Many workers had their pictures taken in front of the Kitimat Constructor’s sign on the Kitimat wharf.  Jack Shirley worked for KC as a Rigger. 

Kitimat Constructors – a consortium of eight construction companies – received the contract for the smelter and town.  The initial development for the smelter would include Potlines Nos. 1 and 2, storage and administrative buildings, wharf, and conveying facilities.  John B. Whitton, “J.B.” was in charge.

He was a wonderful guy – just a great construction man…No nonsense at all…I remember one time there was a union up…I don’t know what the problem was, but John was in his office….and John was going to go out and talk to these union guys.  Before he went out he ruffled up all his hair and made himself look as rough as he could and then went out and talked to the union guys.  (Dick Hermann)

“J.B.” Whitton 

Well, in those days J.B. Whitton ran the construction department and he had his own set of engineers, Cam Jenkinson was the resident engineer … I worked for him as did Bruce McLellan and some other engineers.  If you didn’t work for J.B. Whitton, everyone who didn’t work [for him] was kind of the construction department’s enemy, according the J.B. … One of the jobs …was to design and lay out the Anderson Creek trailer camp - the layout of the trailers and the services, the sewer and water and power that was to serve it.   I don’t know whether it is still visible today but there was a curved embankment and then a kind of a higher embankment behind it and the trailer camp was to be built on two levels.  … once the design was done and given it to J.B. Whitton’s people to build it, I used to go down just to observe what was going on.  I went down there this one afternoon …they were digging the trench for water and sewer and I could see obviously that it wasn’t paralleling the curve of the bank, so thinking I was a hero I went up to the construction foreman and said “I think you’re putting it in the wrong place, its supposed to parallel the bank, because the road would also parallel the bank.”  He said, ‘Ok’, and I thought I certainly proved my worth there, and I went back to the office.  About an hour later J.B. Whitton came in the office and he came over to my desk.  I looked up and there was J.B. and I think he could do it at will, his face was totally red and he just tore a strip off of me, “You don’t talk to my men in the field! You tell me if anything is wrong!”  And he went at it for about five minutes and I learnt my lesson, you don’t tell J.B.  But later on when I was building the 26 houses in Kemano for J.B. Whitton -I had been transferred to his group – he was a different kind of man.  (Brian Quinlan)

…he liked people who stood up to him.  Anyone who cowered he thought were terrible, but if you were feisty…  He pulled the place together.  He had a good rapport with all the people and there was no nonsense – absolutely none.  He was a gruff old boy but a marshmallow.  (Dick and Mary Hermann)

“Beach Camp” becomes known as Smeltersite, circa 1954, hospital on the beach (centre).  

In April 1951, the first construction crew – four carpenters, a bulldozer operator, three workmen, and their cook Bob Jamieson - landed at the beach to construct the first engineers’ camp.  Some of the Haisla of Kitamaat came across the channel to help and as Bob Jamieson put it, “to have a look at us.”

The first building erected was the cookhouse, followed by the bunkhouses and wharf.  By September 1951, approximately 200 men were camped at “Beach Camp” on the shores of Douglas Channel.  By 1952, there was a bridge over Anderson Creek, a ferry service to carry men and machinery to the townsite camp, and plant construction was underway. Initial development for the smelter would include Potlines Nos. 1 and 2, storage and administrative buildings, wharf, and conveying facilities. 

The Dredging

Bulldozers placing fill from the dredge pipe in the southwest corner of the storage area, September 12, 1952.

Dredging the Douglas Channel to prepare the deep-sea port was a priority in the first month of work.  Huge scows dug out the ocean floor, dredging over three million cubic yards through a 24"-diameter pipe “The noise going through the pipes was terrific and a few days went by before I got accustomed to the sound.”  (Alcan engineer Hugh Meldrum).  The Townsend, a dredge owned by B.C. Bridge and Dredging, pumped about 12,000 cubic yards of fill - enough to fill 30 four-room bungalows – each day.

You know what a dredge is – a big sucking machine that sucks up the gravel and then they had the conveyors and they took it and dumped it out with water onto the site.  See when we were building [lines] 1 and 2 they were working a way back on 3, 4, and 5 onwards, 7 and 8, building the site up so it was just a big suction machine.  It sucks up the gravel with water and dumps it on the site, and of course naturally they have to have an opening so every once in awhile he’d hit a stump – don’t forget they’re down under the water maybe 30 feet down – so they had this stump in the pump and they had to stop and clean it out.  (Harry McLellan)

The Sandhill

Sandhill Conveyor

Part of the 14,000-foot conveyor belt installed from the sandhill in 1956 to the smelter.

