To reach Whittier, you’ll have to drive through North America’s longest vehicle tunnel, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. This 2.5 mile tunnel is actually shared by the railroad, so you have to plan the trip just right to get through during the 30 minute intervals its open to vehicle traffic. The World War II-era train tunnel was converted into a unique railroad and vehicle tunnel in 2000.
Upon exiting the tunnel into Whittier, a traveler’s eyes might first fix themselves upon two of the tallest buildings in Alaska. In 1948 the military began construction of the first of two buildings for their military personnel as the Port of Whittier was then recognized as an ice-free, deep-water port strategically located close to Anchorage and Interior Alaska. This remained active until 1960 at which time the total population was 1200.
The 14-story Hodge Building (now Begich Towers) was completed in 1957, and contained 150 two and three bedroom apartments plus bachelor efficiency units. Dependent families and Civil Service employees were moved into this employee housing high rise.
The other structure, the Buckner Building, was completed in 1953, and called the “city under one roof”. Its concept was founded as a solution to long-term support to regional military operations in the Alaska territory, as well as support for the petroleum and rail industries. Buckner was designed to function as a fully-indoor military installation; the complex included an auditorium, a cinema, gymnasium, hospital, library, jail, pool, post exchange (PX), radio station, rifle range, and even a bowling alley. This is similar to how Lone Tree has designed its camps as well. Attending to the need of every individual with an all-inclusive design is what they strive for in locations where there isn’t access to bigger cities and amenities.
On March 27, 1964 the largest earthquake in United States history struck Alaska. The tectonics revealed the second most powerful Richter scale reading ever recorded by a seismograph, registering a 9.2. But the “bomb-proof” Buckner Building survived largely unscathed. Despite sitting unused for the last four years, the structure had remained in better condition post-earthquake than many other area buildings.
Today, less than 300 people reside in the town supporting the Alaska State Ferry, the Alaska Railroad, freight barge, commercial fishing, the Whittier Harbor, recreation and tourism with an annual visiting population of over 700,000. The Begich Building is now a condominium. Together with the 2-story Whittier Manor, Begich Building houses nearly all of Whittier’s residents.