Peter Catchpole’s book, “A Story of the Engineering of the Kemano-Kitimat Transmission Line”, was published earlier this year. It tells the story of the transmission line that powers the Kitimat aluminum smelter, from the 1950s to late 2000s. (Clare Rayment)

REVIEW: Catchpole’s writing style makes engineering more understandable for non-engineers

“A Story of the Engineering of the Kemano-Kitimat Transmission Line” is a fun and intelligent read.

For a book that I thought was going to read like a textbook, Peter Catchpole’s “A Story of the Engineering of the Kemano-Kitimat Transmission Line” surprised me by drawing me right in.

Mixing together engineering terminology, personal anecdotes, and a bit of humour, Catchpole manages to make the reader feel like they’re right there with the engineers, designing the transmission line and coming back for repairs…over and over again!

The book starts in the early 1950s with the building of the transmission line between Kemano, a new town-site and generating station at the time, and Kitimat, where the power was necessary to fuel the newly-made aluminum smelter. The transmission line had to travel through very mountainous terrain, through the Kildala Pass, which made for some incredibly difficult engineering.

The book encompasses the time from the beginning of the transmission line in the 1950s to the development of the ‘Cat II’ Catenary, which was built after an avalanche destroyed a key part of the line in March 2007.

The ‘Catenary’ was a name engineers gave to the the original 1955 Cross-rope, a pair of steel ‘ropes’ that form an ‘X’ shape between two mountainsides to the west and east of the transmission line’s path. These ropes were put in to support the line’s power conductors (cables) after an avalanche destroyed several transmission towers in January 1955.

It was nicknamed the ‘Catenary’ because a cable-suspended cable takes the shape called a ‘catenary’, a U-like curve used in several maths and sciences. When the second Cross-rope was built after the March 2007 avalanche, it was then named the ‘Cat II’ and the first was dubbed the ‘Cat I’.

Catchpole worked as a civil engineer for 44 years after graduating from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. He only started working on the line in 1993, a couple of years after he had started working with POWER Engineers, a global consulting engineering firm. Up until then, he recounts the transmission line’s creation and development as told to him by people such as Brian White, the line’s original design engineer, and Adam Charneski, who played a prominent role in its original construction and, for 40 years, its maintenance.

There’s a lot of years and a lot of information — much of it incredibly detailed — that has to fit into that time frame, but Catchpole finds a way to fit almost six decades of history into 238 pages and keep you invested throughout.

The included pictures are, in my opinion, what stood out the most. Pictures of wildlife, people involved, and most importantly, the views of the landscapes and the transmission line from the mountains where the engineers were working.

The pictures also all include detailed captions underneath, especially those of transmission towers and parts of the line, so you can better understand what you’re seeing and it’s significance to the story.

The photos on pages 32 to 34, for example, show pictures of parts of the line and the terrain in which they’re located. Catchpole takes the time to describe exactly what is being shown, and he points out different areas of the pictures for the reader to draw their attention to and why. On page 33, it shows the roughness and vastness of the mountain terrain where the line was built, and you’re able to spot two of the towers right in the centre, seemingly minuscule compared to the landscape that surrounds them.

Catchpole also works to provide a balance between technical explanations and story development, which makes it an easier read for those who are interested but have no civil engineering experience or knowledge.

On page 30 he writes, “The low altitude conductor on the double circuit towers is called ‘Falcon’ and has 1590 kcmils of aluminum. Never mind was kcmils means. Too technical!” In describing the need to put up the ‘Hanging Valley Cross-rope’ for the protection of one of the towers, he adds on page 119 that “I won’t bore you with the details of the envisioned process.”

Catchpole’s style makes the read feel almost like an adventure story, as well — which, in all honestly, it kind of is. He uses foreshadowing and mini cliff-hangers to draw you into tales that are to come. He’ll introduce a character, a phrase, an event, briefly, such as a piece of writing by Brian White that begins on pages seven to 11, and then let it stop at a key point and not continue until later point in the book.

In the case of White’s writing, it ends on page 11 by saying,

“I have often remarked that if this line had not been my first, it would not have been my second for, by that time; I would have known it could not be built. But that deals a bit with hindsight which I am trying to exclude from this tale as I am attempting to present a case study in terms of what was known or thought to be known at the time of the events.”

From there, the writing does not continue until page 39, where White continues to recount the tale of one of the key challenges they faced while building the line.

There’s a familiarity with Catchpole’s writing and a warmth in his tone that makes the read feel like he’s right there telling you the story in person. He makes jokes and tells personal anecdotes — such as the story of how he returned to work on the transmission line after the 2007 avalanche, despite not having been on the project for 10 years — which allows the book to feel almost like a conversation.

Overall, the book helped me understand Kitimat better and how it became so well known for such a small, northern town. Catchpole’s book is a smart, funny, insightful read, and it helps explains the incredible amount of work that had to occur for this town to grow into what it is today.

“A Story of the Engineering of the Kemano-Kitimat Transmission Line” can be purchased through Peter, himself, by emailing, or soon at The Kitimat Museum & Archives and at Misty River Books in Terrace.

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