Reservoir and Dam

Nechako River canyon dam construction,
June 1952.  Right bank stripping and left bank tunnel haul road shown. 

"The first thing was to establish a dam site on the Nechako River. The place we first had in mind, the foundations were impossible for a dam. There was a great gravel esker running through underneath where we wanted to put the dam, so we had to look for another site. [Charles Dunn] was an engineer who had been with Alcoa. He was a very good friend of Mac DuBose and they had worked together many years before... He had moved to ...International Engineering and so this was really the reason International Engineering was hired, because Charlie Dunn was the head of it. He knew Mac and Mac knew he could rely on Charlie. So he came out and sorted out the various possibilities. These things were not done by one man in isolation but by putting together what everybody knew and by Charlie putting his foot on some things that were non-starters and narrowing it down, and from looking at the others and so he asked me, 'What is downstream there?' And I said, 'Well, I haven't seen the reach downstream from the lake here - where we were going to build the dam - to the canyon, but I have been to the canyon.' We went in from downstream looking at it for the idea of just a small power plant developing on the Nechako River. 'So what's the country like there?' and I said, 'Well, it's pretty wide'. And so we went downstream... " (John Kendrick)

The damming of the Nechako River would create a 92,000-hectare reservoir. Those in the way of the rising water had to move. The homesteaders along the north shore of Ootsa Lake accepted a settlement from the Aluminum Company of Canada. The Cheslatta T'en First Nation accepted $7.4 million in 1993 from the Government of Canada as a settlement for inadequate compensation in 1952.

Kenny Dam construction nearing completion. 

Environmental impact studies were conducted on the fisheries in the Bulkley-Nechako region. 80,000 acres of treed shoreline and white sand beaches lost to the floodwaters caused Pierre Berton to comment, 'Tweedsmuir Park has paid the price of progress'. Maclean's Magazine, 1958

The Nechako River Grand Canyon was dammed with rock fill - the most economical method of construction. The engineers created the third largest rock-filled dam in the world towering 325 feet, measuring 1,500 feet at the base, and 40 feet at the top. It contains about 4 million yards of material - rock, gravel, and clay. The rock was transported by truck - the nearest quarry being several miles away. John Kendrick recalls:

"In terms of the size of the Project, the Kenney Dam wasn't huge... It's a big dam and it was modeled for the design on one of the dams that Charlie Dunn and Mac DuBose had worked, on the Tennessee River. It is just a pile of rock, you put earth on the face of rock and then more rock, and there's the dam. It's a little more complicated than that when you get down to details but that dam is still there - no concrete."

Rock fill dam, 45 degree pitch.  

"We could have put a concrete gravity dam in there. The site would have permitted that, but it would be an awful lot of concrete. This dam was more cost effective and more stable because concrete does deteriorate with time and has to be maintained, and the rock is just rock and the earth is out of sight in the middle and so there's no maintenance problems. There's nothing to deteriorate... The earth was chosen for its impermeability - this resistance to the passage of water - that's what stops the water from running down - it's the dirt. There are many details, obviously, one of them was we ran small bore holes down into the rock under the dam before we built it and pumped them full of concrete so that if there were any cracks or leaks in the rock they would be stopped by this concrete curtain that was poured down in the rock and distributed under pressure to any fissures and so on, so the rock was waterproof, too, underneath the dam. There are places in BC where these rock formations lie on top of glacial deposits which are usually course gravel or rock or boulders or something like that, so we had to be sure that this wasn't the flow over old glacial deposits, so we drilled right through to the parent non-volcanic bedrock, which was granite and drilled there in a number of places and there was nothing there - the lava flow was right on top of the bedrock, so it was all solid."

Kenney Dam Naming Ceremony program map with camp shown.

Left to right:  The Honourable Edward T. Kenney, Liberal Minister of the Department of Lands and Forests for the Province of British Columbia, Ron Whyte's father William Alan Whyte, General Freight Agent (Western Division) for the Canadian National Railways and Steamships, Vancouver, B.C; McNeely DuBose, Vice-President, Aluminum Company of Canada, Limited; and The Honourable Clarence Wallace, Lieutenant Governor of the Province of British Columbia.

Hans Christian Larsen recalls finding work with a friend at Alcan's Nechako camp, working on the Kenney Dam. Hans was only 19 when he and a friend ventured west:

"We had heard about the Alcan Project... The hiring office for the Nechako or what became the Kenney Dam project was across the street from the Vanderhoof Hotel... Rasmus was hired as a carpenter and I as a flunkie... that's a waiter in the mess hall. We headed for the camp some 60 miles south of Vanderhoof in Rasmus' Chevy sedan... We bunked in quonset H huts... they were made out of corrugated steel and they were shaped as an 'H'. There were two long buildings that would house something like 40 people each, beds side-by side along the two walls and the two buildings were joined by a room that housed a washroom, toilets and shower facilities... When it became known that I could paint signs, I was reassigned to the BC Engineer's office and eventually to Harry Christiansen's carpenter shop. I was assigned a short-based army jeep, a room for a shop and a carpenter's shop and free rein to order whatever I needed to set up a sign shop. One of my first big jobs was to paint Nechako, BC on our water tower."

