Tunnel town - Whittier, Alaska
April 14, 2008 7:06 PM   Subscribe

Imagine living in a town, total population 182, further imagine that you and just about all of your neighbors live in just one building.

How about if your town recieved no direct sunlight from November to February every year?

That town, would of course be Whittier, Alaska. Set up as an additional warm water port on northern US soil after the Japanese invasion of the Aleutian Islands during WWII. Even though most of the residents live together in one building, it's not even the biggest building in town. That of course would be the Buckner building, once the largest building in Alaska.
Though Whittier is only 60 miles from Anchorage and over half a century old, there was no access by automobile until 2000. Now you can easily drive to Whittier...so long as you know the particular times of the day when the 2+ mile single track train tunnel is open to auto traffic
posted by Rafaelloello (24 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Wow. The comment from the mother of the deceased in the second linked article is interesting. Yay, internet?
posted by youcancallmeal at 7:37 PM on April 14, 2008 [4 favorites]

Where Whittier is.

Interesting post. Thanks!
posted by rtha at 7:49 PM on April 14, 2008

satellite photo
posted by desjardins at 7:57 PM on April 14, 2008

Neat. I thought my hometown was insular.

I love that Whittierites seem to recognize the irony of their government-planned, anti-communist existence.

With a seascape like that, and its proximity to anchorage, surely somebody could set up a pretty sweet resort / ecotourism base there.
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:01 PM on April 14, 2008

Hey,what does that kokogiak fellow know about Alaska, anyway? He's in Natick, for cryin' out loud!
posted by yhbc at 8:01 PM on April 14, 2008

A town similar to this one exists in Quebec about 20 km from where I once lived as a kid.

Fermont, Quebec

My family lived in Labrador City where we prayed year-long for the 2-week period between the arctic temperatures and the return of the blackfly swarms. With the wind-chill, temperatures would often plummet to -60 degrees celsius over the course of the winter and the town was at such a high latitude that the sun would set around 3:00pm at the hight of winter.

How we envied those lucky francophones in Fermont, with their fancy stores and futuristic city.

Thanks (I think) for the memories Rafaelloello.
posted by talkingmuffin at 8:10 PM on April 14, 2008

The Wikipedia page on Whittier is pretty funny, particularly the demographics section. As of the 2000 census, there are/were exactly 2 Hispanic/Latino people living in Whittier! And there are 111.6 males for every 100 females ... but don't think about that statistical conceit too hard, given that the population is less than 200.

I'm quite struck by the median income disparity between men and women. At a guess, I would imagine that's because most jobs in the town are blue-collar, and most blue-collar jobs are still much more gendered than white-collar ones (with traditionally "male" jobs having higher salaries than "female" jobs). And the population is so small that even a few women going on maternity leave (with attendant career impact) or staying at home drastically affects the numbers? I don't know, the difference still seems pretty incredible. We need a statistician here, stat!
posted by bettafish at 8:12 PM on April 14, 2008

Thanks for the Fermont link, talkingmuffin. At first I thought everyone lived inside that water tower or whatever that big cylinder is that says "FERMONT". Here is a good aerial picture of the Fermont windscreen.
posted by Rafaelloello at 8:24 PM on April 14, 2008

I'm quite struck by the median income disparity between men and women

I couldn't find some of the articles I read a few years ago when I first heard about Whittier. One of them said that the primary winter employment is snow-shoveling, particularly shoveling off the decks of the boats owned by affluent Anchorage-ites. I read one account where some boat owner wasn't paying his shovelers so they stopped shoveling and the vessel sank under the weight of the snow.
posted by Rafaelloello at 8:28 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

Finally found one of the great Whittier articles I was looking for.
posted by Rafaelloello at 8:43 PM on April 14, 2008

I was there a few years ago. Rode the train from Anchorage through the tunnel. It is an amazing view when you come out of the Whittier side of the tunnel. This is one beautiful seaport. Spent the day walking around the village, had a great lunch, then hopped aboard the boat that would take us around Prince William Sound for the next four days. Wonderful.
posted by netbros at 8:45 PM on April 14, 2008

Here's some pics of that part of the trip.
posted by netbros at 8:55 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

satellite photo

You can tell where the Buckner building is in that photo by the MASSIVE SHADOW it casts. That's crazy.
posted by GuyZero at 9:23 PM on April 14, 2008

Looks like it was a beautiful trip, netbros - great photos. Thanks!
posted by rtha at 9:26 PM on April 14, 2008

I poked in the windows of the Buckner building and took some pics a few years ago. It's a little spooky. You can see them here and here. There are also some pics of the harbor here.
posted by Addlepated at 10:08 PM on April 14, 2008 [1 favorite]

I love that Whittierites seem to recognize the irony of their government-planned, anti-communist existence.

It is funny. My first thought was that the Begich Towers (presumably this Begich) is not just strikingly similar to a Soviet apartment building, but has a Russian-sounding name to boot.
posted by dhartung at 11:49 PM on April 14, 2008

Neat post.

