Whittier’s Fascinating History
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
The Beginnings of Prince William Sound Museum
Cities usually don’t just ‘pop’ out of nowhere in the Alaska wilderness. Yet, in 1941, Whittier did. Since WWII, Whittier has experienced a number of dramatic changes as it has developed into the small city it is today.
Prince William Sound Museum (PWS Museum) deftly documents the history of Whittier’s growth through photo-laden exhibits with artifacts and concise descriptions explaining important past moments. Tucked in the grocery store building next to Anchor Inn, the small museum offers visitors a self-guided tour about major moments in local and regional history.
Executive Director Ted Spencer is museum’s curator, and in a phone interview explained why the museum was needed.
“It’s quite a story,” Spencer said. “It’s one of the great communities in Alaska in the modern times. It’s one of two communities that were created as a result of WWII. There have been a lot of misconceptions of the history in the tunnel and how the buildings came to be. I found that even the residents didn’t have an accurate picture of it.”
PWS Museum began in April 2003 when a group of Whittier residents incorporated as a non-profit. Sue Cogswell, Prince William Sound Economic Development District Executive Director, asked Spencer to write a grant through Denali Commission for the museum idea and to design a program for the same. After the grant was approved, Spencer was asked to build exhibits for PWS Museum.
The Shen family gave the project considerable support, including donating a storage room in the grocery store building to house the museum. The family’s generosity helps document and preserve Whittier’s history for the present and future, giving residents and visitors an understanding of how the city originated.
“My role has been to define the heritage of the place so that people appreciate the background,” Spencer said. “The place was built by a hearty group of almost stereotype Alaskan pioneers – tough, rough people who, twenty-four seven, worked under all kinds of conditions, undaunted by weather to create something.”
A Brief History of Whittier
The earliest inhabitants were Alaska Natives. Passage Canal was an important place because it gave access to Portage Pass, Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet. Mapping of Prince William Sound began in the 1700s by Spanish, Russian and British navies. In 1898, Lt. Castner’s Alaskan Expedition was the U.S. military’s venture to explore and map the territory.
With U.S. entry into WWII looming, the military was in search of a deep-water port that was ice-free year round. Whittier was chosen. That led to tunnel construction beginning in the summer of 1941. Workers lived in a tent city where supplies and construction materials were brought by barges. Then the Alaska Railroad yard began in 1942.
After WWII ended, the military pulled out. Spencer said Whittier’s many wood buildings became somewhat obsolete. The only cement building was the radio/communications building, which is now Anchor Inn. Then the Cold War with the Soviet Union began in 1948 with Berlin airlift, causing the military to return with a heavy-duty construction plan.”
“That’s how all of the massive buildings that dominate Whittier today came to be,” Spencer said.
The military pulled out in July 1960 and bulldozed all the wooden buildings, leaving the cement ones standing. Again, Whittier was left nearly a ghost town, Spencer said. The population was pretty small, but there were docks and a rail yard.
Gradually people began moving to Whittier and created a local government that incorporated as a city in 1969. In Sept. 1973, Whittier purchased government owned structures from the General Services Administration for $200,000. Whittier sold off buildings, like the Buckner Building, to raise money for the new city.
When Spencer first came to Whittier, very few knew Begich Towers used to be called the Hodge Building, and the ones who knew the name Hodge did not know who he was. As a result, Spencer conducted years of research. He contacted pioneers and veterans before they passed away and received photos, interviews and oral histories.
Two New Exhibits
Spencer’s research continues, which has led to two new exhibits about the tunnel opening in the past month. A big breakthrough occurred after he contacted the heirs of Anton Anderson, who played a major role in the tunnel’s construction and eventually had it named after him. Anderson’s family had his personal diaries and loaned Spencer the volumes from 1941-42. Anderson’s entries correlate with other people’s accounts and photos to indicate what happened as Whittier developed.
The military gave considerable support to build the tunnel, but West Construction built it with a civilian workforce.
“They worked under contract with the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers,” Spencer said. “They provided the specs, the money, materials and supervision for the work. They were the client and West Construction was the contractor.”
More history was discovered about the early days of building the tunnel when Spencer received an unexpected recording from Lois Shrode. She is the daughter of Jack Shrode, who was in West Construction’s leadership. He had a big photo collection on video with an audio track narrating the photos and their significance before he passed away. This exciting discovery added new information to what Spencer already had.
“It was an incredible find,” Spencer said. “It was like King Tut’s tomb to me. It yielded so much information and insight into the various events. I could correlate it with Anton Anderson’s diary and other pictures that I had.”
With Whittier’s varied and exciting past, Spencer is optimistic about what it suggests for its future.
“It’s going to become a major community. They have the cruise ships coming in there, so it brings people from all over the world. We have a registry in the museum. There’s no corner of the globe that hasn’t been represented in our registry over the years.”
History in the Making?
Whittier has long-term project plans that may lead to PWS Museum exhibits in future years. In Whittier’s 2012 Comprehensive Plan Update, which is currently undergoing revision, a prominent future goal was working to complete Shotgun Cove Road, which is being done in stages as funding allows. Having the road in place will lead to land access and new housing construction. Building a marina in Shotgun Cove is stated as a necessary future goal.
The city is still searching for a solution for the decaying, fenced Buckner Building, a site laden with asbestos and lead paint. According to Spencer, Whittier acquired the Buckner Building after its owners failed to pay taxes. A number of previous studies provided cost-prohibitive demolition estimates.
In March 2016, the Air National Guard’s Innovative Readiness Training program accepted a proposal by Whittier to conduct training exercises in the Buckner Building and give it a new structural analysis and demolition estimate. If the cost is feasible and the demolition carried out, it would open up developable land sometime in the future.
However, Spencer has a different view. He takes issue with the previous assessments, saying they are inadequate and that the Buckner Building can be rehabilitated. He conceded that if the new report indicated the cement and rebar is too deteriorated, then the building must be torn down.
Spencer said he is drawn to Whittier’s people and surroundings. What intrigues him most is the incongruous contrast of massive buildings situated in the middle of wilderness, which he describes as unusual.
“It’s surrounded by this beautiful Alaskan wilderness filled with wildlife,” Spencer said. “I find it to be idyllic. From hiking to kayaking, glacier tours or fishing, people need to investigate all of the amenities here. It’s a great place for people to interface with Alaska.”
Prince William Sound Museum
100 Whittier St, Whittier, AK
Open every day of the year, including holidays
Summer – 9 a.m.-9 p.m.
Winter – 11 a.m.-8 p.m.
The photographs in this article were taken by S. “Jack” Shrode using an Argus C3 35mm camera. The originals are mostly 2 1/4″ x 2 1/4″ and 3 1/2″ X 4 1/2″ snapshots on fiber base paper. They are presented here courtesy of the Lois Shrode family.