The Nechako Reservoir started to fill in October 1952, and with the completion of the Kenney Dam in 1954, a 145-mile long expanse of water covering 339 square miles was created. Ron Whyte recalls joining his father, William Alan Whyte, General Freight Agent (Western Division), Canadian National Railways and Steamships and other dignitaries at the opening of the Dam:

"I went up to Vanderhoof on the night train... There were guests coming from all over the place and they were giving out tags to guests. Here my father was with MacNeely DuBose and his wife... They gave me a tag and I joined the party and sixty-five miles later we were in the Nechako. I was there at the official opening - a big bang went off, a few speeches, there was a luncheon. [The area] was railed. Johnson the Liberal Premier at that time, the Lieutenant Governor, MacNeely DuBose - I think they all spoke. They were the people who were on the dais... they were the main people."

Construction was still in progress during the Naming

Hans Larsen talks of the Nechako Project as the construction of the Kenney Dam was called:

"I painted a lot of signs, mostly 'Danger', 'Caution', 'Wear Hardhats', etc., etc., but the biggest job came about when Alcan decided to buy all the equipment owned by the contractors. Initially they had of course rented the equipment... The primary contractor was Morrison-Knudsen of Boise, Idaho and the subcontractor who actually built the dam was Mannix of Calgary. When I say they bought all of the equipment I mean everything from washing machines to typewriters, TD 24 tractors and Marion shovels plus a fleet of Euclid dump trucks. All equipment had to be renumbered. So I had the distinction of being the only person alive (so far) to have physically touched each and every piece of equipment on the Nechako Project. Equipped with my sign painters box and the master list... of all equipment showing the current equipment number, the serial and model numbers and the new Alcan number... Showing the current equipment number I covered the jobsite from one end to the other. I would stop tractors in the field or Euclid trucks to paint the new number and usually also paint the operator's name on his hard-hat."

"Gambling and boozing certainly took place at Kenney Dam. We had our own gambling tent. It was mostly blackjack and dice. Some players were professionals. They would hire on as bull-cooks or labourers just to get a chance to gamble. There was a lot of money made and there was probably a lot more lost. I remember the Melange Brothers, French-Canadian chaps who won a Ford - a brand-new Ford one night, but they never did see it because they lost it again that night."

"And then it happened - the camp was declared dry. No more booze... not even in the homes of the married folks that's mainly supervisory staff. So our camp manager... and our chief security officer... were going to visit each bunkhouse on a Sunday morning and they were going to search for booze and if you refused to have your belongings searched you would be issued a pink slip. In other words, you would be fired on the spot. We were all waiting with our suitcases packed ready to leave rather than to have anyone search our belongings. But at the meeting to advise the married supervisors that their homes would also be searched, our mechanical superintendent said, 'Whoever is going to search my place will have to be bigger than me.' So that was the end of the search idea. The camp remained dry but we had our way to smuggle booze in."

"Mannix had brought in a crew of hard-rock miners from Steep Rock, Ontario. They were a wild bunch. The miners were at Nechako to drill the diversion tunnel to allow the building of the proper dam. Coffer dams were installed to allow the area between the two to be prepared for the proper dam. In other words there was a coffer dam upstream and one downstream and the diversion tunnel took the water around so that you could prepare the area between these two... and that meant cleaning down to bedrock and guniting and grouting all the cracks to seal it and then of course start to fill it up with rocks, clay and what-have you. When the dam was completed the concrete gate or plug was lowered into the opening of the diversion tunnel and that is... how the reservoir started to build up. And the next morning in the sandwich room someone had written on the large blackboard. 'Slightly used coffer dam for sale. Easy terms can be arranged'."

One occasion Larsen and a couple of other men went to Ootsa Lake before the floodwaters had risen too far...

"We went by boat from the dam site to the Indian village that had been vacated on Ootsa Lake. It had been completely abandoned because the reservoir was... going to cover the entire area. The church remained and a graveyard. The entire area would be flooded... so we were to build a commemorative cairn on the highest point in the area. Our equipment consisted of a small tractor and a stone boat which had been dropped off by barge. We collected stones and we hauled them up this big hill to the very top and we built the cairn to which eventually a plaque was attached. We were there for several days. We lived in the church and supplemented our grub with the most beautiful lake trout you ever saw. They were big."