It is beautiful in Whittier

It is beautiful in Whittier

It is beautiful in Whittier (Alaska). I was going to say prettier in Whittier to make it rhyme but resisted the temptation. It is not always beautiful in Whittier, you have to time your visit. First, you need to visit in the summer, and you have to visit on a good day in the summer, even on a rain-free day, you should expect multiple clouds. June, followed by May and July are the driest months. Glacier in Whittier Alaska
Glacier in Whittier Alaska

It is wet in Whitter

Whitter gets lots of rain. Annual precipitation is 196 inches per year. This total includes about twenty feet of snow in the winter. Whitter gets more rain annually than Sitka, Seattle, and Portland COMBINED. Whitter gets more rain annually than Olympic National Park. This is more rain than the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park. Forks, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, is famous for being a wet place. Forks Washington rainfall isn’t even close to Whittier in rainfall. Sport Fishing Docks in Whittier Alaska
Boats at the Sport Fishing Docks with mountain views in Whittier Alaska

While Whittier isn’t the wettest place in the United States, it is the wettest city in the United States. When I checked with Google and other articles about the “wettest city” the consistent answer was Hilo Hawaii. Whittier gets fifty more inches of rain each year than Hilo Hawaii. The other wetter places are all in Hawaii and don’t have anyone living there. Whittier is hardly a city. All the lists probably skip it because it is hard to call it a city because the entire population lives under one roof… I will discuss this later. Sport Fishing Docks and mountain with glacier and waterfalls in Whittier Alaska
More boats at the Sport Fishing Docks with mountains, snowfields, glaciers and waterfalls in Whittier Alaska

Other rainy places we have visited

Here are some links to really rainy places we have visited during our full-time RV adventure. If you time your visit right, each of these rainy places is beautiful. We had good luck visiting each and were rain free at each location during our visits. I can’t say that about Seattle, Portland, or Sitka.

Lake CrescentHoh Rain ForestKalaloch BeachQuinault Rainforest and Kestner Homestead Glacier in Whittier Alaska
Glacier in Whittier Alaska

We also visited a very beautiful place right next door to Olympic National Park that gets hardly any rain. How could any place near the Olympic National Park be very dry? Here is the story.

Olympic Rain Shadow

It is often windy in Whittier

In the winter, wind from the east is frequently a problem. That includes blowing snow. The answer to frequent blizzards is to not go outside. Not going outside, all winter is a real option because almost everyone lives in the same building.

Begich Tower, Whittier Alaska
Begich Tower in Whittier Alaska, everyone in town lives in this building.

Everyone lives in one building

Begich Towers was built in Whittier when Whitter was a secret Army base in Alaska. In 1960, the Army moved out and left Begich Towers and also Buckner Building abandoned. Begich Towers is occupied, but the Buckner building is abandoned. In 1960, these two buildings were the largest buildings in Alaska. I will get to the story about the Army in Whittier later, but for now, it is enough to say that nearly everyone who lives in Whittier, both summer and winter, lives in Begich Towers.

Buckner Building Whittier Alaska
Buckner Building in Whitter Alaska has been abandoned since the 1964 earthquake.

Begich Towers also has everything a resident needs to live in Whittier, including a grocery store, post office, and even a church. Everything and everyone is under one roof, except the school. The school is next door and connected to the Begich building by a tunnel. It is very possible to live in Whittier, all winter long, without ever going outside. Glacier and waterfall in Whittier Alaska
Glacier and waterfall in Whittier Alaska

Begich Towers is a building that was rebuilt after the Army left and then divided into condominiums. The condo owners own the building. Begich Towers does have a few leftover problems based on being built to military standards in the 1950s. Some of these systems are not really all that easy to live with. Some of these problems include issues with heating, electricity, and of course, the sewer system. Glacier and waterfall in Whittier Alaska
Glacier and waterfalls in Whittier Alaska

When the Army built the building (and the town in the 1950s), a central steam heating plant was included for the entire Fort. The heating plant was not near Begich Towers. One problem with the design was that the heat would go out in the winter. Because the heat transfer lines, filled with condensed water, would freeze, not allowing water to make it back to the steam plant. Glacier and waterfall in Whittier Alaska
Snowfields and waterfalls in Whittier Alaska

