The History and Military Significance
of Whittier, Alaska -- In One Hour
By Patrick Durand
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In April I received a call from Dr. Jerome Montegue, who introduced himself and followed with the comment," I have been told you know more about Whittier than anyone else".
After I offered some qualified knowledge gained from living there as a teenager, he explained the need for someone to address the history and military significance of Whittier for a staff development day. We arranged a meeting, and I started collecting source material. My passion is transportation and communications history in Alaska, particularly railroads.
On reflection, I realized that three generations of my extended family have been involved with the construction and operation of Whittier, off and on, since 1941.
*To make this presentation work you must first step back to 1896 and leave behind your modern understanding of transportation and communications. We start with a reality check.
In 1896 there were five communities in south central Alaska with European residents, some were 3rd and 4th generation Russian Americans. Kodiak was founded in 1792, Eklutna pre 1840, Kenai Pre 1870, Seldovia Pre 1880, and Sunrise was just newly founded in 1895.
* To travel between these communities you went by sail or later power boat or you hoofed it!
*Sunrise, as a result of a gold rush in 1896, was the largest community in the Territory of Alaska with about 5000 area residents on the East side of Turnagain Arm. During the ice free season from May to November ships called off shore at the town. When the brash ice ended navigation in November, you could take a short hike of about 38 miles to an ice free bay, and if lucky catch a passing ship.
*Portage Pass provided a route over Portage Glacier to the head of ice free Passage Canal. A transient location on the beach was known as Sullivan's Camp. This trade route was used by indigenous Denaina Indians from Cook Inlet and Chugach Eskimos of Prince William Sound, long before the Russian occupation of the early 1800's.
*Are you in the wilderness yet? If not, join up with Captain Frederick Glenn and his Expedition #2 at the new town of Valdez.
*On April 19, 1898 the SS Valencia arrived with two parties from the War Department and USGS to reconnoiter potential and established routes to the interior of Alaska.
*Captain Glenn's Expedition #2 boarded the small steamer SALMO, crossed Prince William Sound and were deposited on the beach at the head of Passage Canal among dozens of transient residents of Sullivan's Camp who were awaiting south bound boats.
*Glenn's group made several trips over Portage Glacier with horses and supplies in the spring snow to a camp at the head of Turnagain Arm.
*The famous photographer P.S. Hunt was on hand and captured the expedition in camp and on the glacier in the spring of 1898. Glenn's party subsequently made an arduous trek inland to the Yukon River.
In 1900 John E. Ballaine began exploring an All American railroad route to interior Alaska. He rejected Valdez, Ship Creek and considered Portage Bay (the head of Passage Canal).
*The lack of sufficient headlands, and potential expense of tunnels required to reach Turnagain Arm, resulted in his selection of Resurrection Bay as the terminus of his proposed Alaska Central Railroad. 1903 saw the founding of Seward and construction of
the pioneering railroad over the Kenai Mountains for a distance of some 72 miles to Kern Creek on Turnagain Arm.
* A reorganization as the Alaska Northern Railroad failed to advance the railroad much further by 1907.
In 1913 The Alaska Railroad Commission was established to study and make recommendations for constructing a railroad to the interior of Alaska. Army, Navy and civilian engineers, with no experience in Alaska, were given three months to travel to Alaska and report back to President William Howard Taft, with a recommended route. So began the connection between the United States Military and the future Alaska Railroad.
*President Woodrow Wilson won election in November 1913 and became a strong advocate of developing a railroad to reach interior Alaska. On March 12, 1914 he signed the Alaska Enabling Act and created the Alaska Engineering Commission. 1st Lt. Frederick Mears, a Cavalry Officer and experienced engineer, was one of three commission members and was placed in charge of construction. He had been successful in rebuilding the Panama Isthmus Railroad to support and augment the Panama Canal Construction which was completed in 1911. Secretary of the Interior, Franklin K. Lane also named Thomas Riggs, future Govenor of Alaska, to the group and William C. Edes as chairman. They placed 9 survey groups in Alaska during 1914.
*Passage Canal was considered as an alternate southern terminus for the new railroad again in 1914. The Coast and Geodetic Survey examined the area for potential sites. They named an overhanging glacier in the area Whittier, after John Greenleaf Whittier, the American poet.
*In the intervening 16 years, since 1898 the Portage Glacier had retreated to moraines at the edge of Placer Creek in Bear Valley.
*The U. S. Navy steamed on coal. Developing strategic coal fuel reserves near remote areas of operation was a priority. The Chickaloon Coal Fields up the Matanuska River were tested and declared “superior”. Bringing coal to tidewater for the Navy was a major factor in the approval of the Alaska enabling act. From its very beginning the Alaska Engineering Commission and hence the Alaska Railroad were products of military necessity and planning.
