What We Talk About When We Talk About Whittier

WhittierAlaskaSkyline

The music of whose liquid lip
Had been to us companionship,
And, in our lonely life, had grown
To have an almost human tone.

Shut in from all the world without,
We sat the clean-winged hearth about,
Content to let the north-wind roar
In baffled rage at pane and door.

–John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-Bound

An hour south of Anchorage, Alaska, on the shore of Prince William Sound, is the town of Whittier: population 200. Its only road access is a one-lane highway, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, a 2.5 mile pass that changes direction every thirty minutes and closes each night at 10 pm sharp, 5 pm during the winter. Cars and trains share access. There’s also an airport, with a single gravel-laid runway, but it’s not maintained in winter. If you want to visit, your best bet is by boat; its port remains ice-free all winter long.

The city is named for American poet John Greenleaf Whittier, one of the New England “Fireside Poets” (see also Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes), whose poems were meant to be read, supposedly fireside, by families of commoners. In 1866 he published his long form poem Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl to acclaim and financial success. Though it’s unlikely this Massachusetts-born poet ever visited Alaska—the state wasn’t settled until the 1890s when the gold rush brought miners out West, and wasn’t granted territorial status until 1912, statehood until 1959—his poems recalling New England winters must have felt familiar to those living in Whittier. His accounts of being snowbound may even have caused the town’s residents to shake their heads and laugh; in this most Northwestern tip of the country, there is an average of nine feet of snow each year, with temperatures hovering around -20° F and wind gusts up to 80 mph.

For such a world and such a night
Most fitting that unwarming light,
Which only seemed where’er it fell
To make the coldness visible.

Winter in Whittier begins in October, as the winds begin to howl and the snow to fall, and doesn’t end until May, when oddly the winter spell breaks and the town’s port on Prince William Sound becomes a popular cruise ship destination. The city floods with tourists in the summer, who stay in either the two-floor bed and breakfast in the Begich Towers, where each room comes equipped with binoculars for spotting breaching whales, or The Anchor Inn, which owns bragging rights to being the only year-round bar and restaurant. Coming from a tourist town myself—Falmouth, Massachusetts, one of the first Cape Cod towns visiting cars hit coming over the Bourne Bridge—I understand the strangeness of a swollen summer town, the subsequent emptiness and quiet of Main Street shops shuttered after Labor Day, but in a town of 200, it must feel that much more strange. Life is turned inside out, like in a kaleidoscope—a new world of colors and shapes bright and foreign against the former backdrop of dull white and faces as recognizable as one’s own.

The old familiar sights of ours
Took marvelous shapes; strange domes and towers.

The two largest buildings in Whittier—which were once also the largest buildings in Alaska—went up simultaneously in the late 1950s: the Begich Towers, which came into use later, and the Buckner Building. The Buckner Building was completed in 1953 and was designed to be a fully operational military building, with an auditorium, gym, hospital, rifle range—even a bowling alley. It was built to withstand all manner of natural and manmade disasters: nuclear attacks, bombs, howling winds, earthquakes.

The hope was that, if need be, the 1,000 stationed troops might never have to leave.

In case of an emergency on Cape Cod, like a hurricane, there’s a plan in place to close the two bridges providing access to the peninsula. After 9/11, I remember talk about shutting down the bridges in the case of a terrorist attack, too. The plan is meant to keep Cape Cod residents safe, but I remember thinking it sounded more terrifying than comforting—as if, rather than protect us, Massachusetts would cast us off, letting us fend for ourselves. It hasn’t happened yet, but sometimes when I drive across the bridge to head home, or find myself stuck on it in summer traffic, straddling the canal, I imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have the option to leave.

In 1960 the U.S. government closed Whittier’s military port, and with it, Buckner Building. Its only action seen was during the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake, in which the concrete-fortified building was rattled but remained standing. Today it has been mostly turned over to nature, and the images are haunting: faded velvet movie theater seats, occasional bears sniffing their way across the abandoned tundra, the one brave (or maybe stupid?) skier who cut a trail through the building in the name of a viral video.

The closing of Buckner Building did not mean the end of Whittier, however; instead its hearty residents packed up and moved to the city’s other World War II-era building: the Begich Towers.

We felt the stir of hall and street,
The pulse of life that rounds us beat.