A dark, snowy, cloud-covered winter

The reason the Army chose to build a secret army base at Whittier was associated with the deep water ice-free port and plenty of poor weather. The Army was counting on the poor weather for the longest part of each year to keep it safe from the enemy, which at that time was Japan, then after that, the Soviet Union. Most of the population of Alaska lived in or near Anchorage but Anchorage doesn’t have an ice-free port. Whittier is the closest ice-free port to Anchorage. Docks and Cruise Ship Terminal and waterfall in Whittier Alaska
The Inn at Whittier in the foreground, with the Boats and Cruise Ship Terminal and waterfall in Whittier Alaska

Created by a Glacier

Whittier was created by the Whittier Glacier which still hangs over the town and creates the waterfalls in the pictures. The glacier also carved the long fiord called the Passage Canal. This fiord leads from Prince William Sound to the ice-free port in Whittier. Glacier and waterfall in Whittier Alaska
Snowfields and waterfalls in Whittier Alaska

Appropriately the town was named after the glacier. The glacier was named after a poet who wrote the poem titled “Snow-bound: A Winter Idyl”. Snow-bound sounds just like Whittier. Whittier, prior to the Army, was frequently snow-bound. Portage Pass leading to Anchorage, was often closed for extended periods, and needed to have the snow cleared. The Army fixed that with a train tunnel going to Anchorage and the rest of Alaska. Waterfall in Whittier Alaska
Waterfall in Whittier Alaska

The train needed a tunnel

To make the connection between Whittier and the rest of Alaska, there was only one acceptable answer. Trains climbing mountains need lots of room. Everything above Whittier, near Portage Pass was a glacier. Glaciers are rivers of moving ice. You can’t build a train track on something that moves, even if it moves very slowly. Train tracks need to have a stable base. Glacier and waterfalls in Whittier Alaska
Glacier and waterfalls in Whittier Alaska

So instead of trying to cross the glacier, the Army engineers decided that two tunnels under the mountain, below the glacier, would be the only way to connect Whittier to the rest of Alaska. Everything needed for the defense of Alaska could be offloaded from ships, and transferred by train, to the rest of Alaska. The westmost tunnel under the mountain, was one mile long and called the Portage Tunnel. This tunnel was named after the Portage Glacier. The Portage Glacier carved the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet. Waterfall in Whittier Alaska
Waterfall in Whittier Alaska

A side note is that both the Cook Inlet and the Turnagain Arm ,were named by Captain James Cook, who after failing to find the northwest passage turned south and eventually also found Hawaii and the Cook Islands. During that cruise, Cook sailed the cold waters of Alaska looking for the Northwest Passage. Incidentally, Cook also named Prince William Sound and even the Bering Sea west of Alaska, but never found the Northwest Passage. You can’t find something that doesn’t exist. Glacier in Whittier Alaska
Glacier in Whittier Alaska

The longest tunnel in the United States

The second tunnel, called the Whittier Tunnel, is more than two and a half miles long and originally only designed to be used for trains. Use for both trains and motor vehicle tunnels started in 1998 and included a name change to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.

Entrance to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
Entrance to the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel from the east side.

In 2000, the tunnel was then opened to private vehicles. Combining both the trains and the motor vehicles in the same tunnel (not at the same time) makes the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel the longest motor vehicle tunnel in the United States. There are several train only tunnels that are longer.

Exiting the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel
Exiting the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. notice the wet wood and train tracks.

Driving through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel is a little weird because you drive with your tires crossing the slick steel rails and then onto wet wood on both sides of the rails. The rails help steer your vehicle.

Secret World War II and Cold War Army base

Without the Army and the tunnel built to hook Whittier to the rest of Alaska, Whittier would be nothing more than an isolated fishing harbor on Prince William Sound. The Whittier tunnel was built by the Army Corps of Engineers starting in 1941. They started building the tunnel one month before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Soldiers heading for Whittier were outfitted for tropical climates, until they were stopped along the way and issued cold weather gear. They were not told their destination. Most of the soldiers were not even told the code name (H-12) for their destination. Glacier in Whittier Alaska
Glacier in Whittier Alaska

On the west coast, the soldiers boarded a ship full of construction equipment. They did not know that they were going to Alaska. Soldiers that knew about celestial navigation (stars) couldn’t even determine their location, because the stars were behind the clouds. They arrived in November 1941. As far as they knew they were in Russia. The only thing they knew was they were in a cold, dark fishing village. They didn’t even know their mission. Since their specialty was construction they assumed they were there to build something. Passage Canal and Glacier in Whittier Alaska
Passage Canal and Glacier in Whittier Alaska