*Reality check. In 1914 Anchorage did not exist! Population of the territory was a little over 64,000 total. Valdez and Cordova were the only ports of call in South Central Alaska by which you could reach the interior of Alaska on improved roads. The Valdez to Fairbanks military trail became the Richardson Highway. The Copper River and North Western Railroad from Cordova connected to this dirt track at Chitina.
*With the A.E.C. decision to purchase the 74 mile Alaska Northern Railroad running from Seward north, land speculation went wild in Seward. Mears, keeping his objective of completing a railroad in mind, made the decision to establish a marshaling yard at Ship Creek much closer to the action and then build in both north and south.
*Ship Creek offered free land and the only permanent resident in the area was John Whitney who’s homestead tract of 1914 is encompassed by present day Elmendorf Air Force Base. John raised hogs, goats and sheep which he sold on the hoof as provisions for the early sailing and steam ships that called at the anchorage (with a small a) in Ship Creek.
*By April 1915 Ship Creek was the center of Alaska Engineering Commission activity, with the railroad being built North striving for the Chickaloon Coal Fields.
*Lt. Mears was in the business of building a railroad not a city, so he had the area on the bluff above Ship Creek surveyed, and held a town site auction July 10, 1915. As early as May 27, 1915 the Pioneer-News masthead read Anchorage (with a large A) and this eventually became the official post office name.
*The new town was laying 12 foot wide concrete sidewalks along 4th Ave in summer 1917.
*Anchorage continued to grow on the hill and C street was the road down to the railroad yards, depot and freight sheds. It also went uphill to the saloons and bars on 4th Ave.
*The Chicaloon Coal Fields were developed by the Navy and train shipments of coal began from the mines in 1917 for both domestic use and export from Ship Creek.
*By January, 1918 the railroad construction was moving forward in spite of labor and material shortages due to World War I raging in Europe. Frederick Mears resigned as General Manager of the AEC in order to organize a Railroad Engineering Battalion and go to war in Europe. Every A. E. C. man who could get away, went with him.
*Some more background on Col Frederick Mears is in order. He was an Army 2nd Lt. in the Cavalry when assigned to work with the Panama Canal Commission in 1906. Upon promotion to 1st Lt. in March 1907 he married Jennie "Jane" Wainwright and returned to supervise the Panama Railroad and Steamship Company. Mears was assigned to the Alaska Engineering Commission by a special Joint Resolution of Congress and appointed by President Roosevelt. After 18 years of Army service he was promoted to Captain in fall of 1916. He was quickly promoted by the War Department to Major in November of 1917. Various photos reflect dates and ranks that are not in agreement with these dates but that can be explained in that the negatives were not printed for publication until years after they were taken. By then every Alaskan knew the man as Col. Mears. He obtained the rank of Colonel on January 25, 1918 to command the 31st Railway Engineers mobilized at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, before deployment in France.
* Rebuilding the former Alaska Northern Railroad from Seward and extending it to Anchorage, was accomplished when the last rails on that section were laid on September 17, 1918 near Girdwood. When Mears had left in January, the family had to travel by bob sled between the end of rail near Indian to a waiting train beyond snow slides in the loop district on the way to Seward.
*As it turned out the War in Europe soon came to an end and Mears returned to The AEC as its Chairman and Chief Engineer in 1919 and worked until near completion of the railroad in 1923.
* The final rail link to Fairbanks was made when the Tanana River Bridge was opened in 1923. At the time of its construction this was, at 704 feet, the longest single span steel bridge in the world.
* On July 15, 1923 President Warren G. Harding drove the Gold Spike of the railroad at the North end of of the Tanana River Bridge in Nenana. The Alaska Engineering Commission had done its job and The Alaska Railroad was born.
*Congressional junkets to Alaska were encourage by the railroad to keep funding moving through the Department of the Interior.
*The The Alaska Railroad river port at Nenana was now the center of river navigation for interior Alaska. The Tanana River provided access downstream to the Yukon River transit system. Steam boats could now work earlier in the spring and later in the fall, completing more runs with supplies arriving by rail on the dock in Nenana.
*On April 6, 1924, four Douglas World Cruisers, the Seattle, Chicago, Boston and New Orleans departed Seattle west bound for a flight around the world. The US Army Air Corp organized the flight which came up the coast of Alaska. Two of the original Douglas World Cruisers arrived back in Seattle 175 days later. The world was shrinking with the advance of transport technology.
*Col. Otto F. Ohlson, a native of Sweden, took over as General Manager in 1928 when he was 58 years old. A lifelong railroader he had worked in Sweden, South America and East India, before immigrating to the United States. He worked for the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Northern Pacific before taking an Army commission early in 1918. He saw service as the general superintendent of United States Railroads in France. After returning to the Northern Pacific he came to the attention of the Republican administration and was enticed to take over the Alaska Railroad. In deference to his reserve rank of lieutenant colonel, Alaskans just called him “Colonel” Ohlson.
