The area of Whittier has served for centuries as a passageway between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm. The Alaska Engineering Expedition envisioned a rail line out to this largely unsettled area back in 1914, but it was the U.S. Army that made Whittier where and what it is. Whittier’s development can be deciphered in buildings still in use today.
The U.S. Army chose this wind-swept site as a year-round ice-free deep-water port in 1941 to serve in case of disruption of Seward’s port. Construction of a massive railway tunnel was undertaken to connect Whittier to the rest of the rail corridor. Anton Anderson served as the chief engineer of this unprecedented project, steering completion of the longest highway tunnel in North America in less than two years. Anderson is pictured at the 1942 portal of the tunnel that now bears his name. Just as rapidly as it was accessed, the Whittier Army Port was abandoned after World War II.
Cold War events triggered the reactivation of Whittier. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hustled to construct housing and indoor recreational space for over 1,000 people. The Cold War construction boom included 7 still-standing structures, including the abandoned and unstable Buckner Building and the maintained 14-story Hodge Building (now Begich Towers). The Great Alaskan Earthquake and Tsunami of 1964 left the Cold War buildings intact while destroying waterfront and rail yard facilities. The tsunamis also killed 13 residents. In 1972, the City of Whittier purchased the Cold War buildings, which house most of Whittier’s citizens. Watch for the Whittier Army Port Historic District signed walking tour of these historic sites debuting in summer 2015.
Accessible by vehicle as well as train since 2000, Whittier today is a popular launch point for cruises, halibut charters, sea kayaking and the Alaska State Ferry.