Whittier reborn

In the last 12 years, road and rail access has transformed the Prince William Sound community

Posted: Thursday, February 03, 2005

It was in 1993 that I first entered Whittier by speeder car, riding the rails from Portage because no road access existed. A group of us, at the behest of Gov. Walter J. Hickel, looked at the potential of bringing joint road-rail access to Whittier.

The town is located in Prince William Sound, a fjord at the head of Passage Canal, 65 miles southeast of Anchorage. At the time, it had a disheveled appearance, with dusty roads and a meandering railroad yard. Most notable was Whittier Creek, with its leftover debris from World War II (Whittier served as a strategic military facility) and federal railroad activity. The contamination of Whittier Creek included stacks of old creosoted ties and a partially visible, oil-soaked locomotive that was buried in the stream. Tons of scrap metal and other debris were interspersed in the random nature of the stream.

Further down the coastline was a dilapidated, earthquake-damaged, railroad warehouse. The harbor area was a disorganized series of small buildings, old stored boats and junk. The boat harbor was a classic example of others found throughout the state and was a place of interest (it was obviously heavily used because every boat slip was taken, and even more slips were taken up by rafting).

My thought at the time was Whittier could really amount to something with some cleanup and vision.

Today a beautiful drive from Anchorage into Bear Valley is possible, culminating in a conveniently scheduled six-minute journey by car through the tunnel to Whittier.

In July 2004, I ventured by car through the completed tunnel to see the fulfillment of one of Gov. Hickel's dreams. Upon entering Whittier, I was shocked to see a monolithic structure before me. A cruise ship was moored to a floating dock in front of a modern cruise ship terminal. Although I had missed the first docking at the new terminal by the Coral Princess on May 15, 2004, this sight was still spectacular.

An Alaska train, with its classic blue-and-gold markings, was stopped near the terminal and was receiving passengers from the cruise ship. The Alaska Railroad had become more than a freight hydro-train leaving Whittier. While the railroad is the center of activity - and requires safety - it also separates the town. An underground pedestrian tunnel was constructed to allow access from the town center to the port. When talking with folks, one user said to me, "This tunnel has been a godsend."

Further to my amazement, Whittier Creek was now cleaned of debris and contaminates, and was reconstructed with a series of ponds, rapids and gravel bars.

An ideal salmon habitat now exists. Silver salmon have started to return to the stream. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game expects kings to return in three to five years. While I was there, a small boy and his father were noticed wetting a line in the creek and finding success. Adjacent to Whittier Creek were new camping areas, and vehicle parking was under construction.

On a beautiful sunny day last November, I again returned to Whittier to find more improvements. The classy Whittier Inn provides multiple, breathtaking views of Passage Canal and is a marvelous place for retreat.

The amazing rebirth and success of Whittier as a transportation, recreational and tourist center can be attributed to both the private and public sectors. The Whittier Creek restoration, the cruise ship facility built by Whittier Dock Enterprises and the soon-to-be-completed small boat harbor were all visions of Passage Canal development. The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities improved the road and parking areas and are improving the ferry terminal. The water and sewer work was coordinated with the City of Whittier. The Alaska Railroad Corp. has helped in cleanup, relocation of tracks, construction of the pedestrian tunnel, security and general overall improvement of the area.

Whittier is an example of an eco-multi-modal logistic dream envisioned by modern transportation planners.

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