*For the next 17 years he worked to make the Alaska Railroad financially viable, dealing with the Great Depression era, calls for the abandonment of the railroad, repeated West Coast long shore strikes and then the crushing boom of military construction traffic leading up to World War II.
* The Nenana River Port and Sternwheeler Steam Boats were operated by the Alaska Railroad and were of major military significance in the late 1930s as planning for interior military air fields at places such as Tanana, Galena and Fort Yukon were considered.
*In 1931, Northwest, a Minnesota based mail airline, sponsored Charles and Anne Lindbergh on a pioneering flight to Japan and then China. They were scouting what would become known as the Northwest Airlines Great Circle Route. Flying their Lockheed Sirus float plane they demonstrated that flying through Alaska could save as much as 2,000 miles on a New York-Tokyo route. This event was not unnoticed by military planners in both Japan and the United states. Aviation in the territory of Alaska was getting off the ground.
*Col. Ohlson lobbied for a new railroad cut-off from Portage to Passage Canal and construction of an entirely new headquarters, shops and docks for the Alaska Railroad as early as 1935. He was dusting off the original 1914 surveys. He argued he could move 4 times as much freight over the railroad if he could forget the 58 miles of challenging track south of Portage going over two mountain ranges to Seward.
*Otto Ohlson was a tireless promoter of Alaska and looked for any opportunity to elicit federal funding for expanding infrastructure in Alaska. He championed the Matanuska Valley Colony Project which came to fruition in 1935 as a relief project under the Works Progress Administration. Farm families were moved from the midwest dust bowl to the Valley to establish a new agricultural community. These families also provided a ready labor force for the coal mines at Jonesville and Eska.
In 1937 several railroad spurs were funded by the War Department. The Fairbanks Yard was connected by 4.5 miles of track to Ladd Field and new sidings built there. Just north of the Anchorage Yard a three car spur was built at MP 118.7 to become the lead track into the future site of Elmendorf Field.
*Reality Check: Just over the horizon at the end of the Aleutian Chain, Japan was occupying Korea, China, Indonesia and was considering an invasion of Australia.
Canada was at war as of September 1939 and was building air fields across the prairies in preparation for defending the Canadian west. The Canadian-American Permanent Joint Board on Defense was created in Aug. 1940.
Total population of the Territory of Alaska in 1940 was 71, 620 and nearly half of those, 32,450 were Native Alaskans, living a subsistence life style in bush Alaska.
The threat from Japan was serious and the United States started major facilities in Alaska. Elmendorf Army Air Field was pouring concrete in 1939.
*The Alaska Defense Force was placed under command of Col Simon Bolivar Buchner in 1940. He realized the biggest challenge facing the development of defenses in Alaska was transportation. Alaska Railroad General Manager, Col Ohlson was soon allied in meeting the challenge of gaining recognition and funding for Alaskan projects. Over the next three years Buchner was advanced to Lt. General while serving in Alaska.
*Dutch Harbor became a forward deployment area and opened a Marine base in May 1941 followed by the Navy Base in September. The Army's Fort Mears named after Col Frederick Mears was under construction in "Dutch" at the same time. Mears had passed away on January 11, 1939 at the age of 60.
The advent of Army construction at Anchorage and Fairbanks and interior air bases placed new demands on the ARR and it became imperative that additional equipment be obtained as the volume of traffic first doubled and then tripled.
*Why build a new port on Passage Canal when it had been passed over previously?
In 1914 the government had just purchased the Alaska Northern Railroad that extended from Seward past Portage to Kern Creek. The immediate goal at that time, was completing a line to the interior and with the available funding. Building a new town site and two major tunnels was not a priority.
By 1941 the priorities were security and increased productivity and war time funding was more readily available.
Security on Passage Canal would be easier to maintain with controlled access via tunnels.
The lousy weather would provide cover from air bombardment on most days.
Passage Canal was 58 route miles closer to Anchorage than was Seward.
Shorter routes would increase productivity, as the new route would avoid two mountain ranges and the 3 percent grades southbound.
The large wooden trestles in the loop district were in poor condition and easy targets for arson.
* Relocation to Passage Canal promised reduced maintenance costs and improved availability. The mountain route from Seward had been subject to month long closures due to snow slides.
Passage Canal was ice free year round compared to Anchorage where all navigation in Cook Inlet ceased by November each year with the development of brash ice at the exposed Anchorage dock which also required regular dredging. Strong tidal currents and fluctuations of 39 ft at the dock in Anchorage compared unfavorably with the maximum 12.4 foot tidal range on Passage Canal.
With all facilities owned by the Railroad and the Army, labor problems could be managed.
*In 1941, relocation of the Southern Terminus of the Railroad to the head of Passage Canal was undertaken as a priority Defense Project funded by the War Department with a $5,300,000 appropriation. The new line was to be 11.2 miles long leaving tide water on Passage Canal and passing through two tunnels to the junction at Portage. Construction started with private contractors in November 1941.
