Nestled at the head of the Passage Canal on the west side of Prince William Sound, Whittier, Alaska, is a small town with a population that hovers around 200. Known for its unique setting and history, Whittier is not just a remote Alaskan town; it’s a community that epitomizes resilience, adaptability, and the peculiarities of living in one of the most isolated places in the United States.
The Gateway to Prince William Sound
Whittier’s location makes it a strategic gateway to the beautiful Prince William Sound, known for its stunning fjords, glaciers, and wildlife. The town serves as a hub for marine traffic, including fishing boats, cargo vessels, and cruise ships. The Sound’s rich waters provide an abundance of seafood, making commercial fishing a vital part of Whittier’s economy.
A History Shaped by War and Geography
Whittier’s unique history is deeply intertwined with its geographical location and the events of World War II. During the war, the U.S. Army identified Whittier’s strategic value as a port and constructed a military facility, complete with a deep-water harbor and a railway. The only way to access Whittier by land is through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a 2.5-mile-long tunnel that is the longest highway tunnel in North America.
The Military Legacy
The remnants of Whittier’s military past are still visible today. The two most prominent buildings, the Buckner Building and Begich Towers, are relics from the mid-20th century. The Buckner Building, once the largest building in Alaska, now stands abandoned, a ghostly reminder of the town’s past.
Begich Towers: A Town Under One Roof
Begich Towers is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Whittier. This 14-story building houses nearly the entire population of the town. It’s a self-contained unit with apartments, a post office, a store, a church, and even a small hospital. This setup is not just a quirk but a necessity, given the harsh weather conditions that can isolate Whittier from the rest of Alaska.
Life in Isolation
Living in Whittier means adapting to isolation and the challenges of a harsh environment. Winters are long and dark, and the town is often blanketed in snow. The tunnel to the outside world closes at night, adding a layer of isolation that is hard to comprehend for those living in more connected regions.
A Close-Knit Community
The isolation has fostered a strong sense of community among Whittier’s residents. Neighbors know each other well and often gather for community events. This close-knit atmosphere is a defining characteristic of life in Whittier, where cooperation is not just valued but essential for survival.
The Challenges of Weather and Accessibility
Weather in Whittier can be extreme, with heavy snowfall and frequent storms. The tunnel’s closure during inclement weather can cut off the supply chain, making self-sufficiency and preparedness vital traits for the residents. The town’s infrastructure is designed to withstand these conditions, but living here requires a level of resilience and adaptability that is extraordinary.
The Economy of Whittier
Whittier’s economy revolves around fishing, tourism, and its port facilities. The summer months bring a flurry of activity, with tourists arriving to explore the natural beauty of Prince William Sound. The town’s marina is bustling with fishing boats, and local businesses cater to the needs of visitors and residents alike.
Fishing: A Way of Life
Commercial fishing is a significant part of Whittier’s economy. The waters of Prince William Sound are rich in salmon, halibut, and other seafood, providing a livelihood for many residents. The fishing industry not only supports local families but also contributes to Alaska’s economy.
Tourism: Exploring the Wilderness
Tourism in Whittier peaks during the summer months. Visitors are drawn to the area’s spectacular scenery, wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor activities like kayaking, fishing, and glacier tours. The town serves as a starting point for many exploring the Sound’s pristine wilderness.
Education and Healthcare
Despite its small size and isolation, Whittier ensures basic services for its residents. The town has a school that caters to all grade levels, providing education to the children of Whittier under one roof. Healthcare services are limited but essential, with the small medical facility in Begich Towers offering basic care.
Environmental Concerns and Conservation
Whittier’s location in Prince William Sound, an area still recovering from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, makes environmental conservation a critical issue. The community is deeply aware of the need to protect the local ecosystem, which is vital for their livelihood and the area’s natural beauty.
The Impact of Climate Change
As with many parts of Alaska, Whittier is feeling the effects of climate change. Glaciers in the area are retreating, and changes in sea temperatures and fish populations are concerns for the local fishing industry. The community is increasingly aware of these changes and their potential long-term impact.
Connectivity and the Future
The future of Whittier is tied to its ability to maintain connectivity with the rest of Alaska and the world. Plans and discussions about improving transportation links, including upgrades to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, are ongoing. These improvements are crucial for the town’s economic growth and the well-being of its residents.
Like many remote communities, Whittier is looking towards technology to reduce its isolation. Internet connectivity and telecommunication services are essential for education, healthcare, and business. As technology improves, residents hope it will bring new opportunities and ease some of the challenges of living in such a remote location.
Whittier, Alaska, is more than just a small, isolated town; it’s a community that exemplifies the strength and resilience required to thrive in one of the most challenging environments on Earth. Its unique history, combined with the stunning natural beauty of its surroundings, makes Whittier a fascinating place. The town’s ability to adapt and maintain a close-knit community spirit, despite the odds, is a testament to the human capacity for adaptation and survival. As Whittier continues to evolve, it remains a symbol of resilience and a reminder of the delicate balance between humans and the natural world.