Alaska was treated as a foreign war zone

All mail was censored and mail with any reference to their location was discarded. There was no personal uncensored mail. No personal photographs were allowed. Presumably, the soldiers were not even allowed to mention the weather or the cold. Passage Canal and glacier in Whittier Alaska
Passage Canal and Glacier in Whittier Alaska

Discussions about what they were doing was forbidden. I am guessing the only thing they were allowed to talk about was the notoriously bad Army food. Everyone knows about bad Army food, so this wasn’t anything that could give away their location or mission. Waterfall in Whittier Alaska
Waterfalls in Whittier Alaska

The few residents of Whittier, before the soldiers arrived, were packed on ships and removed from the area. When the soldiers arrived they found an undeveloped empty fishing village. Passage Canal and glacier in Whittier Alaska
Passage Canal and Glacier in Whittier Alaska

After setting up camp, they first built a dock big enough to handle bigger ships. Then more shiploads of construction equipment arrived. Less than one year later, the soldiers had dug a tunnel two and a half miles under Maynard Mountain. Somewhere, either between the two tunnels or perhaps under the mountain, the westbound diggers from Whittier connected with the eastbound diggers from Anchorage. It took a full year to dig the tunnel suitable for foot traffic. Two years after they started they had a train tunnel, including a full train switching yard in Whittier. Sport Fishing Docks and mountain with glacier in Whittier Alaska
Boats at the Sport Fishing Docks and mountain with glacier in Whittier Alaska

A secret Army base turned into rubble

Actually, the Army abandoned Whittier completely in 1960. In 1959, Whittier had the two largest buildings in Alaska. The building closest to the port and railyard was the above-mentioned Begich Tower. The other building (the Buckner building) is still there and is still abandoned. Both buildings and nearly everything the Army built, were either damaged or destroyed, and washed into the sea during the tsunami associated with the Alaska 1964 earthquake. The tsunami that washed over Whittier was 43 feet tall. Passage Canal Glacier in Whittier Alaska
Passage Canal and Glacier in Whittier Alaska

Rebuilding Whittier

After the tsunami, the Buckner building was declared a total loss, even though several people tried to restore it. The docks and railyard were broken and buried; Begich Tower was seriously damaged. For years, Whittier was an afterthought during the repairs to Alaska. The entire coast of Alaska was destroyed by the earthquake and tsunami, and Whittier was last on the repair list. That changed when Whittier was identified by the cruise ship lines as an ideal place for them to dock and offload passengers. Cruise Ship Terminal in Whittier Alaska
The Inn at Whittier in Whittier Alaska

The biggest change, with serious repairs to Whittier, was associated with cruise ships sailing to Alaska. Cruise ship passengers need connections to airports. Whittier became that place. A great place to get off the boat and onto a train to see the interior of Alaska.

Whittier is a gateway to Prince William Sound

This is the town’s self-proclaimed description. The essence of the description is true for most visitors. The reason that most people come to Whittier is to go somewhere else. Lots of people visit Whittier, but for most people, Whittier is not a destination. Most of the town’s visitors arrive by train. Usually, they arrive at about 6 pm on the train from Anchorage. Then they get off the train and walk to their cruise ship and depart that same evening never visiting the cute little fishing village with one huge building. Alaska Maritime Ferry Whittier Alaska
Alaska Maritime Ferry and Passage Canal docking in Whittier Alaska

We didn’t go to Whittier to go someplace else, instead, we went to Whittier to see Whittier, and I am glad we did. Boat docks and mountains in Whittier Alaska
Boat docks and mountains in Whittier Alaska

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City of Whittier

Whittier Chamber of Commerce

Alaska visitors guide (Whittier)

Wartime Whittier

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10 thoughts on “It is beautiful in Whittier”

  1. Jersey Jack Lyle

    Thanks for the trip update. Whittier has quite a history. Thanks for sharing. Continue to update & have a GREAT time.

  2. We have been there. Took the day cruise from there, it was May & quite windy. The boat had to turn back before we got in the Gulf of Alaska. It was rocking!

  3. We left our 5th Wheel elsewhere, and visited Whittier for one day. It was cloudy. And it rained off and on. But one does not visit AK with one’s own wheels and not at least drive into Whittier. We found a little restaurant and had some burgers. I sort of wish we had tried a cruise out of there, but it was not to be.

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