Alaska! Part 4: Whittier

Past Anchorage to Whittier, Alaska (Map)

Summer 2012.


Seventy five miles south of Anchorage is the Town of Whittier. A place of 175 people, Whittier is unique in that it is only reachable by a 5½ hour ferry or by a mixed-use, single-lane tunnel.

I originally planned to camp at the Williwaw Campground along Portage Glacier Rd, just outside the entrance to Whittier's tunnel. This was because I didn't think a town clinging to the shore along Prince William Sound would afford any stealthy car camping sites. I didn't want to be stuck in Whittier once their tunnel closed for the night.

The Williwaw campground was unbelievably scenic as it nestles itself beside backside glaciers, but it was raining to the point where I got soaked just hustling from my car to the washroom. It was also only 6 o'clock. Not wanting to sit in my car & waste the rest of the afternoon, I decided to buy my tunnel ticket, wait in line & then eventually pass through the 2.5-mile-long tunnel to coastal Whittier.

Whittier began as a military outpost & the tunnel was built because of America's belief that they needed to do a better job of protecting their territories (Alaska didn't become a state until 1959). The tunnel was started in 1941 and quickly finished in 1943, once the U.S. felt the need to move quicker after the Japanese attacked the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska.

After WWII, the military built two huge buildings, the Hodge building to house soldiers & the Buckner Building, which housed everything else a city would need. These two buildings were so large that their square footage was the largest of any building in Alaska at the time.

(In a city where there is no direct sunlight from November to February because of the Earth's angle and the surrounding mountains, I'd have to imagine there was a tunnel between these two buildings. There is a tunnel extending outward from beneath the Buckner, but I'm not sure if it connects the two.)

Alaska suffered an incredible 9.2-magnitude earthquake on Good Friday in 1964. This earthquake was the 2nd strongest ever recorded by a seismograph & it caused significant damage from Anchorage to Tofino. It damaged the Buckner Building to the point where it was condemned and has sat vacant ever since. The fact being that shipping off all of the demolition debris by boat, or carrying it by train through the tunnel, would be too costly.

I was very happy to find a hotel in Whittier which wasn't the costly option I knew about from the internet. The option I knew about was actually in the Hodge Building, as you can rent a room there for something like $130. $130/night for a military room in a purpose-built city? Uhhh?

Anyway, after walking into the bar and getting my room from the bartender, I packed up & hurried out with dwindling daylight. It was pouring rain outside & I didn't have time to consider anything besides rushing into the Buckner to get out of said rain. (I took these exteriors the next day.)

Fishing my way in the darkness & trying to cover up my flashlight, a black-billed magpie flew off almost instantaneously. I was on edge in this dark and decrepit building.

I found my way into the theatre within minutes; then amused myself with how piss-poor I had become at lightpainting, as I very rarely have to do it back home.

The first floor and the theatre were in rough shape. As I sat there and snapped pictures & waited for them to process, water constantly fell on me, my Powerade and my backpack. The floor was a soupy muck of tile and rainwater...and I'm not talking a thick soup like gumbo or gazpacho either.

The Buckner was on my top 10 list for buildings I wanted to hit, even though I know some of the more seasoned of you are squishing your face at a destroyed military building.

It has a unique backstory, it's huge, rundown and somewhat off the beaten path - I was enjoying myself. Different strokes for different folks.

In addition to the magpies landing on the windowsills and the rain splattering on the vegetation outside, a constant loud noise was coming from this duct which must have ran straight from the roof to the basement. The rain was torrential outside & the noise/volume coming from that duct matched it.

Speaking of the vegetation outside, the moss growing on the floors and walls, along with the thick shrubs and trees around the building's perimeter, were both plentiful and remarkable. The plants certainly get enough moisture here though - 197.8" of rainfall and 249.1" of snowfall per year.

The vegetation made it feel a lot more isolated than an abandoned building just 1 street away from a housing complex, port and warehouse. I suppose the low-lying clouds and rain also added to the ambience.

Being so close to those businesses and being so visible, I didn't hold much in terms of expectations for the roof. The view was incredible, but so was the amount of water with which it has held up over 45 years.

My feet and ankles were soaked to the point of wrinkling by this time, but I still decided against hanging out until nightfall to stand before the bright lights and imposing glaciers.

At this point I had spent four hours inside, combing each lengthy floor from end to end, being as thorough as my patience would allow with something I've wanted to see for years. I also realized how silly it was to rush over here, when I had more than enough daylight due to the Alaskan summers.

Still though, it was starting to get dark. It was time to wrap this up.

I hurried down to the basement in search of the holding cell.

After almost popping outside once at the bottom of my stairset, I continued confusedly because of the strange mix of rooms and spaces on the first floor/basement. It reminded me of the Packard back in Detroit. I guess that's why they called this building "the city under one roof" (it had everything a city could need on the first 2 floors).

In addition to a cafeteria, radio station, holding cell, theatre & library down here, there was also a bowling alley. As I made my way to leave, I couldn't help but try to take a picture of the alley.

After seeing how destroyed it was, I decided it was time to go.

I happily returned to my car. I was so wet and gross by now that I was ecstatic I had a shower forthcoming. Grabbing a dry pile of clothes, I smiled as I looked at my backseat & didn't have to sleep back there tonight. The decision to get a motel this night out of the four, was impeccable. It was now time to walk into my hotel reminiscent of public housing, past the bar which looked like a Chinese restaurant, and up to my room lined with cinder blocks.

Ahhhh, Whittier!0

0 - Whittier has fine places to stay if that's what you're looking for. I was actually really psyched with the atmosphere of my chosen hotel.

After cleaning myself up, I peered out of the window at the Hodge Building which survived that Good Friday Earthquake and still stands today.

I think I drank maybe the neck of my celebratory Mickey's before putting it down and exhaustedly hitting the hay.

Onwards to Part 5, the modest finale!


Go Back to the Main Page of this Website

Sources: 1 - Whittier, Alaska - Wikipedia

2 - Portage Glacier Highway - Wikipedia

3 - 1964 Alaska Earthquake - Wikipedia

*I remembered a bunch more than was in these Wikipedia articles;
after originally reading it from brochures and maps.

< Older Update:
3rd Annual Golf Roadie



All text & pictures on this website are copyright Belle River Nation. Please do not reproduce without the written consent of Belle River Nation. All rights reserved.