“Alcan’s million dollar baby,” the natural gravel deposit at the sandhill, had an almost unlimited supply of good fill for the huge task of creating a stable location for the smelter in the Kitimat River estuary.  At first, 85 gravel trucks roared back and forth to the plant site four miles away but this was cost-prohibitive.  In the spring of 1956, a 14,000-foot conveyor belt went into operation and an aggregate screening plant with electric hoist was under construction. By 1957, close to 10 million cubic yards of the sandhill had gone into the smelter site foundation and townsite construction.  The sandhill that once extended to the Kitimat River had been decreased by an average of 16,000 cubic yards a day!  By 1957, the conveyor extended 300 feet by tunnel into the sandhill, getting its load of gravel from a hopper that ground the gravel before transport.

“The first hopper at the sandhill was a huge wooden affair built by Kitimat Constructors.  To start the gravel flowing into the hopper, dynamite was planted on the hillside and when the blast went off the men watched in horror as hillside, hopper and all went into the Kitimat River.” The Sagimat, Vol.3 No.37, September 25, 1957. 

Charlie Richardson, in charge of the operation, was considered one of the most experienced earth movers in Western Canada.  At the Sandhill he had a twenty-four man crew – nine cat skinners, six grizzly men, six root pickers, and three gatemen! 

The Dock

Three caissons in their graving dock, nearing completion, April 1, 1953.

A dock made from sunken caissons was invented for the smelter. This deep-sea dock was constructed using three concrete caissons, each one 250 feet long and 7,500 tons. These were built on their sides in a graving dock or cofferdam then floated to the wharf site and sunk by filling with gravel.

…we had to dredge a floor for those caissons to sit on and then we actually placed about a metre of special crushed rock fill for the foundation for the caissons…we had some difficulty getting that level for the caissons to sit on. We had a big drag that we would drag back and forth and of course the tide changes very quickly there and you get quite a tide range and it took some pretty careful work to get the level of the surface correct... (Dick Hermann)

Caissons floated and positioned, May 15, 1953.  The men in charge of the caisson dock project (l to r): Cam Jenkinson, George Malby, Mr. McCallum, Hal Whiting, J.B. Whitton, S. T. Wynne-Jones, Mr. Van Houten and Dick Hermann.

" ...we were having trouble getting the surface uniform and old J.B. Whitton came down and he was all excited about this and we were using a rubber-coated cable to do this sounding and I remember old John took ahold of one end and he asked me to hold the other end and he stretched it about three feet, and of course this was one of the reasons why we weren't getting accurate elevations because the cable was stretching... so old John was mad about that." (Dick Hermann)

"[The caissons] settled right there down on the bottom... And that was on top of the foundation that we fussed with for so long... The caissons were supposed to be three feet apart and we got one two feet apart and that lost us a foot of dock space. George Malby was all excited about that. He said, 'Those things are worth a million dollars a foot you guys.' You lost a foot - a million dollars!" (Dick Hermann)

Fill Site Preparation

Up to 12 potlines were planned. Potlines 1 and 2 had achieved startup in 1954. By April 1955, work began with Saguenay-Kitimat Company (Sagimat), a newly formed construction subsidiary of Alcan, on three additional potlines. North of Potlines 1 and 2, land was being prepared for more potlines. 136 acres were being cleared. Tests showed that Smeltersite's alluvial soil would not provide adequate support for heavy buildings needing firm foundations. Pile-driving crews moved ahead of the carpenters banging lengths of steel and wood into soft spots. Saguenay-Kitimat Company Year in Review, 1955, p. 13.

"I can still remember reading a consultant's report that predicted that the fill as planned would settle twelve inches plus or minus twenty-five percent... and what I had left there then had been a differential settlement from one side of the site to the other of over five feet and it was still going down... once we found out that it was going to settle more than predicted, we had to estimate the settlement, the differential settlement between parts of the site and raise some of the foundations so that when they settled it would be at the right elevation... it was a big problem. Those overhead cranes in the potlines are not made to run uphill." (Dick Hermann)

Two hundred pieces of major equipment - trucks, cranes, shovels, cats, compressors, welders, stiff leg derricks, lumber carriers, lighting plants on the site and a Euclid fleet - were needed for strip and fill operations. Under the watchful eye of J.B. Whitton, Sagimat's Construction Superintendent, Potline No. 3 was on power March 1956, Potline No. 4, June 1956, and Potline No. 5, November 1956. All three doubled the smelter's production. Additional potlines were planned to come into operation during the years 1957 to 1959.