*On December 7, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
By Military Order train travel by aliens was prohibited.
Photography along the right of way was banned for the duration of the war.
The Military took over policing of the Seward Dock and inspection of baggage and investigation of all incoming and outgoing passengers.
Those people seeking entrance to Alaska were screened by the Alaska Travel Control section of the Army in Seattle.
All communities were subject to enforced blackouts and Alaska’s dark winters were indeed very dark. In Anchorage streetlights were turned off and all windows covered. Power plants were shut off during black out periods.
All non essential dependents, wives and children, both military and civilian, were forcefully encouraged to relocate to the "Lower 48" The Army provided transportation from the "overseas war zone of Alaska".
*Civilian guards were placed at all principal bridges, trestles, terminal yards and the Seward Dock. The Army stationed guards in the Loop District south of Portage enroute to Seward. Armed guards were on all freight trains handling military supplies.
*Labor shortages were acute with a limited number of service men loaned from the Alaska Defense Command to assist the Alaska Railroad. The Army Signal Corps soldiers were put under supervision of Alaska Railroad foremen to upgrade the communication lines and add new circuits to the telegraph/telephone lines which were on poles along the railroad.
*The city of Anchorage in 1941 ended at 15th avenue. Gambel Street became a muddy homesteader’s track beyond Fireweed Lane. Fireweed Lane meandered out to Joe Spenard's homestead and then to Spenard Lake, the community swimming hole. Bootleggers Cove was appropriately named. Anchorage High School and the elementary school were on 6th avenue where the Performing Arts Center stands today. 4th Avenue had been paved in 1939.
*Merrill Field was the big airport used by military aircraft and civil air. B-18 bombers were based there until Elmendorf field was open.
The Glenn highway connected through what is today Fort Richardson to Palmer and the went north to join the Richardson Highway at Glenallen. This limited interior highway system was generously described as gravel surfaced. There was no Seward Highway.
*On June 3, 1942 the Japanese made two bombing raids on Fort Mears and the other Dutch Harbor installations. This was as far reaching as Japan was able to extend its efforts with out their vessels risking attack by American land based bombers. They were soon in a defensive posture at Attu and Kiska and American bombers were making return delivery on northern Japanese targets.
*Back on the Passage Canal cut off, tunneling crews worked from both ends removing the shot rock to fill the railroad approaches to the tunnel. Solid rock was blasted to bench a route to the alluvial fan below Whittier Glacier where the town site infrastructure was installed.
*A deep diversion channel was built to route Whittier Creek down the western edge of the town site. Streets and utilities were laid out and Morrison Knudson Construction Company crews built temporary camps.
*On November 20, 1942 the holing through ceremonies were held for the Whittier Cut-Off. That was when the name Whittier, suggested by Col. Otto Ohlson, came into common use. Major General Simon B. Buckner pulled the lever setting off the charge that opened the tunnel. He later addressed the group in the camp mess hall in Whittier.
*The first priority construction job was the Alaska Railroad Dock which included warehouses and a 70 ton stiff leg crane, the largest in Alaska. This project was underway in 1941 before the tunnel was opened.
*The U.S. Army 714th Transportation Corps Railway Operating Bn arrived April 3, 1943 with a complement of 25 officers and 1,090 enlisted men.
*These men were drafted from good paying railroad jobs and now were doing the same job for Army pay in the remote reaches of Alaska for the duration of the war.
*The 714th arrived in time to do much of the track installation in the Whittier Yard.
* The first train into the Whittier Yard arrived on June 1, 1943 when the two tunnels were completed 6 months ahead of schedule. The tunnels were 13,075 ft and 4960 ft in length.
*A week later the first military transport troop ship arrived at the new dock. Army crews provided all on shore services in loading and unloading at the Whittier Dock. Troop trains departed north to Anchorage and Fairbanks.
*On June 11, 1943 the senior officer staff in charge of the U.S. Army Port of Whittier were:
Capt. J. H. Wakefield Port Commander
Maj. C. B. Burgoyne Resident Engineer
Lt. Col. J. W. Burleson Post Commander
*Civilian contractors worked through the winters of 1942 and 43 creating the Whittier garrison of wood frame structures. Officers and enlisted barracks, Theater, Chapel, Mess, *Motor Pool and Fire Department.
*The Corps of Engineers office was typical of the first construction standards, dictated by time, budget and war time availability of materials.
*The Alaska Railroad completed the new Depot in late 1943.
*The Rail Yard was expanded with rock brought in from the tunnel site.
* The first round of construction in Whittier built some permanent infrastructure, the Alaska Railroad Ice House, Coach Shed, Engine House, Depot, Power Plant, *Dock, Warehouses and the Cove Creek Dam.
