The Vision, the Plan

British Columbia was in the process of attracting industry, and invited the Aluminum Company of Canada to explore the coast for a suitable place for a smelter.

The Company conducted a three-year feasibility survey with particular interest paid to the Nechako - Kemano area

"During summer periods between my University [semesters] I got jobs on survey parties, and that of course was the beginning of the power project. Survey work kept me outside, which I enjoyed, so I was able to learn something about the elementary side of the Power project development at that time. Topographic surveys for reservoirs... when you build a dam how high it's going to back the water up, what the capacities of the reservoirs are from that water level that's backed up behind... it all goes into the mix of power development." (Brian Quinlan)

Alcan was also interested in Chilko Lake:

" ...[it] was higher up above sea level, and quite close to the coast but of course the Chilko is a salmon river, and so after I got on the scene and we started narrowing things down a bit we decided pretty soon we should just drop the Chilko because of the salmon. ...[The] Kimsquit River was... one we looked at... the Kimsquit Valley was a long, low valley leading up from a deep channel... whereas with Kemano you got down... about 200 feet above sea level... Kimsquit was maybe 6 or 700 feet above so there was a lot less power available and about the same distance for a tunnel, so that was dropped for economic reasons, it just didn't stand up with the other possibilities. ...The amount of power available is the amount of water per second multiplied by the drop to the powerhouse. And so the head, as we call it, the head times volume equals power and naturally... that was the attraction of the Chilko. It had more head, it was higher up, but that was really what caused us to fix on Kemano. ...Finally, of course, we did give up on all other locations, but it was a gradual process. We eliminated one after another of the possibilities, and the one we wound up with was not the only possibility but the best certainly ...take the water from Tahtsa Lake down to the Kemano Valley and... generate the power there, and over the mountains to Kitimat, and then there was ample space for the town." (John Kendrick)

Kitimat River estuary – site of the future smelter, circa 1950

The Kitimat site fit the bill. Once the water flow was reversed and a reservoir created to maximize the power potential, there would be enough hydroelectric power. A tunnel would carry the water in a steady and forceful stream into the generators at the powerhouse.

"There is another factor - water flowing through any sort of a tunnel causes a frictional loss... On most powerhouses... if the head is 500 feet you could have a frictional loss of say, 60 or 70 feet high velocity of water. Well, that's a... loss in energy, loss in power. This is one of the considerations. The Kemano drop or head... we're talking of the order of 2600 feet... so if you have 50 feet loss in that, that's not too bad... normally powerhouses in North America might be 200 feet, 300 feet, something like that, so 50 feet becomes quite significant... so you have to find out, if you don't line it, you have to find out what would be the loss due to friction. It's an economic consideration." (Lorne Duncan)

First ship to discharge alumina for Alcan Smelter in Kitimat - arrived from Port Esquivel, Jamaica, in July 1954. Ship was named S.S. "Sun Karen".

Kitimat also had a potential deep-sea port for importing raw materials and exporting aluminum ingots, enough flat land to locate a smelter and town, and was close to a Canadian National Rail line. Some of the land was still owned by settlers from turn-of-the-century pre-emption. Ron Whyte on his way to Kitimat and the Project in 1952 recalled:

"I was in the back of the ship and I don't know if this fellow asked me or if I asked him, would you like to play cribbage... so we sat down and played crib for quite awhile, we found out that he smoked and I smoked then too, so I went out on the deck and it was a nice clear day and you could see all the inlets as we were passing up the coast. He said, 'Oh yeah, I took census along here. Used to be mountain goats over there', he pointed out a lot of things... He had owned some property in Kitimat and it was about a hundred acres, according to him, and he was willing to sell it to me for $25,000. He said, 'I think Alcan wants to buy it.' When we got to the dock where the silos are now, when we arrived in Kitimat, I remember him being welcomed as he got off the ship and I think they put a cigar in his mouth. ...It was [Charlie] Carlson."

On December 30, 1950, the power agreement between the BC Government and Alcan was signed. The Company was given the go-ahead to lease for 50 years the region's land and water, and flood up to 300 square miles for hydro electric power. In return, the Company would provide BC with a large payroll, the world's largest smelter, and a brand new town in northwestern BC. Alcan proposed to spend up to $500 million - 2% of the Gross National Product for Canada in 1952.

