A lucky detour

I was on my way to Anchorage today and, on a whim, decided to take a detour to Whittier.  My decision was made despite a comment in Frommer’s that “Whittier’s primary attraction is its oddness.” 

During World War II, the spot was the site of a secret military base.  To access the spot, the military built a tunnel through the mountain – the same one-lane tunnel that now takes both traffic and trains to Whittier.  Traffic through the tunnel is halted periodically when a train come through, then traffic from both sides of the long tunnel have to take turns to go through.  You must quite literally drive on the railroad tracks to reach the other side. 

Once in Whittier, I was enthralled.  It’s an authentic Alaskan fishing town with very few touristy attractions.

Making my arrival in Whittier even more magical was my introduction to the accomodation I’d reserved sight-unseen.  It was one of those travel experiences that delightfully inserts itself into your memory.  I can still recall others similar.

I remember a night in Sydney, Australia, for example, when my husband and I planned to stay at a small hostel only to be told that the hostel also had a very small apartment in another building.  The counter staff apologized because it was so much more (I think it was $35 per night as opposed to something like $8 for a regular hostel room).  We accepted it and were led into the most incredible studio apartment at the top of a nearby building.  It was surrounded on three sides by floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows with a stunning view of Sydney Harbor and the opera house.

Another time my son Bridger and I stumbled into a hotel in Luxor, Egypt, threw open the curtains to the porch and were enchanted with a phenomenal view of the Valley of the Kings.  I think I smiled in my sleep both magical nights.

The placed I stayed in Whittier was very much like those experiences (ones I’ll never forget).

When I pulled up in front of the antiquated15-story concrete building, I thought “Oh no.  This simply can’t be where I’m staying.”  As instructed by June, the suite’s owner, I took the somewhat fishy-smelling elevator to the 15th floor and stepped off into an aseptic hospital-like hallway, narrow and dark with doors on each side. Hospital-green paint covered the walls and a darker green hue was slapped onto the metal doors that supposedly would enter into an equally dismal room where I was to stay.

Most of the other floors are occupied by townspeople and various types of crews who come here periodically to work in the fishery.  There isn’t much empty acreage in Whittier for homes so this building is popular.

The apartment owner, June, met me in her small apartment.  I had booked via phone before I’d crossed through the tunnel into Whittier so had never seen the accomodation.  I steeled myself to reality, convincing myself that at least it was better than the trunk of a small Suzuki.

June led me to my room and opened the door to an enormous one-bedroom suite that had a wall-to-wall window overlooking Prince William Sound, the towering mountains surrounding the sound, and glaciers galore.  Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful.   Last night I KNOW I smiled in my sleep all night!


Met Bill (in the orange jacket) and Leon (on the forklift) as they were coming out of the Whittier building in which I’m staying.  They were here to unload fish at the dock for a seafood company. 

Bill, the person in charge of the dock crew, invited me to come to the dock to watch the process.  The ship they were unloading that night, Northern Spirit, had thousands of pounds of salmon in its hold.

An enormous hose was inserted into the hold, sucked up the fish, and spit them into containers into which other crew members shoveled ice.  A lid was put on each container then Leon and the forklift hoisted each one to the top of a growing pile.  Bill said it would take his crew three to four hours to unload the entire boat.

But that wouldn’t be the end of the night.  Yet another boat to unload was expected to dock after the Northern Spirit.  People in the fishing industry work extremely hard!

In fifth grade (or so) I had to write a longish report on a historical event.  Ironically I chose the earthquake and resulting series of three huge tidal waves that hit Whittier in 1964.

I don’t remember much about the paper but (thanks to the small museum now in Whittier) I discovered that the earthquake (which struck a mere 60 miles offshore of the town) generated the waves that killed nearly half the population of Whittier (30 of the 70 residents died).  It and the resulting fire from a fuel-tank industry on the shore destroyed the town. Amazingly the two largest buildings in town, the Buckner and the Hodge Building (where I’m staying), were not damaged thanks to then-state-of-the-art earthquake-proof architecture.

When I was writing that paper so long ago I never thought I’d ever see this historic place.

Down the road from the museum and nestled against the mountains on the shore of Prince William Sound is the Buckner building, a sadly neglected piece of history. 

Called “a city under one roof,” the 273,660 square foot Buckner was built by the Army to house the military personnel who came to Whittier during World War II.  It rises six stories above ground and has two stories buried beneath the surface.

During the war, it featured housing for over 1,000, a 540-seat cafeteria, classrooms, a rifle range, a 350-seat theater (where Bob Hope and Doris Day entertained the troops), a radio station, a photographer’s dark room, a bowling alley, a library, a bookstore, a post office, a church, an infirmary and a jail cell.  Tunnels beneath ground led to the harbor where military ships and submarines docked.

At the time, the only way in and out of Whittier was by boat or by train through the tunnel (cars were not allowed).  Today the building is deteriorating but remains a fascinating piece of history.

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