The Yukon River Diversions: An Environmental Historical Ghost Story

Image reproduced from “An Interim Report on the Yukon-Taiya Project, Alaska-Canada," Alaska District Office, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, Juneau, Alaska (June, 1951).

Scroll this

A prominent contemporary narrative about the Canadian North is one of endless, hopeful possibility tied to the mobilization of resources on a “new” frontier. Andrew Stuhl has exposed the politics and hubris of this “new north” narrative, which foregrounds the iconic status of the vast northern realm as a place apart, one of prospective wealth. For Stuhl, the story of the North as a future nexus of resource development and ecological and geopolitical intrigue in fact has a long history, one that serves the interests of the state and its industrial partners at the expense of northern Indigenous peoples. [1]

Embedded within the “new north” story is a vision of the North as a place of the future, a place waiting to be developed and improved by industrial modernity. This mentality has produced a North littered with phantom resource development and infrastructure projects that never came to pass. [2] Most of these industrial visions and possibilities for development have been largely forgotten, their paper remains buried in fusty archives, their discursive remains consigned to the long memories of northern residents, their material remains exposing the zombified nature of industrial ruins that are reanimated as toxic legacies. [3]

Many of these northern development dreams have been forgotten, for the most part, precisely because of their failure. They were never built. Historians should cast another glance at these projects to consider the side effects, contingencies and outcomes of the attempts to build northern pipelines, mines, roads, military infrastructure – and, in the story I’d like to relate for The Otter, hydroelectric dams and river re-engineering projects.

There are hundreds of these kinds of environmental historical ghost stories to be told from across the Canadian North. I first heard of this particular story during a NiCHE-sponsored northern environmental history workshop in the Yukon in 2009. [4] The group was visiting Carcross Desert, with now-retired Parks Canada historian David Neufeld. David asked us to look across the valley, beyond Bennett Lake and the town of Carcross, and to imagine it underwater. He told us the story of the Yukon River Diversions, a sequence of proposed mega-scale interventions into northern environments in the immediate postwar decades. These were meant to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Yukon River by quite literally turning it around and driving it through the Coastal Mountains so that it drained into the Pacific rather than the Arctic Ocean.

Image reproduced from “An Interim Report on the Yukon-Taiya Project, Alaska-Canada," Alaska District Office, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, Juneau, Alaska (June, 1951).
General template for the Taiya-Project. Image reproduced from “An Interim Report on the Yukon-Taiya Project, Alaska-Canada,” Alaska District Office, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, Juneau, Alaska (June, 1951).

The Yukon River Diversions were to be an engineering marvel, with potentially profound implications for the geopolitical, ecological and extractive dynamics in the region. Various iterations all involved the construction of a dam on the Yukon River at Miles Canyon, near Whitehorse. This dam would impound waters from Atlin and Bennett Lakes and their tributary rivers, which would then discharge into Tagish Lake and flow via Marsh Lake into the Yukon. It would create a giant reservoir for storage and would reverse the river’s flow. Proposals from US governments and their corporate partners focused on diversion to the Taiya River, while Canadian proposals all sought to draw impounded water through the Taku River where it would meet the Pacific near Juneau, Alaska.

Reversing the flow of a major continental river is one thing; driving that diverted river through mountains is another. As part of the Taiya Project, as the Alaskan iteration of the diversion scheme was commonly known, two tunnels would be excavated to take the reengineered Yukon through the barrier of the Coastal Mountains. The first was to be 20 kilometres long, running from Lake Lindeman to the Chilkoot Pass across, or rather, directly through the international border; and the second, running about 12 kilometres, would drop the water (through turbines) 2,200 feet from the Chilkoot Pass to Taiya Inlet at the head of Lynn Canal, near the Klondike gold rush ghost town of Dyea. [5]

Image reproduced from “An Interim Report on the Yukon-Taiya Project, Alaska-Canada", Alaska District Office, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, Juneau, Alaska (June, 1951).
Cross-section of the Lake Lindeman to Chilkoot Pass Tunnel. Image reproduced from “An Interim Report on the Yukon-Taiya Project, Alaska-Canada”, Alaska District Office, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior, Juneau, Alaska (June, 1951).

The river diversion schemes were in the service of aluminum, the ur-metal of modernity. These “aluminum dreams,” as Mimi Sheller has it, were connected to the growth of a twentieth-century “material culture based in aluminum” that would bring the North further into a global industrialized extractive network. [6] As Leon Hickman, VP of Alcoa (Aluminum Company of America) suggested when he first announced his company’s intent to build Taiya in August 1952,

aluminum, like Alaska, has so much hope and promise ahead of it that it inspires a true pioneering spirit in those that make it their faith… I hope and believe the futures of Alaska and aluminum should be connected very soon. [7]

Hickman’s superlative vision is yet another example of how the North and its industrial modernity was shaped by military applications and investment brought to it from outside, as in the cases of the Alaska Highway, the DEW Line, or the development around Frobisher Bay/Inuvik. This story of prospective aluminum follows the same trajectory of postwar industrial assessment of the potential peacetime applications of northern materials. Essentially, peacetime space in the North continued to be militarized.

So, for instance, it was suggested that the North was under threat from communism and its industrial capacity must be increased in order to protect it. For Hickman, aluminum was a “bulwark against communism.” He argued that

the tremendous threat of communistic imperialism can only be faced and met by all-out efforts of freedom-loving people to rebuff it. North Americans must be ready – not only with men but with the vital materials for their equipment. Thousands of essential items for our armed forces are made wholly or in part by aluminum… better than any other material. [8]

The perceived threat of communism underscored both industrial risk and the generative power of industrial possibility. Paradoxically, the geography of the North both produced and confined this geopolitical risk. Alcoa documents contend that Taiya would be hard to attack; its location was flanked by mountains and glaciers, it was at the end of a long sea channel, the generating stations would conveniently be placed beneath mountains, and it was often shrouded in dense fog.

