"The strangest town in Alaska"
Whittier, named for at first hand for nearby Whittier Glacier and at second hand for poet John Greenleaf Whittier, sits at the base of Mount Maynard, at the head of Passage Canal, a fjord on the western side of Prince William Sound in Southcentral Alaska. It is about 50 miles southeast of Alaska and 400 miles from Fairbanks by rail and road.
The town began as a railroad port and U.S. Army post, in which capacity it served throughout World War II. After the war, the Army expanded the post, with plans for a complex of several massive buildings (noted below). However, the plan was reduced and the base was eventually inactivated in 1960. The population dropped from 800 to less than 80: a skeleton maintenance crew and a few dozen workers at a handful of small industrial facilities. The Army pulled out entirely in 1963.
When the 1964 earthquake struck, 13 of the town's 70 residents were killed; however, the design of the main buildings--they had been built in sections separated by eight-inch gaps in case of earthquake--prevented serious damage and an even higher death toll. During the post-quake rebuilding, an oil pipeline was built to Elmendorf Air Force Base, and Whittier soon became Alaska's busiest port.
Whittier incorporated as a city in 1969. A new 350-slip small-boat harbor was completed soon thereafter. In 1973, the City of Whittier bought the townsite from the federal government, who had been leasing all the buildings to the City. Whittier grew slowly thereafter as fishing charters and tourism increased. 2000 brought the completion of the Whittier Tunnel. A sharp increase in tourism was expected as a result of road access to the town, but this has not quite lived up to expectations, due to the town's inability to support, accommodate, and entertain large numbers of tourists.1
Whittier currently houses a population of 182, down from the Army-era high of 1,200.2 Whittier's economy is mostly based on fishing (sport and commercial) and tourism. As a result, Whittier's harbor is in such high demand that the waiting list for a berth is twelve years long. Unemployment stands at a hair under sixteen percent3.
Despite the astounding natural beauty of Whittier's surroundings, the town itself is ugly (nazrac's comment about a Soviet housing block is quite accurate). Most of the town consists of a few large buildings, all built during the Army expansion of the 1950s:
- Buckner Building: This was the first of the major Whittier buildings. It is six stories high with two basement levels (not eleven as is sometimes rumored). It has over 270,000 square feet and, when first built, had housing for 1,000, as well as a cafeteria, theater, classrooms, radio station, jail, hospital, library, PX, and more -- it was rightly called "a city under one roof." However, it was totally abandoned when the Army left. The building is completely derelict these days, but every few years somebody wants to turn it into a prison or something and never gets anywhere.
- Begich Tower: Formerly called the Hodge Building and renamed in 1973 for Congressman Nick Begich, who was killed in a plane crash the previous year. When this fourteen-story building went up in 1956 it was the tallest building in Alaska. It initially held 177 apartments and now consists of condos in which most of Whittier's residents live. The first floor contains the city offices, grocery, library, post office, and so forth. The interior is '50s-institutional. Several signs warn that only residents are permitted above the second floor.
- Whittier Manor: Almost everyone who doesn't live in Begich lives here. It was built in the early 1950s as an 80-unit apartment block, and is located just east of Buckner.
The school (which is connected by tunnel to Begich anyhow), hotel, and a few other miscellaneous businesses (repair yards and the like) are separated, but most of the rest of the town's land is either vacant, filled with junk, or is the railyard.
While Whittier's leaders have had somewhat heady schemes for improvement of the town since the tunnel was built, when I visited a year and a half ago very few concessions had been made in this direction: between the harbor and ferry dock, there were couple rows of small shops and restaurants, with a picnic area nearby and a boardwalk running along the back, along the water; a Coast Guard station and a medium-sized grocery/bait shop down the road... and that was it. Whittier has the potential to be quite cool at some point -- but it isn't yet.
Taylor, Alan. The Strangest Town in Alaska: The History of Whittier, Alaska and the Portage Valley. Seattle, WA: Kokogiak Media, 2000.
City of Whittier: http://www.ci.whittier.ak.us
Alaska Dept. of Community and Economic Development, Community Database: http://www.dced.state.ak.us/cbd/commdb/CF_CIS.cfm
Recollections of my own visit to Whittier in May 2001
1. Whittier used to be a regular stop for cruise ships. The passengers got off the ship, got on a train to somewhere else, and never spent more than a few minutes in town. Thus, the somewhat annoyed city government levied a $3/passenger head tax. Cruise lines' reponse: they all dropped Whittier from their itineraries. Oops.
2. From the Anal Retention Department: It's usually noted that the town was built for 30,000 people when mentioning the population. This was the emergency capacity, such as if Anchorage had to be evacuated for whatever reason (the idea of Whittier as mass CD shelter was actually considered). Nobody ever intended 30,000 people to be in Whittier for more than a few days at most.
3. That is, 17 people, given DCED's figure of 90 employed members of the work force. These figures begin to get useless for really small towns.