*The first permanent concrete structure was the ACS building. It became a model for future construction after 1946.
*The ACS, Alaska Communications System, Building is the only surviving structure from that era. Constructed of reinforced concrete it was a self contained secure facility. All radio and telephone telegraph communications were monitored there by the Post Censors Office. All mail was detained until cleared by the Censors Office. Photography was banned and Whittier was considered a SECRET installation known as H-12.
*The first two Diesel Locomotives, No 1000 and 1001 for the Alaska Railroad arrived in Whittier June 15, 1944 and went into service through the tunnels to Portage. A special war time authorization allowed this purchase to avoid the expense of installing forced ventilation in the tunnels.
*At Christmas time the 714th Railway Operating Bn organized a Santa Clause Special Train to travel the length of the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks on Dec. 24 and 25, 1944. In Nenana the town prepared a pot luck Christmas dinner for Santa’s crew. *August 15, 1945 was celebrated as Victory over Japan Day. While the Alaska Railroad and Whittier played no direct tactical role in the Aleutian campaign against the Japanese at Attu and Kiska, the strategic bases on the mainland of Alaska were dependent on supply by the railroad transport connections. The wisdom of the extensive military buildup in the territory of Alaska would be questioned by many politicians but Alaska’s strategic nature had been well established on the Last Frontier. Once the bases were built they had to be supplied. The Alaska Railroad was the year round lifeline to interior Alaska.
*Col. Otto Ohlson, the civilian General Manager of the Alaska Railroad retired after 17 years by the end of 1945. He was 75 years old and worn out, much as was the Alaska Railroad after the demands of the war years. The Colonel was always recognized in the crowd for his bright green suits, overcoats and stetson hat.
As a function of the Department of the Interior, the Alaska Railroad was federally owned and subject to political maneuvers. When considering new management appointments, railroad people with government and military experience were advanced.
*On January 1, 1946, Col. John P. Johnson was appointed General Manager of the Alaska Railroad and he started a new era of rebuilding and modernization. Like his predecessor, Col Ohlson, Col. J. P. Johnson had retired to civilian status but maintained his rank as a title and to the people of Alaska he was just "Col. Johnson".
A professional railroad man, Johnson had worked for the Sante Fe Railroad from 1917 to 1941. Entering military service with a commission prior to Pearl Harbor, he supervised the railroad line through Iran that funneled lend lease material to the Russians. He served in India, China, the South Pacific and when the war ended was in charge of all transportation in the Philippines.
*As a demonstration greeting for the new GM on January 9th, 1946 the wind in Bear Valley blew six rail cars and the deck off the bridge across Placeer Creek on the line into Whittier.
*In March 1946 the Port of Whittier was closed for lack of traffic due to the post war military drawdown and operations were moved to Seward, leaving Whittier to the management of the Alaska Railroad. This was a short lived decision probably forced by political considerations.
*In fall of 1946 the West Coast Maritime Strike shut down all shipments to Alaska. Col. Johnson was able to negotiate one more shipment and on November 29th the relief ship, SS Grometh Reefer arrived with groceries and meat.
*The Army and the ARR, anticipating a long strike and to avoid the strike bound docks at Seward, made a tactical move. Task Force “Frigid” with 1400 troops moved back into Whittier on September 12, 1946. Six months after leaving, Army crews were back providing their own long shore services for military and contract ships calling at the Whittier Alaska Railroad Dock. Military cargoes were now moving again. The strategic importance of Whittier versus Seward was once again demonstrated.
Col. Johnson had a fleet of US Navy surplus trucks and needed materials for the railroad stranded in Seattle. With no end to the strike in sight he decided to make a point to raise the moral of the people along the rail-belt in Alaska who were being held hostage by the strike.
*The Alaska Railroad Relief Convoy of 18 trucks with a crew of 29 men, left Seattle’s General Depot U.S. Army, on November 24th and arrived in Anchorage on December 19, 1946. The 25 day trip in mid winter encountered temperatures of 66° below zero. The 3165 mile trip was a costly public relations coupe for the Alaska Railroad and General Manager Col. Johnson.
*The Maritime strike ended with the arrival of the SS Alaska at Seward on Dec 20th, 1946. That was one day after the Relief Convoy arrived in Anchorage.
All through the strike military supplies had been moving over the Alaska Railroad Dock in Whittier. The Army never looked back at Seward and the subsequent build up of infrastructure at Whittier to meet the challenges of the Cold War, Korean War and beyond was coordinated between the Corps of Engineers and the Alaska Railroad.
*On May 21, 1947 the United States Maritime Commission returned all U. S. vessels to civilian control and the Alaska Steam Ship Company placed their passengers ships back on regular sailing schedules between Seattle and Seward.