The Company Men on the Project, Smeltersite, August 3, 1951 for Alcan Report No. 1 published  October 8, 1951.  From left to right: President R.E. Powell, B.C. Project Manager Percy E. Radley, Aluminium Limited President Nathanael V. Davis, and Vice President McNeely DuBose.

The Company Men - Mac, Whit, and Rip

Three men essentially ran Alcan in the 1950s.  The Company Men were R.E. Powell, President, A.W. Whitaker, Jr., General Manager, and McNeely DuBose, Vice President and promoter, negotiator, and commander of the Kitimat Project.  “Mac” DuBose had his first job as an electrician on the construction of the powerhouse on the Gatún Dam, Panama Canal.  He was from Carolina in the United States with Duke Power and eventually worked for the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa).

Mac was always interested in water because years ago…quite a while he lived in Arvida, so I would have to send him every day…the water inflow figures….Due to configurations in the middle of winter, if it was 50 below zero….it was possible to actually have…a negative inflow…So Mac, one day he called up and I sent down the figure and it was negative, so he called up and said, “Lorne, you knows we can’t have negative figures.”  “Yes, I know Mr. DuBose but you know how this is calculated.”  “Yes I do, but I remember in 1932 or something like that we had negative figures and I got into a plane and I flew up the Peribonca River…and the Peribonca River was frozen to the bottom. So we flew up there and there was little lakes that wasn’t supposed to be there…then we knew.”  Now he said, “What we should do is fly up that Peribonca River and see if there is any lakes there that shouldn’t be there.”  Of course, it’s 50 below zero…  (Lorne Duncan)

Among the Company interests was a little smelter in Shawinigan Falls in Canada.  A major expansion in Canada on the Saguenay was decided upon and Mac DuBose was one of the Americans who came up to look at the power supply for the Jonquière smelter.  When Alcan and Alcoa split DuBose and R.E. Powell had the choice of going back to Alcoa with no very clear prospect of what they would do, or staying in Canada and cutting their ties with Alcoa.  Under the anti-trust regulations in the United States, the two companies had to separate.  Both stayed with the Canadian company and did so until they retired.

[R. E. Powell was a] very serious fellow and there’s a powerhouse in the East called Chute-a-Caron and if you went down into the basement of Chute-a-Caron, you would see great big logs, teak, very very unusual logs, not logs you’d find in North America….This was all R.E. Powell’s wood.  Now how he got it I have no idea but each year the employees at Chute-a-Caron would have to go there and wipe off the dust…I remember one time we were having a dinner up at the Saguenay Inn and I happened to be sitting across from Mr. Powell.  And he said, “You’re in Shipshaw are you?”  And I said, “Yes, yes Mr. Powell.” Chute-a-Caron was just up the way, up the river a bit.  He said, “You’re looking after my logs.”  And I thought to be a smartass, and I said, “Logs Mr. Powell?”  He said, “Logs I had a Chute-a-Caron.”  And I said, “Oh well Mr. Powell, we needed to make an emergency dam six months ago so I just - there were lots of logs and I used all the logs, and you don’t have any left.”  And he said, “Young man, don’t you ever ever make jokes about my logs.”  (Lorne Duncan)

Alcan on reconnaissance!  The men in charge of the operations – (left to right) Vice President A. W. Whitaker, Jr., Project Manager Percy E. Radley, and Chief Resident Engineer John Kendrick. 

John Kendrick was hired after the Second World War by Mac DuBose:  

"I had gone back to my job in the government and [Mac DuBose] phoned me up and said he was out here for some discussions with the government and he had the reports of the work [BC Water Rights Branch reports] and would I like to join him for lunch. And I joined him for lunch and we talked about a lot of things. I don't think we ever did look at the reports and so he said, well, I have cleared the way with your employers to offer you the job, and did so. Of course, he also knew that you don't go stealing employees away from a government department that you are going to have to deal with later on, so he had cleared the way and explained that he thought there were opportunities for me with Alcan and he got everybody onside. I moved to Vancouver. We didn't have an office yet; and we set up a small office there and started... We weren't committed to building at that stage but we were committed to three years of engineering studies, after which Alcan would make its decisions as to whether it would go ahead or not."