Of the approximately 200 year-round residents in Whittier, 180 of them reside in the Begich Towers (BTI), nee Hodge Building—the so-called “City Under One Roof,” which first opened in 1957. The fourteen-story building is commercially zoned on the first and fourteenth floors, which belong to various local businesses, a bed and breakfast, and the police department. Sandwiched between these two floors are twelve stories of two- and three-bedroom apartments, as well as a handful of bachelor efficiency units. There’s even an underground tunnel to connect the condominium building to the Whittier School, so its thirty-five students can make their daily commute despite the several foot-high snowdrifts outside. Most people don’t leave the towers during Whittier’s seven months of winter. They don’t have to; everything they need, everyone they need, is under one roof.

Writer Erin Sheehy and photographer Reed Young traveled to Whittier in 2012 for their report “Town Hall,” which ran in the California Sunday Magazine. They roamed the BTI’s halls, where residents dress in pajamas and move between home and market, post office and Laundromat. There’s a health clinic, but no hospital; you have to travel out of town via tunnel for that, which due to closures at night, requires a police officer to move ahead of the ambulance, unlocking each gate until 2.5 miles later, the patient is released onto the other side of the world.

We tread the paths their feet have worn,
         We sit beneath their orchard trees,
         We hear, like them, the hum of bees.

Most of this strange town’s residents are descendants of the military personnel stationed at the old base. For those who have never known any place different, Whittier is home, and living beneath the same roof as all of one’s neighbors is the norm; a 200-person family. Remembering my own college experience living in a dorm and then apartment with seven other girls, I imagine Whittier feels similarly claustrophobic; there’s the woman who hogs the Laundromat’s washers, the next-door neighbors whose loud sex sounds more like mating moose than people, the old man who works out at the gym in his jeans and Crocs. Imagine seeing the same 200 people every day; imagine living indoors for seven months, the only air you breathe the recycled stuff you share with everyone else. I graduated from a high school of approximately 1,000 students and by the end of four years, those faces felt all too recognizable. How do people date, marry, have children, with only so many options? Does it occur to any of them that they might be missing out?

I went to college in Boston, a little over an hour’s drive from home, and I lived there for several years after graduating, working various jobs across the city. When I decided to move to Spokane for graduate school, people were shocked. It felt a little like I was leaving my people, which of course I was; but I also leaving the Cape, its familiar sandy summers and quiet, drawn-out winters, the pull on its residents to return. I was escaping, it seemed, but from what was unclear. I’ve often felt guilty for wanting to leave the Cape and explore, but what I want to say to everyone who stays is this: how do you know that you a love a place enough to call it home if you never see what else is out there? Over the years, I’ve wondered why it feels like when I left the Cape, I turned my back on it; why it feels like now, the Cape might turn its back on me.

Looking at pictures of Whittier, watching videos of interviews with some of its residents, I wonder if they too are afraid to leave the only place they’ve ever known, for fear it will never really welcome them back.

It is not ours to separate
The tangled skein of will and fate,
To show what metes and bounds should stand
Upon the soul’s debatable land.

In 2013, the city reclaimed possession of the abandoned Buckner Building, a vacant ghost of its Cold War past haunting the small town. Nothing has changed, though, since it closed in 1960. Its windows are still shattered, its walls scrawled with graffiti, inhabited by local flora and fauna instead of its people. The floors are often natural ice rinks, once the spring and summer’s standing water slowly freezes as winter creeps in, like the heavy fog that once made this city on the sound the idea location for covert military operations. Restoring the building is too expensive, and razing it is too dangerous, its walls sticky with asbestos and who knows what else. Several residents hope to see the building returned to its former pre-war glory, which included a pool and movie theater. Did it show current releases, or was the town months, maybe years, behind?

Visitors come and go in Whittier, poking and prodding into the so-called “strangest town in Alaska,” but for locals, each day goes on just like all the others—another trudge to school through the underground tunnels, another traffic change along the Portage Glacier Highway, another shift of changing the sheets and wiping the lenses in each room of the B&B.

What mattered how the night behaved?
What matter how the north-wind raved?
Blow high, blow low, not all its snow
Could quench our hearth-fire’s ruddy glow.
O Time and Change!—with hair as gray
As was my sire’s that winter day,
How strange it seems, with so much gone
Of life and love, to still live on!

2 Comments

  • Fitz says:

    Woah. This is nuts. I’ve never heard of this place. I kind of want to go visit now. Those photos are amazing! And your post is great, too. This part especially: “how do you know that you a love a place enough to call it home if you never see what else is out there?”

  • Casey Guerin Casey Guerin says:

    Thank you! Only in leaving Cape Cod did I realize how much of myself was rooted there. I like to think I’m made up of little bits of all the places I’ve lived.

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