farms” and the “floating tanks” at the pumping stations along the way, must be filled. That calls for close onto a million barrels of oil—though whether or not all these supply tanks will be filled to the brim before oil begins to pour into Montreal East, probably will depend upon Montreal’s need of the hour. But, in any event, 178,000 barrels of crude will be pumped into the line at Pleasantdale before any begins to appear at the distant terminal beyond the St. Lawrence—and that is one and three quarter tanker loads. Once the gooey stuff is into the line it will move along at a speed of 3.47 miles an hour, driven by a pressure of 800 pounds to the square inch. Thus, oil which left Portland at breakfast time on Monday would reach journey’s end in the dark hours of Wednesday night or Thursday morning. Nobody except the experts inside the pumping stations will see the oil as it moves along. It will travel hidden from view well below plow depth, across the farmsteads of southern Quebec and northern New England.

The pipe line, when completed, will interfere in no way with the tilling of the soil, unless it springs a leak now and then, whereupon the farmer who owns the land no doubt will ask compensation. And this strange conveyor—which first became a reality by means of aerial survey—will be patrolled by men on foot in summer, and by dog-team drivers alert for oil patches oozing through the snow in winter. Otherwise nobody will know what is happening, except the operators of the system and their checkers in the pumping stations, who will watch the inky river as it passes. Strange as it may seem, they can always tell you whose oil is passing by at any given moment.

The general public opinion seems to have been that crude oil would be

indiscriminately funnelled from the tankers through the pipe line to Montreal, and that the five refineries in that city would receive their allotments in bulk as it came out. All of which demonstrates the abysmal ignorance of the laity in such intricate matters. Actually the oil companies will purchase oil, as hitherto, in Texas or Venezuela, each according to its whims. Having bought it, the refiner will cause his crudes to be carried to Portland in tankers where, as already noted, it will be transferred to tanks ashore. In due course, this oil will make its way into the pipe line and on to Montreal, there to be delivered to the actual refiner who purchased it. This is not done with mirrors, nor by legerdemain. As you and I know brown sugar from white, the oil man knows one crude from another. When it goes into the tanks he knows where he has put it and how to get it out of there. Thus if, say, McColl Frontenac want 100,000 barrels of the stuff they recently shipped from Venezuela, sent along to the refinery, the pipe-line man starts it on its way, immediately behind another 100,000 barrel shipment destined for Imperial, Shell, or B-A. They don’t mix. They aren’t the same kind of oil. They won’t be used for the same purpose after refining. Virtually no “contamination” takes place where one shipment ends and the next begins. Thus the boss at the pumping station at Lancaster is always in a position to reach for his telephone and tell Head Office that the stuff for McColl is just coming in, on time. Pipe lining is a transportation operation, pure and simple, and the refineries are merely its customers, just as they are customers for the railroads or the tanker operators.

In point of fact, the big oil problem has always been solely one of transportation. Nowhere in these Americas

is there an oil shortage at the point of production. Nowhere is there scarcity of refining facilities. The only problem, as war stepped up consumption sharply, was the provision of facilities for getting oil from the place where it comes out of the ground to the centres of. population where it is refined and consumed. When the tankers had to be taken away and put to work on the British life line, the shortage suddenly turned acute. A network of lines is now being laid, or is about to be laid, from Uncle Sam’s rich and numerous oil fields to the places where oil is used. We are not the only people who were caught short.

Bottleneck Broken

AFTERWARD, what? Knowledgeable oil men say that, in so far as this transportation job is concerned, peace will probably see the tankers back in service on the Montreal run. The ships take longer to reach the end of the trail, but the operation is cheaper. And cheaper transport will mean cheaper gas for the ultimate consumer, once we return to a mode of life in which an ultimate consumer can be recognized by his friends and loved on^s. This is a war measure, pure ana simple, not merely something we should have done years ago, other than for military reasons.

Meanwhile, with 50,000 barrels a day pouring into Montreal, the refiners will be able to keep their plants running at top speed. There’ll be plenty of aviation spirit for the Air Force, plenty to keep the mechanized army rolling, plenty to keep war industry’s transport on the move— perhaps even a little left over for you and me.

And another bottleneck is broken as oil pours in to keep alight the lamps of freedom.