*A sea change or rather an air change had taken place and passengers now had the option of flying to Alaska. Pacific Northern Airlines started this service in October 1947 in competition with Northwest Airlines. In six years aviation had advanced from DC-3 twin engine non pressurized aircraft to Constellations and StratoCruisers that could fly pressurized above the weather across the Pacific on four engines.
*Bench Mark Reality Check:
In 1940, of Alaska's 75,000 residents about 1,000 were military.
By 1943, of 233,000 residents 152,000 were in the armed forces stationed in Alaska.
By 1946 there was a post war drop in population to about 99,000.
By 1950 Cold War military expenditures pushed it back up to around 138,000.
The war years irrevocably changed Alaska and continued the boom and bust cycle.
*Meanwhile back in Whittier, Union Oil Co. leased property on the tidal flats and built a tank farm and finger pier to receive Union Oil Co. tankers. A three story office and housing complex for company employees was built right next to the railcar loading facility.
*Private investors leased property from the Alaska Railroad at the mouth of Whittier Creek and built the Columbia Lumber Co. Sawmill in 1947. The Alaska Railroaad contracted for purchase of ties and timbers and also shipped dimensional lumber to customers along the line.
*The Cold War machine consumed a lot of jet fuel, diesel fuel and aviation gasoline so the Army POL facility was expanded with storage tanks and rail car loading facilities near the entrance to tunnel 1 in Whittier. Another finger pier and storage tanks for the Army were built near the Union Oil finger pier to facilitate transfer of fuel from ocean going tankers.
* Reality Check 1951: Oil and Gas discoveries had not yet been developed in Alaska and all military fuel, except locally produced coal, came over the docks in Whittier, Seward, Valdez, Anchorage and Haines.
The dedication of the Seward Highway completion was held at Girdwood on October 19, 1951 and you could actually drive from Anchorage to Seward and Kenai.
The first International Business Machine computer equipment in Alaska was installed by the Alaska Railroad in their Anchorage Depot office for payroll and accounting.
*In Whittier on June 17, 1952, fire destroyed the entire Alaska Railroad Whittier Dock installation. No cause for the fire was ever reported. The Dock, Stiff Leg Crane, and three warehouses were a total loss estimated at $20 million. The Depot was saved but 19 fire fighters were injured including ARR Yard Master, Andy Hodge who jumped 35 feet from the dock to the deck of a fire boat to escape advancing flames.
Marine operations were immediately moved to Seward and the process of rebuilding got underway at Whittier. Sections of war surplus Delong Floating Pier were located and brought to Whittier. The old dock site was cleared and the caissons of the floating pier were settled on the bottom and secured. A 200 ton floating crane and Floating Machine Shop with U. S. Navy crews were assigned to Whittier in support of the new Delong pier.
*Cold War defense appropriations supported constructing permanent infrastructure starting with the Buchner Building, the largest building in Alaska at completion in 1954. Named in honor of General Simon Bolivar Buchner, the building was literally a military post under one roof designed to house a 1500 man garrison with Command Offices, Brig, TV Station, Provost Marshall, BOQ, PX, Snack Bar, Theater, Chapel, Laundry, Beauty shop, Barber, Combined Mess, Craft Shop, Bowling Alley, Shooting Range, Commissary, Bakery, Dispensary, Quarter Master and private rooms for Officers and NCOs. Enlisted men from the U.S. Navy, Marines and U.S. Army were all accommodated in two man rooms. (Notice the military vehicles parked along the beach awaiting transport).
The Buckner, as it was called, was the social center for the posts military, civilian and dependent population. Fables of the "secret tunnels" under Whittier were in fact the utilidors used to provide steam heat to all the major buildings from the Central Power and Light Plant.
* In October 1954 the end of an era arrived as the Alaska Steamship Co. discontinued passenger service to Alaska. The end came with increasing availability of commercial airline service.
* The Military Sea Transport Service continued to provided ship transportation for military personnel, dependents and household goods coming and going from Alaska. The SS Frederick Funston, could handle 2000 passengers on voyages from Oakland Terminal, California. Whittier was often a midway stop with transports dropping and picking up passengers when the ship was en-route to and from Korea.
*The 14 story Hodge Building completed in 1957 contained 150 two and three bedroom apartments plus bachelor efficiency units. Dependent families and Civil Service employees were moved into this efficient high rise. The new Whittier School was connected by a tunnel at the base of the west tower so students could go to school in shirt sleeves on the very worst weather days. The building, originally was named in honor of Colonel Walter William Hodge Civil. Engineer. the CO of 93rd Engineer Regiment on the Alcan Highway. Now known as the Begich Towers, it is currently operated by a condominium association.
* Upon completion of these second generation buildings the process of demolition began on the old sub standard and expensive to maintain frame structures and small mobile homes spread over the town site. This process was facilitated by conducting frequent training sessions for the fully staffed three truck fire department.
*A new Marginal wharf with a transit shed some 1200 ft long was constructed from reinforced concrete.
