Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
Imagine a town where everyone lived in the same building, so when the weather was bad – as it was for most of the winter – no one had to go outside! This was Whittier in the 1940s and 50s when it was an Army base – originally set up during World War II as an alternative port to Seward which was occasionally closed due to the harbor freezing. In those days, the big ugly buildings – now abandoned – had a barber shop, movie theater, stores, bowling alley, rifle range, and apartments.
In its early days – before 1942 – the only way out in or out of Whittier was by boat or by land, on a very difficult trail – over the mountains and Portage Glacier. Then when the Japanese invaded the Aleutian Islands, a tunnel was seen as a necessity, and the 2.6 mile tunnel – one of the longest in the world – was blasted through the mountains in 309 days. With the tunnel completed, the huge building at Whittier could also serve as a possible refuge for the 30,000 or so residents of Anchorage, should it be invaded by the Japanese… a bit of hysteria – it would be cold and mighty crowded, but they would be safe from the Asian devils..
But then in 1960, the Army left and Whittier almost disappeared – its population dropping quickly from over a thousand to around 65, mostly government workers maintaining the buildings.
And then if that weren’t enough, the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake pretty much destroyed everything along the waterfront: the thousand foot long dock disappeared and the oil from big broken tanks caught fire and pretty much burned what was left except for the big buildings.
A little boom started in the early 1990s, when a few cruise ships started to make Whittier their northern turnaround port. However, as local merchants observed, the only time they got much business was when a bus or the train broke down, stranding passengers, as usually they just waited on board until it was time to leave for the Anchorage airport or further land travels. Then after the town fathers levied a 3$ per passenger head tax, the cruise lines all moved their operations to Seward.
But in 2000 the train tunnel was widened so that it could also accommodate bus and car traffic – but not at the same time. Presented with a quicker way of moving their passengers to Anchorage, Princess Cruises made Seward its northern terminus for its ships once again, and this, combined with boaters coming from Anchorage to use Whittier’s new boat harbor (the very large tides and strong currents around Anchorage discourages boating), brought a modest summer visitor economy to the little town.
Today, sportsfishing charter operators and excursion boats offering tours of the nearby glaciers as well as kayak excursions operate out of Whittier.
Tip: You should have a choice of either bus or train passage to Anchorage. I would recommend the train – a much more mellow and fun trip.