Valdez is the most important city in Alaska. Of all the places we visited in Alaska, Valdez is my favorite. Of course, that is just my opinion and it is viewed from my perspective. I think that if you don’t visit Valdez when you are in Alaska it is a big mistake.
We have a split opinion. Tami liked Homer a little better than Valdez. I liked the entire Kenai Peninsula including Homer, Seward, and Whittier. But if I were to pick one location to visit again, and only one location then Valdez would be the place.
Seward had the very best campground that we stayed at in Alaska. It was right on the water with a view of the bay and when the clouds parted we could see the mountains across the bay. Every day we would watch the tide rise and fall. Plus Seward was on the Kenai Peninsula and I loved everything about the Kenai Peninsula. Here are a couple of links in case you missed my previous stories about these wonderful places. Kenai Peninsula, Homer, Whittier, Seward
While I really enjoyed our campground in Seward, really, I really hated our campgrounds in both Homer and Valdez. Both were noisy. The campground in Homer was especially tight. If we were ever to go back we now know much better places to stay. In Valdez, we might as well have parked in the parking lot at Safeway. In fact, we were almost parked in the back parking lot at Safeway. Every night the generators for the refrigeration trucks would cycle on and off waking us up.
Our Route to Valdez
Valdez is a long way away from Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula. To get there we had to climb up the Matanuska Valley on the Glenn Highway and then turn south on the Richardson Highway in Glennallen. The trip was 284 miles and because we don’t like driving long distances in a single day, it took three days. At the first stop, we stayed at Glacier View near the Matanuska Glacier. Here is a link to that story, just in case you missed it. Matanuska Glacier
As you can see by the picture of Sheep Mountain we were driving on a rainy day. The next two days would bring more rain. On the Richardson Highway, and while were were at Valdez we were in for more rain. Valdez, and especially the mountains to the north, get lots of rain (and snowfall in the winter). In fact, the Richardson Highway, north of Valdez, gets more snow than any other road in Alaska.
In 2014, an avalanche north of town, and a little north of the Keystone Canyon, closed the road and dammed up the Lowe River. For days the road to Valdez was closed until the newly formed lake could be drained and 200,000 cubic feet of snow could be removed from the road. Removing the snow took five days with heavy equipment working from both sides of the debris field.
The Keystone Canyon on the Lowe River is the reason that Valdez doesn’t have a train track leading to its ice-free deepwater seaport. Our drive through the Keystone Canyon showed how challenging it would have been to put a train through the canyon. It is steep and has numerous glaciers on both sides of the road. The road was narrow with plenty of curves and steep cliffs. All the waterfall and glacier pictures in this post are in Keystone Canyon.
A train tunnel
While there isn’t a train, there is a train tunnel in the Keystone Canyon. The objective was to put through a train to the Copper River through Keystone Canyon. The Copper River Basin and further north at Fairbanks there was gold and several active gold, silver, and aluminum mines. A train would have been a great way to get easy access to the area to remove the ore.
In 1907 they started digging the tunnel and all work came to a halt after a gunfight between the two rival companies over who would get to build the train from Valdez north to Glennallen and Fairbanks. Now there is an incomplete train tunnel. After the gunfight, they put a stop to the construction. Instead, the train was routed from Kennecott to Cordova. They still don’t have a train or bus service to the area.
The train and tunnel were established as part of a scam by a few steamship operators in the early 1900s who advertised Valdez as the ideal place for gold prospectors to get a quick route to Alaska goldfields. The most used alternative route was through either Nome which was much harder for the steamships or via a trip through Canada on the Klondike trail. The Klondike trail already had a bad reputation.
Gold miners soon discovered that they were in Valdez, with no other options than to hike twice as far through even steeper terrain than they would have had they took the boat to Nome or even if they took the Klondike trail. Due to a lack of supplies in Valdez, many would-be gold seekers never made it to the gold fields and instead died trying.
The miners who did make it to the gold fields discovered quickly that they were too late to actually bring home any riches. Many of the miners instead worked on building roads until they made enough money to get back to the lower 48 states. The miners who stayed in Alaska are now remembered as some of the “first” Alaskans.
Wasn’t Valdez Russian?
How did it get that Spanish-sounding name? Well, Valdez was Russian until the purchase of Alaska from the Russians along with the rest of Alaska. Valdez was first discovered by the Spanish thus the Spanish name. In 1970 Salvador Fidalgo y Lopegarcía on a mission from the Spanish king to explore the west coast of North America and whenever possible Fidalgo planted crosses indicating that he was the first European to claim the newly found territory for Spain.
Spain, after claiming nearly the entire west coast of what is now the United States and Canada didn’t make any moves to actually occupy the new territories. Quickly the Russians moved in and established trading posts. By occupation rather than a mere claim, the Russians became the governors of Alaska.
By 1799 Russia claimed all of Alaska even though they only had a few trading posts at key locations. That lasted until 1867 when the United States purchased Alaska from the Russians. Here is a link to my story about how that happened. Russia Sold Alaska
Valdez is an all-new city
When the 1964 Alaska earthquake hit Alaska, Valdez was destroyed. The old city was built in the Lowe River Valley closer to where the river exited Keystone Canyon. The entire city was built on sand and loosely compacted soil deposited by repeated glaciers. The entire town was ruined. A few standing houses were moved about four miles to a hillside further west.
Now the city is on higher ground to the west of the old city site. Three years later, with the new city site established they burned the entire old city site to the ground. You can follow the signs to the old city site and the report is that there is nothing there to look at.
The end of the pipe
Until our visit to Valdez, the only things I knew about Valdez were that it had a large commercial fish processing plant and that Valdez was destroyed by the oil leak from the Exxon Valdez tanker. Only the fish part of the story was true. Valdez is a wonderful place to fish and has a huge fish processing facility.
Valdez is the southern terminal for the Alaska Oil Pipeline. Through the Alaska Oil Pipeline oil is pumped all the way across Alaska from the north shore all the way to the southern shore. The Exxon Valdez was filled with oil from the terminal. As everyone knows the Exxon Valdez ran aground soon after it left the terminal. However, no oil from the spill ever reached the shore at Valdez.
The Exxon Valdez ran aground 25 miles to the south of Vadez and by luck, it was just far enough away to protect Valdez from the oil damage. The damage to much of the coastline south of Valdez was devastating. Valdez however was at the center of the cleanup effort.
Why is Valdez the most important city in Alaska?
For me, it was all about the beauty and all the fun I had there but historically Valdez had more going for it since and before it was purchased. If Valdez had just gotten that train it would have been dominate. Without the train, Valdez still did pretty well including being the home to the first governor of Alaska. There is that little thing about that oil pipeline and terminal. The capacity of the pipeline is two million barrels of oil per day. It usually runs at a much lower rate. Oil from the pipeline still funds the Alaska Permanent Fund where instead of state taxes, Alaska sends out checks every year to its residents.
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