*The Harbormaster, Port Commander and MSTS personnel occupied the top floor offices at the east end.. The four tugs assigned to Whittier were berthed there.
*During the winter of 1956/57, the Port of Whittier received record total snowfall of 72 feet. Snow removal from the old frame structures and trailers was a major expense leading to their demolition. The new flat roofed permanent structures allowed the wind to blow the snow off and the hot roofs melted the snow into internal storm drains to eliminate the snow load.
*My mother, Betty Durand took this photo of a snowball bombardment from the front door of the family house trailer in April 1957. My three brothers were assisting while dad became the target standing in the street waiting for a bus. Prior to 1957 this photo would have been subject to the censors scissors because of the flat car loads in the background.
*In 1957 a new train station was built in Portage along with a parking lot for residents who left their automobiles stored there and commuted to live and work in Whittier by train. With Whittiers population decreasing, regular passenger train service was eventually reduced and discontunued. This bercame the era of the "Ice Worm" rail bus that made regular trips through the tunnels to Portage.
*Alaska became the 49th State on January 3, 1959 when then President Eisenhower signed the declaration of Alaska Statehood. Little changed in Whittier as a result. Buy this time the Corp of Engineers estimated total cost of Whittier Installations at $57 million.
September 1, 1960 the Secretary of the Army placed the U.S. Army Port of Whittier on inactive status and facilities there became a sub installation of Fort Richardson. The Alaskan Air Command changed its Safe Haven Location from Seward to Whittier in the 1960’s at the height of the Cold War.
*John E. Manley became General Manager of the Alaska Railroad in 1962. Mr. Manley started with the ARR in 1939 and was the first GM to come up through the organization.
*A new era dawned May 18, 1962 when a Canadian National Railways barge tied up at the new Whittier slip for roll on roll off rail road cars. For the first time rail cars could be loaded at any siding in the United States and delivered to customers anywhere on the rail-belt in Alaska with out intermediate handling of the cargo. Rail cars were rolled on at Prince Rupert, British Colombia and rolled off in Whittier.
*Soon Puget Sound Alaska Van lines began their Seattle to Whittier Alaska Van Lines service.
*The Clair Engle rail car barge with 30 car capacity, was soon followed by the Kenai rail car barge with 42 car capacity.
*All these rail barges were brought to Alaska under tow by ocean going tugs so they needed no assistance in mooring. When the barge was secure in the slip, a ramp was lowered to connect tracks on shore with those on the barge.
*A locomotive connected to a string of idler cars then reached across the ramp to connect and pull the loaded rail cars ashore. Within hours the barge was unloaded and then reloaded with empty cars or back haul loads and was ready to sail south.
*Alaska Steamship Co. added a new twist in 1963 with the Trainship Alaska III which was an enclosed railroad ferry with a capacity of 50 rail cars. Over the next 11 years she completed 500 round trips between New Westminster BC and Whittier.
*By 1964 there were only 70 full time residents and most lived in the 14 story Hodge Building.
March 27, 1964, Good Friday, sixty miles East of Whittier under Prince William Sound the ocean floor buckled with a 9.2 magnitude earthquake.
*Within 30 minutes the Whittier water front had subsided some five feet and three consecutive Tsunami ranging from 20 to 30 feet came ashore. In 30 minutes thirteen lives were lost and only one body was recovered.
*Colombia Lumber Company was reduced to kindling wood. The winter supply of saw logs rafted next to the mill repeatedly rolled over the the site at the mouth of Whittier Creek.
*The Union Oil Co. and Army finger piers at the waters edge, subsided into the bay where shore line storage tanks were demolished and burning.
*The rail yard was covered in debris but was still in operation.
*The waiting room and second story of the Depot were gone. Jerry and Judy Ware, a young couple employed by the railroad occupied the second story apartment in the depot. Judy was seriously injured and their infant child was one of those lost to the waves.
*The Marginal Pier was buckled and the floor in the transit shed was split down the middle. The towers of the barge slip were damaged beyond repair. The dock was still serviceable.
*The Buckner Building, Hodge Building, Whittier Arms and all the latest generation structures built on bedrock survived with little damage. Residents organized to tend to the injured and the U. S. Army flew many missions with the fixed wing Beaver aircraft and helicopters to evacuate the injured to Anchorage.
There was minimal damage to the tunnels, but near portage the tracks were out of service. Freight service was restored 22 days after the earthquake with trains out of Whittier to Anchorage on April 20. The rail barge slip at Whittier was quickly replaced and was back in service by June.
Train service from Seward was not established until nearly 6 months later. Once again Col. Ohlson’s predictions of the strategic advantage of Whittier was proven.
*The Army POL operation was put in service by installing new unloading equipment and a pipeline from the old DeLong pier to the West Camp tank farm. By winter the flow of fuel for Alaska's interior military sites was restored.