One of the more surreal moments in my life came when I camped out in Whittier. My girlfriend and I were exhausted. We started off the gloomy day sea-kayaking around the bay (one of the deepest around, IIRC) and then hiked all day, up to the Portage Glacier and down again, out past the old building and up the switchback dirt road to where there's a neat little fishing spot if the tide is high and the silvers are running. We were even more tired after getting back to camp (little more than a grassy gravel parking lot with some open shelters in the shadow of the new building) and finding that our tent had nearly blown away because of the persistent wind off the mountain behind us.
We're exhausted, dead beat and still having trouble falling asleep because it's 10 at night but the sky says it's only late afternoon. So we squint against the light and eventually go out, except I wake up later that night and have to pee. When I step out of the tent, I'm immediately confused because the whole place is brighter then when I started sleeping. The low cloud cover that's been pouring over the mountain all day has settled above us and instead of the satiny dark sky I'm used to seeing, it's pitch black, like looking up at a black ceiling in a dimly lit room. The only light is coming from over my shoulders, so I turn around and see the biggest thing I've ever seen in my life.
It's huge. Gigantic. So big I need to twist my head to see all of it. And it's lit up like a Christmas tree. Running lights in dotted yellow line are the primary feature. Graceful arcs of white lights frame the top. The impression of size is unmistakable, it pushes on me like a weight. It LOOMS.
I have no idea what it is. The whole area is quiet, there's no sound which makes the whole thing even eerier . You'd think something that large would make a serious racket approaching. The only thing I can think of is that it's some alien spacecraft, come to collect me.
This has taken maybe 20 seconds. The sense of scale, the weight of the clouds, the alien appearance, the uncany-ness of being the only person to witness whatever is going on -- all of these collide with my grogginess and poor eyesite and completely floor me. I'm totally unpredarec to deal with this magnitude and I feel helpless as a bird mesmerized by a GIANT GLOWING SNAKE THAT CAME OUT OF NOWHERE!
Until I realize that it's just one of the cruise ships, the kind netbros mentioned, that has sidled up to the dock and will be swamping the town and the state with tourists soon enough.
I shot some video that night, after I realized what it was I was seeing. I feel foolish every time I think about it but in my head, the sense of amazement is still palpable. My girlfriend, the next morning, was taken aback and woke me up to point it out. We needed to break camp fast and queue for the tunnel (there's only two ways practical land ways into town and they both share the same tunnel, just not at the same time) or be stuck in Whittier for another fews hours. While we waited, I showed her the video I took in the middle of the night. She agreed it looked like a spaceship.
In the tunnel on our way out and back to Anchorage and then Denali, it was as dark as we experience that trip.
posted by now i'm piste at 1:06 AM on April 15, 2008 [5 favorites]

The cruise ship I was on was just a small boat with 70 passengers. Hardly enough to swamp the town and state with tourists. But it sounds like you and your girlfriend had a grand day in Whittier.
posted by netbros at 3:38 AM on April 15, 2008

Good old Whittier, I love that weird little place.

I decided to write that book about it in the late 1990s, when I was a tour guide based in Anchorage. Back then, the train tunnel didn't have a road, and we often had to drive buses full of passengers to Whittier from Anchorage to get on cruise ships. There is no training for driving a bus onto a flatbed rail car - you just do it. I remember being terrified, my first time was in a dark driving sleet storm and I literally could not see the edge of the platform, but thankfully guessed right. On getting to the other side, everyone on the bus was fascinated, amazed at the beautiful scenery and the massive, ugly, monolithic buildings - "what is this place"? they all asked me, and I had very little idea, just a paragraph of glossed-over history from my tour company. I looked for more history and found very little - in bits and pieces, and so made it my mission to write a book.

It took several years, I had to write, illustrate, layout, pay to self-publish, self-promote and self-distribute the thing, but it has turned out to be mildly profitable. I just get a royalty these days, but it probably sells about 1,000 copies a year (maybe 10,000 copies sold since first publishing). I don't write books anymore, but wouldn't trade the experience for anything. Thanks for the post, Rafaelloello - it brought back some good memories.
posted by kokogiak at 6:52 AM on April 15, 2008 [10 favorites]

Imagine living in a town, total population 182, further imagine that you and just about all of your neighbors live in just one building.

Imagine my nervous breakdown.
posted by Foosnark at 9:10 AM on April 15, 2008

The book Braving Home has a great chapter on Whittier (and some other extreme locations in the US)
posted by quartzcity at 1:23 PM on April 15, 2008

And then imagine Barack Obama coming along and telling you that you are clinging to this one building because...wait - wrong thread....
posted by Rashomon at 1:42 PM on April 15, 2008

I was just getting wonderfully lulled by this gorgeous post and comments and photographs and -really - the splendor of it all - and thinking how true poetry lurks in the spirit and memory of these oddball places...then Foosnark's one liner totally cracked me up!

(Even so - really terrific post & thanks).
posted by Jody Tresidder at 1:56 PM on April 15, 2008

from the Whittier webcam, there looks to be a lot of snow on the ground. The webcam page also notes that "Whittier has no direct sunlight from Nov to Feb as the sun does not rise above the mountain behind us," presumably to remind anyone who thinks the webcam is broken during those months. Speaking of webcams, is there like a contest to find the most remote webcam on the planet? I would not be surprised if there's one running from some place that make Whittier look downright cosmopolitan by comparison.
posted by ornate insect at 4:05 PM on April 15, 2008

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