Ferguson rubber-tired roller compacting the fill area, 1953

"A certain amount of fines and a certain amount of course material... and it had to be compacted to probably what we call 95 or 98 percent proctor density and that was one of the things we did, measure regularly the degree of compaction that they were able to receive and they compacted it with rollers and everything they could drag on there to compact it, and that was one of the major things we did, and it had to be spread in uniform layers. I remember it being six-inch layers they wanted it spread in, which would be pretty thin - not a very deep layer. I remember the catskinners would object to that because they really didn't have enough material to work with to spread it evenly - that thin a layer, that was a bit of a problem - they surmounted it... It's the question of having a big enough pile to get a load in front of the dozer blade so that the catskinner has some control of how thick the layer is down. If he doesn't have enough load down in front of his blade, he just can't control the thickness of the layer that's going down." (Dick Hermann)

Work was around the clock, so at one point temporary overhead lines supplied power for use on the site. They circled the work area to provide a ring feed. At times and in other areas some were not so lucky.

"All night long... we did a lot of work in the dark with just the lights off the equipment. That provided most of the light. I don't remember big lighting. I don't think there was. We worked in the dark except for the equipment lights." (Dick Hermann)

Some things found their way into the fill that weren't necessarily supposed to be there:

"I had an old Model A... that I drove and actually it was one of the first private cars in Kitimat... one night when I drove home from working at the townsite I got to the bottom of this little hill... and it wouldn't go up the hill. It had frozen up on the way home from the townsite... I just let it coast back down across the road and parked it on the side of the main road there and during that night it snowed... and the plow came along and plowed a big winnow of stuff up along so I couldn't get the car out and so I just left it there. It stayed there most of the winter, and at some stage in the winter a wind storm came up and blew a tree down over the front end of the car and smashed the radiator all to bits and finally Cliff Schisler offered me twenty-five dollars for it, so I sold it to him... and he took the radiator off and put a 25 gallon oil drum on the front of the car to serve as a radiator... and put a pipe up so here you see this old car... steam coming out of this pipe and finally Cliff got together enough money to buy a real car and he ran this thing into the Smeltersite and we covered it with fill... I can take you to the place where it is even... probably under potline No. 5." (Dick Hermann)

Canadian Comstock Company, Limited, Sagimat’s electrical sub-contractor installed the complex equipment needed to regulate the electric power which provided the vital energy for the new potlines, installing many miles of wiring, the rectifiers, transformers, substations, and other high tension electrical equipment, as it had in Arvida.  (Saguenay-Kitimat Company Year in Review, 1955)  Rectifiers converted the 60-cycle alternating current to direct current for use in the smelting operation. 

Sagimat also constructed auxiliary service buildings for each line, the coke calcining plant and storage area, Turbine No. 5 at Kemano, and Potlines 7 and 8 site preparation and buildings. “All lumber used for Sagimat buildings was sawn and dressed at the local mill.” Saguenay-Kitimat Company Year in Review, 1955, p.15.  Approximately 11 million board feet of lumber were salvaged from 558 acres cleared for the townsite and smeltersite.

Erecting structural steel for Potroom 2C, April 29, 1953

Pacific Steel Erectors Limited did the steel framing for most buildings onsite including the potlining mix plant building 244, carbon paste plant, hard pitch storage building 242, and soderberg paste plant.  Between April 1951 and December 31, 1958, 28,000 tons of structural steel was erected at the smelter.

Plant expansion demanded more energy.  Between October 1954 and May 1955 prep work was done on Penstock No. 2, Generator No. 4 came on power February 16, 1956 and Generator No. 6 on October 20, 1956.  Sagimat installed the 400-ton rotor of Generator No. 5, July 12, 1957.  Rotors turn at 327 revolutions per minute, producing 150,000 horsepower. Altogether, 2,651 yards of concrete and 150 tons of steel went into the installation.  Crews also installed Generator No.7, on power March 28, 1958 and Generator No. 8 by 1964.

Guy Kinnear was first Electrical Superintendent for Alcan and first permanent Alcan staff employee.  He is fondly recalled by many, including Roy Ruddell who came to work for him during construction:

He was a marvelous man, not a big man but he was wiry and strong, he used to play for the Trail Smokeaters, and he was a real outdoorsman, curler, fisherman extraordinaire and he just loved it in Kitimat.  I was carrying planks – we would carry them from where the truck unloaded them – invariably it took two people and Guy Kinnear would want to carry two planks.  He wouldn’t lift his end until I had two planks at my end.  I always tried to get in with somebody else because everybody else only carried one.  He was very strong.  (Roy Ruddell)