History Of Norman Wells

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Unlike most other communities along the Mackenzie River, which originated as fur trading posts, Norman Wells was the first community in the NWT established solely as a result of non-renewable resource development.

Deep within the earth, beneath the glacial deposits and alluvial sands, gravels, and clays of the Mackenzie Valley, there lies a thick layer of sedimentary rocks, sandstone, shale, and limestone. Reefs and sediments laid down in shallow seas and vegetation-clogged swamps millions of years ago, now produce oil which seeps to the surface along river banks.

These oil seepages gave rise to the Dene name of the area, “Le Gohlini,” meaning “where the oil is”. Alexander Mackenzie noticed oil seepages when he traveled the river at the end of the 1700’s. Dene from the area led geologists to the same spot in the early 1900’s. Three claims were staked in 1914.

Imperial Oil acquired the claims in 1918, and the discovery well was drilled in 1919 by Ted W. Link. A small refinery was built in the early 1920’s and supplied downriver communities for about 50 years.  But demand, and production, was small until the 1930’s, when new mining activities started at Port Radium and Yellowknife, NWT.

During World War II, the US Government became very concerned with possible Japanese attacks on west coast petroleum facilities.  The US Army undertook a rush construction program, completing a pipline from Norman Wells to Whitehorse over the winter of 1943-44. This route is known as the Canol Trail. By the time the pipeline was completed, the Japanese threat to Alaska had receded, and cheaper oil supply routes could be used, so the pipeline was turned off and dismantled in 1947.

After the war, the size of the Norman Wells operation was governed by the rate of expansion of the mining industry.  In the mid-1980’s, a pipeline was completed to Zama, Alberta.

In the meantime, Norman Wells has also become an important regional business and tourism centre.  In the summer, the Norman Wells airport serves as a base for forest fire-fighters in the region.

Another major chapter in the region’s history was written in 1994, when the government of Canada and the Sahtu Tribal Council signed the Sahtu Land Claim Agreement.  The Sahtu Tribal Council represents the Hare, Sahtu Dene, Mountain Dene, and Metis people of the region.  The agreement recognizes Sahtu ownership of major land parcels within the region.