Whittier is a scenic enough town of perhaps two hundred people on the western side of Alaska’s Prince William Sound. There are dozens of picturesque villages dotting the coastline of the Kenai Peninsula so that’s not why I stopped here on a cold, rainy morning in July. No, it was because of its rich concentration of geo-oddities.
I do have to admit it’s a pretty hamlet in its own right, with little fishing boats bobbing in the harbor and mountains towering on practically every side. There’s even a glacier on the outskirts of town that creaked and groaned as we sat in our car with the windows rolled-down. Why would we be waiting in our car in rural Alaska? Well, that’s because the only way to drive in or out of Whittier is through a tunnel, and it’s only open in a single direction at specific times throughout the day.
Thus the weirdness begins simply by driving to into town. Sure, one could always fly or boat into Whittier but then one would miss the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, "North America’s Longest Railroad-Highway Tunnel." I’ve wanted to visit this spot for awhile simply because I have admit that I have a thing for superlative tunnels.
The Whittier Tunnel burrows directly through Maynard Mountain for 2.5 miles (4 km). Indeed, trains and automobiles use the same narrow channel through solid rock, the only overland connection between Whittier and the outside world that doesn’t involve serious mountain climbing. I shot some great video of a train entering the same tunnel we drove ten minutes later which I’ll post at a later date.
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County Counters, are you holding onto your seats? Travelers heading into Whittier through the tunnel also cross a borough boundary to enter the Valdez-Cordova Census Area, a distinct part of the Alaska’s Unorganized Borough. This is the only road-accessible portion of Valdez-Cordova on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s possible to get to other portions of the census area but it requires a huge detour.
Whittier is known to aficionados of geo-oddities for another reason too: almost everyone lives in a single building. The large condominium building known as Begich Towers seems totally out of place in this tiny seaside community. It looks as if it’s been plucked directly from a condo canyon in a major city and dropped randomly along Prince William Sound. It’s reminiscent of the building that houses 1% of Greenland as some of you noted when I posted that earlier article.
I didn’t notice until I’d already started the trip, but one of the guide books mentioned that some of the apartments have been converted into a Bed and Breakfast by enterprising residents. It’s billed as a chance to live among the locals for a "true" Alaska experience. That’s so amazingly tempting. Seriously. The family is lucky that I didn’t see that until our plans were well-formed and undeniably underway or we would have spent a night or two in the B&B of geo-weirdness.
A second totally out-of-place structure also dominates the Whittier Skyline. This one is called the Buckner Building and it contrast starkly with the Begich Towers. Begich appears all cheery with a nice paint job and all the signs of caring, ongoing maintenance. The Buckner Building is practically falling down due to neglect.
The U.S. Army built a large presence here during World War II as part of an effort to protect the Alaska coastline and supply the Alaskan interior. Remember, several of the Aleutian Islands had been captured by Japanese forces at the onset of the war and had to be expelled by force. This bloody but largely forgotten portion of the conflict was known as the Aleutian Islands Campaign. Thus, it was entirely logical for the army to be in Whittier.
The army remained after the war and built the large structures that now compete with the mountains to dominate the Whittier Skyline. The Begich Towers used to house soldiers so it was a natural choice to convert into apartments when the army left in 1960. The Buckner Building housed everything else necessary to support an army presence but there wasn’t an "everything else" once they left. Certainly the residents of Whittier couldn’t fill a building of that size with curio shops and seaside restaurants. It fell into abandonment and decay.
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