Today we visited the museum in Norman Wells. Thank you for choosing it in last week's Cast Your Vote. The museum is a small building set off the main road through town. Out front there are things that are too large to fit in the building: old pickup trucks, construction equipment, a pump jack (used to pump oil out of a well), and even an old tugboat used to haul supplies across the Mackenzie River. Behind the museum building is an old trapper's cabin that has on display all the tools a trapper would have used to maintain a trapline, skin animals, and stretch their hides to dry. Most of the tools displayed in the cabin are still used today on modern traplines.
The inside of the museum is filled with informational displays, artifacts from the past, and many resources one can use to learn more in-depth information about the history of Norman Wells. We learned about traditional Dene lifestyles, the history of the oil fields here in town, and the Canol Trail. Here is just some of the information we learned during our visit to the museum.
Long before the town of Norman Wells existed, Dene people living in this area noticed oil naturally leaking slowly from places along the banks of the Mackenzie River. They used the oil to to waterproof the seams of their birch bark and spruce bark canoes. When Alexander Mackenzie traveled through the area in the late 1700's, he noticed this was going on and reported it, along with many other things he learned on his travels, to the Canadian government.
In the early 1900's, Canadian prospectors began to look for oil in the area. In 1920 the first productive oil well was drilled and the town of Norman Wells was born. For twenty years, Norman Wells supplied oil and fuel for exploration in the surrounding areas. When the United States entered World War Two in 1941, the US Army wanted a way to supply oil to the Pacific Coast in case of an attack by the Japanese. They decided to build a pipeline connecting the Norman Wells oilfield to the Alaska Highway in Whitehorse, Yukon Territories. There were many challenges they faced with this construction project: the pipeline passed through a large mountain range, winter and summer working conditions were not very pleasant, and there were no existing roads to the remote areas they wanted to work in. There was no road to Norman Wells, either!
All in all, the Canol Road took 20 months to complete. It was in operation for fewer than 11 months before it was shut down due to the end of World War Two. Some people say the Canol Road was a great learning experience, where engineers and construction workers learned about working in northern environments. Others say it was an unfortunate use of time and money to construct a project that Canadians did not want or need. Either way, the Canol Road is an intriguing part of Norman Wells' history.
Today a pipeline carries oil south from Norman Wells to the Canadian province of Alberta, where pipelines supply Canada and the rest of North America with oil. Norman Wells has a road to it, but only in the months when the ground is frozen and a winter road can be maintained. Pump jacks like the one outside the museum are still used to pump oil from the ground (insert modern pump jack photo).
When we were at the museum we learned many more things about this unique town. If you would like, you can visit the Norman Wells Museum's website at http://www.normanwellsmuseum.com/ to see for yourself some of the other things the museum has to offer.