Whittier, Alaska: A Tiny City Born of War

Located on Prince William Sound’s scenic Passage Canal, Whittier was designed and constructed as a U.S. Military base throughout World Warfare II.

IT’S RAINING the day my practice rattles via the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel and involves a halt in entrance of a rail yard in Whittier, Alaska. I disembark beside a small harbor crowded with fishing vessels and pleasure yachts and soak up the view. Within the foreground, I see railway tracks, port services, and a small cluster of outlets and consuming joints. Within the background lurk two humongous buildings—one virtually a wreck, the opposite wanting like a displaced New York condominium—rising incongruously in entrance of an attractive backdrop of glaciers and mountains.

I had boarded the Glacier Discovery in Anchorage in wonderful sunshine. Now, two hours later, I’m standing dockside in Whittier below a grey cowl of sloppy clouds and constant drizzle. It’s hardly stunning. If it wasn’t for the foul climate, this peculiar little Alaskan port would by no means have existed within the first place.

Shortly earlier than the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., the American basic in control of Alaska’s nascent Protection Command, started searching for a location for a secret army set up to ferry troops and cargo to the rising hubs of Anchorage and Fairbanks within the Alaskan inside, the place strategically necessary airfields and armed forces services had been being constructed. Buckner’s proposed base had three provisos: entry to an ice-free deep-water port, pure safety from airstrikes, and radar-unfriendly topography. The rugged nodule of land on which I’m now standing on the head of Passage Canal, with its seemingly omnipresent clouds and impassable mountains, match the invoice completely.

General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr. (above, center right) oversaw the 1941–42 rail line construction that still carries trains today to Whittier. (B1979.2.1806, Alaska Railroad Collection, Atwood Resource Center, Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center, Anchorage, AK)

Certainly, the mountains round what would grow to be Whittier had been so impassable, the army first needed to blast a gap via them to hyperlink the proposed port by rail to Anchorage, 60 miles away. Though there was already a rail hyperlink from Anchorage to Seward, 58 miles to Whittier’s south, the prevailing line was in poor situation and topic to avalanches, sabotage, and winter closures.

The genius behind the tunneling operation was Anton Anderson, a New Zealander who got here to the U.S. in 1914 as a surveyor earlier than graduating from Seattle College with a level in civil engineering. By 1916, Anderson had put in himself within the U.S. territory of Alaska, the place he performed a key function within the improvement of the burgeoning Alaska Railroad. The Whittier mission was a trickier proposition. Two successive tunnel segments had been wanted to attach the deliberate army facility to the principle Seward–Anchorage railroad alongside a 14-mile spur.

Tunnel digging started in November 1941 and, regardless of two-story snow drifts and subzero temperatures, was accomplished a 12 months later, six months forward of schedule. The mission had taken on a brand new urgency in June 1942 when the Imperial Japanese Navy took goal on the Aleutian Islands—bombing Dutch Harbor on Unalaska and invading the outlying islands of Attu and Kiska—and turned Alaska into an lively theater of conflict. The quantity of site visitors on the Alaska Railroad rapidly tripled as defenses had been shored as much as forestall a full-scale Japanese assault of mainland Alaska, with fortifications taking form at Fort McGilvray close to Seward, Fort Richardson near Anchorage, and Ladd Discipline exterior Fairbanks.  

Curious to see the tunnel extra intently, I stroll again a half-mile beside the practice tracks to look at the distinctive triangular portal the place the tunnel exits 4,137-foot Maynard Mountain. Vegetation clings to the height’s steep decrease slopes and a precipitous waterfall plunges from its misty heights.

With a mixed size of three.5 miles, the tunnel was initially constructed purely for trains, its inaugural locomotive working via in June 1943. The primary of many troopships docked every week later and a nascent settlement and provide middle rapidly took root to bolster Alaska’s conflict effort.  

The army “city” was codenamed H-12 and sheltered over 1,200 personnel. To swimsuit the wants of wartime safety, its existence was formally stored secret: no civilians had been permitted to enter and images was strictly banned. Colloquially, the positioning was generally known as Camp Sullivan. It was solely after the conflict that it adopted the identify Whittier for the Nineteenth-century American poet John Greenleaf Whittier. 

Many of the authentic buildings, together with the barracks, mess corridor, theater, and chapel, had been manufactured from wooden. Extra heavy-duty infrastructure was constructed to service the railroad and port, which had been overseen by the 714th Railway Working Battalion. 

Marching briskly again to the dockside, I cross beneath the railroad tracks through a cylindrical tunnel and are available out subsequent to a stone memorial erected in 1943 to mark the completion of the railway cut-through. Throughout the street, a map-board advertises a strolling tour that zigzags round eight buildings courting from Whittier’s years as a army set up between 1943 and 1960. 

As a result of fires, Chilly Warfare restructuring, and the catastrophic 1964 Alaska earthquake, just one World Warfare II construction stays intact: the previous Military Communication Methods Constructing courting from 1943, now transformed right into a no-frills resort known as the Anchor Inn. The longer the day progresses, the extra I’m drawn to the 2 jarring constructions that dominate the skyline to the south. When the conflict led to 1945, Whittier’s days as a army set up appeared numbered. Nevertheless, because the Chilly Warfare with the Soviet Union began brewing, the U.S. army in the end determined to bolster the garrison fairly than abandon it. Plans had been hatched to accommodate over 1,000 military personnel in a so-called “metropolis below one roof.” 