Motivated by this discourse of industrial modernity and communist peril, Canada’s North, and the western subarctic in particular, were scoured for sites of hydroelectric development. The British Columbian and Canadian governments produced dozens of documents regarding “power possibilities” and “power potential” in order to prove the productive capabilities of northern rivers. In effect, hydroelectricity was the raw material. “Power possibilities” were as much about the generation of hydroelectric power from rivers as about the industrial and extractive economies that would surely follow in their wake.

Yet places like the Taku and Taiya valleys weren’t always spaces of contestation and resource conflict; they were made that way precisely because of the proposed river diversion interventions of the 1950s and 1960s. Alcoa’s original justification for choosing to build dams, tunnels and smelters in that corner of subarctic North America required a corporate narrative that removed people and industrial activity from the area, yet still thrust the promise and potential of industrial development to the rhetorical forefront. Hickman again:

We start out in a valley that doesn’t have a thing there now except forest. It doesn’t even have the water there. We put the water there by a tunnel through the mountain… and create something where nothing exists now. That is a great novelty for Alaska. [9]

Paradoxically, Alcoa representatives recalled the iconic encounter in Yukon and Alaskan history, the Klondike gold rush, to build on a story of continuity, one that appealed equally to frontier industrial heritage, masculine individualism, and the promise of modernity in a place that, as Alaskans and other consumers were told, had never achieved more than a sputtering integration into networks of culture, capital and industrial development. One angle of vision presented the project as a “great novelty” but, as commentators at the Taiya Project announcement press conference confirmed, another suggests an “… interesting sidelight… this tunnel is driven almost literally under the old Chilkoot Pass, where the gold miners went up, so they are in effect getting gold in reverse, when the water comes through here.” [10] White Gold, as Karl Froshauer called hydroelectricity in a national context, would bring the North into the future. [11]

Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush. Source: Wikimedia Commons. By Hegg, E.A (1867-1948). This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number C-005142 and under the MIKAN ID number 3192704.
Miners and prospectors climb the Chilkoot Trail during the Klondike Gold Rush. Source: Wikimedia Commons. By Hegg, E.A (1867-1948). This image is available from Library and Archives Canada under the reproduction reference number C-005142 and under the MIKAN ID number 3192704.

The story of the Yukon River Diversions testifies to the analytical value of looking at projects that never came to fruition. The development dreams conjured in post-war northern resource histories can shed light on the multiplying effects of scale, failure and resource conflict, frames that invariably outline the social, economic and environmental relations of proposed northern development schemes. Using the example of the Yukon River Diversions, I would like to suggest that environmental historians should consider the importance of failure as an object of historiography and analysis. That is to say, even the development schemes that fail to bear fruit are deserving of scholarly attention. These schemes leave behind material and discursive remains that continue to shape northern economic and social lives. [12]

In this sense, failure provides a window into the intractable “new norths” narrative that Andrew Stuhl has identified. New northern visions are continually reimagined as new resource regimes or “contemporary treasure maps” emerge out of new resource conflicts or development dreams, especially in places at the margins where capital and the state have exercised wavering control in the past. [13] In other words, what sorts of interventions, interpolations and effects does failure produce? Conversely, how might we conceive of “potential” or “possibility” as agents of historical change? Development failure produces new environmental knowledge, new resource ambitions, and new extractive possibilities. Environmental historians should pay critical attention to the outcomes and effects of the many unfulfilled, but ultimately productive, northern development dreams.

Notes:

[1] Andrew Stuhl, “”The politics of the “New North”: putting history and geography at stake in Arctic futures,” The Polar Journal 3, no. 1 (2013): 94-119. Andrew’s book, Unfreezing The Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands, is out in November with the University of Chicago Press. Get your copy; it’s sure to be a great contribution to northern environmental scholarship.

[2] The standard bearer on northern industrial development is Liza Piper, The Industrial Transformation of Subarctic Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010).

[3] Arn Keeling and John Sandlos (along with their students and community partners) have built a small library of excellent scholarship on northern extractive economies and their aftermaths. A great place to start is Arn Keeling and John Sandlos, Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2015).

[4] The Whitehorse meeting eventually became the basis of an upcoming book: Stephen Bocking and Brad Martin, eds. Ice Blink: Navigating Northern Environmental History (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2016).

[5] Claus Naske, “The Taiya Project,” BC Studies 91/92 (1991): 5-50.

[6] Mimi Sheller, Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014).

[7] Leon Hickman, “First Announcement of the Taiya Project,” presented to a joint meeting of the Anchorage and Fairbanks (Alaska) Chambers of Commerce at Mt. McKinley National Park, August 23, 1952

[8] Hickman 1952, 3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Karl Froshauer, White Gold: Hydroelectric Power in Canada (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011).

[12] I develop this idea across five case studies in my book that will be coming out at the end of November as part of the Nature/History/Society Series edited by Graeme Wynn. See Jonathan Peyton, Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2016).

[13] Gavin Bridge, “Resource triumphalism: postindustrial narratives of primary commodity production,” Environment and Planning A 33, no. 12 (2001): 2149-2173.

The following two tabs change content below.

Jonathan Peyton

Jonathan Peyton teaches cultural and historical geography at the University of Manitoba where he is an assistant professor in the department of environment and geography. He is the author of the forthcoming Unbuilt Environments: Tracing Postwar Development in Northwest British Columbia (UBC Press, 2016).

3 Comments

Leave a Reply