Construction began in August 1966 on an 8" multipurpose fuel pipeline between the Port of Whittier and POL facilities at the Port of Anchorage. It was determined that a pipeline would be more efficient and secure than the 10,000 gallon railroad tank cars that had been in use between Whittier POL loading and Fort Richardson POL since the late 1940’s. The pipeline could deliver Jet Fuel, Aviation Gas, Regular Gas, and Diesel Fuel at a rate of 1100 barrels per hour.
*The Alaska State Ferry MV Bartlett began calling at Whittier in 1969. With capacity of 38 cars and 170 passengers connections were made to Valdez and Cordova. The Alaska Railroad initiated a matching service with a train shuttle that made several trips a day from Portage to Whittier. Automobiles and trucks with campers and boats could drive on to *specially prepared flat cars in Portage and Drive off 30 minutes later in Whittier.
*In 1968, Atlantic Richfield Co. ARCO completed the first development well in Prudhoe Bay. The start of another transportation boom was underway with equipment bound for the north slope.
*The City of Whittier was incorporated in 1969 and about that time the first Tourist Cruise Ships began landing at the Port to make rail connections to Anchorage.
*Tourism was promoted with glacier tours and the small boat harbor was expanded at the location formerly occupied by Union Oil and Colombia lumber Co.
Whittier was largely out of sight out of mind through the 70's and 80's but it continued to provide efficient roll on roll off freight handling.
*During construction of the TransAlaska Pipe Line, the pipe coating plant in Valdez assembled 80 ft sections of the 4 ft diameter pipe with finished coating. Six of these sections were loaded on each flat car with intermediate idler cars at Valdez. The loaded cars were then rolled on to a rail barge and moved 90 miles across Prince William Sound to Whittier. In 1976 The Alaska Railroad hauled 1300 loaded flat cars to Fairbanks for distribution north and south as required for the pipeline. This avoided having some 17,000 oversized truck loads on already congested highways.
*Ownership of the Alaska Railroad was transfered from the U.S. Department of Transportation to the State of Alaska at sale for $26 million in 1986. The Alaska Railroad Corporation was created along with a new generation of management.
*Another Good Friday that turned into a bad day came on March 24, 1989 when the EXXON Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef in Prince William Sound. The resulting spill of 10.9 million gallons of Alaska North Slope crude oil was about 20% of the crude oil the vessel was carrying. Much of the clean up effort was launched from Whittier and a lot of the hazardous material waste was shipped south for disposal as backhaul on the rail barges.
*Reconstruction started in 1998 on the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel under Maynard Mountain
*Converting the railroad tunnel to combined use for trains and automobiles provided the first direct road access to Whittier. The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was completed in 2000 at a total cost of $80 million.
*At 13,300 feet it was the longest highway tunnel in America until Boston's Big Dig came on line.
*The Alaska Railroad is the major land lord in Whittier as of 2006 and the town has become the southern terminus of the Railroad. Huge tour ships discharge their passengers directly to trains and busses for the trip North and receive their south bound passengers in exchange.
*Whittier has fewer than two hundred year round residents today. Productivity with mechanization and roll on roll of technology provide efficiencies that could not be meet in the years when Whittier had 2000 residents.
*Today, just the arriving fright on the Whittier barges is estimated at 572,000 tons per year.
*Rail barges with up to 80 rail cars on the lower deck and containers stacked three high make the trips from Seattle, Tacoma and Prince Rupert. Southbound shipments contain some scrap, packaged hazardous materials and some wood products and heavy machinery.
*Seward still plays an important role with the Alaska Railroad Dock hosting cruise ships. A Stacker Reclaimer now owned by the Alaska Railroad loads coal for export to Chile and Korea. 80 car unit coal trains bring this export product from the Usibelli Coal mine at Healy. There are only occasional barge arrivals in Seward and no regular scheduled in bound freight service there.
*Anchorage by contrast, is served by TOTE and SeaLand ships with modern technology roll-on-roll-off for trailers and containers with mixed commodities. These ships were built with hardened hulls to deal with Cook Inlet brash ice from November to April. The Port of Anchorage faces the same challenges it did in 1918 with extreme tides of 39 ft causing wild currents and a channel that requires an ongoing dredging program.
*Whittier is at the heart of Alaska's transportation system for marine, rail and highway traffic and is open for business year round.
*The wildest visions of Col. Mears, Col. Ohlson and Col. Johnson could not have included a view of Whittier as it exist today. But these men knew what needed to be done to establish their railroad as a dependable and invaluable strategic transportation asset to Alaska.
To turn a phrase, Change is the only Constant in Whittier. It is obvious that the Portage Glacier has retreated dramatically as viewed over Portage Pass in this view. At first glance however you may not notice that there is only one structure still surviving in place, from the 1951 view. The ACS building from 1944.
copyright by Patrick J. Durand
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