Alaska's 'strangest' town strives to remake itself

Posted: Sunday, June 10, 2007

WHITTIER - When the town's lone museum opened two years ago, no one knew how long it would last. After all, Whittier, with a population the size of a large wedding reception, had gone without a movie theater since 1986. The library had closed in 1993.

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Today, the one-room museum on the first floor of a converted military communications building is the cultural centerpiece of this once-isolated former Army garrison. To Whittier's 180 residents it's yet another sign that growth, so long in coming, is on the horizon.

The revival began in 2000 when the railroad tunnel, the only link by land to the rest of Alaska, opened to drivers. In 2004, cruise ships returned after a 10-year hiatus, funneling about 150,000 passengers through town annually.

The year the museum opened, an optimistic city council drafted its first development plan in a decade and laid the groundwork for Whittier's first single-family homes. Residents live in one of two former Army quarters, converted to condominiums, that are more than a half century old.

The changes could whitewash the port town's reputation as a dilapidated but unavoidable stop en route to Prince William Sound's magnificent fjords. The abandoned military structures and other oddities that inspired Whittier's unofficial biography, "The Strangest Town in Alaska," could disappear, too.

"If I were to write a book, I would probably call it 'Whittier: Alaska's Newest Backyard Playground,"' said mayor Lester Lunceford.

As secluded as Shangri-La, the tiny Whittier delta is surrounded by a fortress of mountains and fronted by the sound. The U.S. Army considered the normally unyielding cloud cover perfect for hiding the ice-free port from enemy bombers during World War II and began pouring millions of dollars into construction in the early 1940s.

But in 1960, the military pulled out completely as the amount of cargo coming through declined. According to the city planning report, Whittier's population dropped from a high of 1,300 in the late 1950s to a low of 65 in 1963.

Whittier lies in the midst of stunning glaciers and waters filled with wildlife, but the area is also known for frequent rain and blizzards. And before the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel opened to vehicles, many Alaskans, even those living nearby, considered the town just too hard to reach.

The one-track railroad tunnel, blasted through 2.5 miles of rock in 1943, is the sole connection by land to Alaska's highway system. For decades there was only one train in and one out, daily. Anchorage, the state's largest city, lies just 60 miles to the north, but the rigid train schedule daunted many residents.

"It was so hard to get in and out that there used to be a T-shirt. On the front it said 'POW' and on the back it said "Prisoner of Whittier,"' said Ted Spencer, the museum's exhibit designer and a former Anchorage resident who now lives in San Diego.

In 2000, the state started letting drivers through to ease access to the Sound. Once an hour for 15 minutes each way, fishermen, campers and kayakers can drive the metal-plated tracks of one of the longest vehicle tunnels in America. The tunnel closes to traffic at 11:15 p.m. in summer and 5:45 p.m. on most days in winter.

An estimated 237,870 one-way vehicle trips were recorded last year, according to the state Department of Transportation.

"The tunnel opening was tremendous," said city manager Mark Earnest. "Whittier is undergoing a real transformation. There's been a lot of development and growth and that will continue."

More than half of Whittier's citizens live in the 14-story Begich Towers. The former dormitory for military families houses a police department, post office, church, and bed and breakfast.

The pastor lives on the seventh floor. Earnest lives on the eighth. The police chief is on the ninth and the harbormaster is one floor above. The mayor and his wife live on the 14th floor with a view of the harbor and the mountains across the sound.

Other residents live in a two-story building near the railroad dock called the Whittier Manor. On the wish list from a 2004 community visioning meeting, residents wrote, "Houses with yards and garages."

There isn't much room to grow at Whittier's current site so city leaders envision a road through five miles of thick Sitka spruce that would open up land at Shotgun Cove. The cost of building the road and laying power lines and water pipes would come to $25-30 million, Earnest said.

The city also wants to secure federal funds to clean up the millions of gallons of oil that gushed from dockside holding tanks in 1964 during a magnitude 9.2 earthquake, which still ranks as North America's largest. And it wants to turn a section of shoreline once littered with scrap metal into a well-kept campsite.

An homage to Alaska's military past, Whittier's museum includes reprinted photos of Japanese and American soldiers stationed in the Aleutian Islands in World War II. One new exhibit features photos of World War II pilot Jimmy Doolittle, who led a pivotal air raid on Tokyo, as a child growing up in Nome. The dozen or so exhibits have attracted 6,000 visitors from 20 countries, according to its visitor log.

"We had no floor in here and the carpet was this scrungy thing. You can compare that to Whittier," said Cheryl Lunceford, the mayor's wife, at the debut of the Doolittle exhibit. "Every road in Whittier used to be gravel and dirt and now we have more paved roads, a new ferry building and new sidewalks."

Lining the waterfront are quaint gift shops, kayak rentals and restaurants, and the terminal for the state's luxurious new $34 million fast ferry, the Chenega, serving three communities in Prince William Sound. The small boat harbor is packed and the waiting list for slips has burgeoned to 500 names, despite the wait time of at least 10 years.

"Change will come. I know it's going to happen," said 85-year-old Virginia Bender, who has lived in Whittier for 30 years. "You can't stand still."

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