Since 1980, the last remaining building from Whittier’s wartime U.S. Army base has been a hotel, the Anchor Inn. (Brendan Sainsbury)

The end result was the Buckner Constructing, named for the overall who constructed Whittier, constructed between 1949 and 1953 as a multi-functional army set up. Incorporating 275,000 sq. toes over six flooring, it contained every thing from a bowling alley to a jail. In 1957, it was complemented by one other concrete behemoth, the 14-story Hodge Constructing, designed to accommodate an extra inflow of army personnel.

Subsequent to the Anchor Inn, within the 1946 Military Headquarters Constructing, the Prince William Sound Museum provides an in depth overview of Whittier’s wartime genesis and subsequent transition right into a Chilly Warfare citadel. Pondering the well-curated glass instances, I look at outdated flying fits, army ephemera, and richly detailed tales of life in wartime Alaska spent below the specter of a Japanese invasion.

Nevertheless, altering Chilly Warfare methods meant that the army began pulling out of Whittier after 1960. The withdrawal was accelerated in 1964 when the Alaska earthquake—the second largest in human historical past—precipitated important injury to the port and railway. Whereas the Hodge constructing (renamed Begich Towers) remained practical, the Buckner was quickly deserted and fell into disrepair. 

As I courageous the drizzle to get a more in-depth have a look at the Buckner’s hopelessly uncared for façade, I can’t assist however shudder at its grim Soviet-esque look. Why would anybody construct one thing so ugly in the course of the Alaskan wilderness? Hazard indicators warn of lingering asbestos, and unstable partitions are lined with lurid graffiti. Immediately, it stands as the last word white elephant, too costly to renovate however too “historic” to tug down.

Begich Towers has loved a happier destiny. Up to date for contemporary utilization, it’s in the present day an condominium constructing that accommodates 99 % of Whittier’s 200-ish everlasting residents. I slip contained in the foyer and discover a mini-gallery on the bottom flooring exhibiting some uncommon black-and-white photographs of H-12 throughout World Warfare II.

I determine to crown my time out by mountaineering a mile or so up the Horsetail Falls Path that emerges from behind the Buckner Constructing. Meandering over boardwalks to a degree simply above the tree line, I’m confronted with a misty eagle’s-eye view of the erstwhile industrial-military advanced juxtaposed in opposition to the ethereal fantastic thing about Prince William Sound. 

For years, Whittier was accessible solely by practice or boat, however in 2000, the principle section of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was upgraded to accommodate street autos—with directional circulate within the single-lane tunnel altering each half-hour—and the city started displaying up on vacationers’ radar. Cruise ships began calling on the deep-water port, and trains to and from Anchorage carried vacationers fairly than troops. Due to its distinctive geographical place and under-the-radar wartime historical past, Whittier has grow to be one thing of a vacationer vacation spot identified for its glorious kayaking waters and boat journeys into Prince William Sound, which is residence to an astounding array of marine life and glaciers. 

After my stroll, I descend to the concrete dock, seize a halibut burger on the Swiftwater Seafood Café, and quiet down subsequent to the boat harbor for a snack. Filling time earlier than the arrival of my practice again to Anchorage, I can’t assist however really feel a sneaking affection for this unconventional small port that quietly contributed a lot to America’s conflict effort. It appeals to my love of the weird: stunning however ugly; industrial but surrounded by nature; categorized as a metropolis since 1969, however residence to barely 200 inhabitants in the present day—most of whom reside in the identical constructing. Even within the wild and typically bizarre extremities of Twenty first-century Alaska, there’s nowhere else remotely prefer it. 


The Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery Practice runs between Anchorage and Whittier each day from Memorial Day to Labor Day. It arrives in Whittier at 12:05 p.m. and departs on the return leg at 6:45 p.m., leaving loads of time to discover the town’s sights. The practice has a eating automobile, a dome automobile, and an onboard information. Many huge cruise corporations akin to Princess Cruises and Holland America Line embrace Whittier of their itineraries.

The place to Keep and Eat

There are two principal lodging choices in Whittier: the Anchor Inn or the extra upscale Inn at Whittier. Half a dozen consuming institutions—most open seasonally—ring the harbor, together with Swiftwater Seafood Café, which serves regionally caught fish and shrimp in a traditional Alaskan dive bar atmosphere. Close by, the Lazy Otter is sweet for espresso and snacks. 

What Else to See and Do

Whittier’s World Warfare II and Chilly Warfare historical past is fabulously displayed within the Prince William Sound Museum. There’s additionally a photograph gallery within the foyer of Begich Towers and a self-guided historic strolling tour. 

Lazy Otter rents kayaks and runs guided journeys, whereas Phillips Cruises provides a 5.5-hour “26 Glacier Cruise” out of Whittier. 

This text was printed within the February 2022 difficulty of World Warfare II. 


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