An impossibly long, single-lane tunnel is your only way into Whittier, and your only way out. Make it to the other end of the dimly lit tunnel, and you’ll find all the ingredients of a city. Except instead of a sprawling, urban centre, this town has been scaled to fit almost entirely into one lonely Alaskan tower.
The 4km long tunnel leading into Whittier is never that crowded — it physically can’t be. At about 5m wide, it can only accommodate traffic flowing in one direction at a time. What it empties out into is a smattering of buildings, few of which still serve their original purpose.
The two largest of those are the Buckner Building and the Begich Towers. Both were constructed in the wake of World War II along with the railroad leading in, a combined $US55 million build that gave the military a home base at the very farthest Cold War frontier. Buckner was abandoned just seven years after its completion; the military realised quickly that it didn’t have much use for such a far-flung outpost. Today, it exists as little more than ruin porn.
The Buckner building exterior. You can see the Begich Towers through the window on the lower right. via Jen Kinney.
Begich Towers (or BTI as it’s more commonly known) held on, though. More than that; it essentially became Whittier, housing 75 per cent of the town’s 200 residents and providing nearly all of its municipal essentials. The first floor alone provides most of your basic city functions. The police department behind one door, the post office behind another. Walk a bit further down the hall and you’ll find the city offices as well as the Kozy Korner, your local, neighbourhood supermarket.
A handful of other buildings dot the landscape. A large, military gymnasium now acts as boat storage. There’s an inn or two doubling (quadrupling?) as laundromat, bar, and restaurant. But the big, brightly coloured fortress below is Whittier’s centrepiece, because almost the entirety of Whittier calls it home.
BTI via Jen Kinney.
To get a sense of daily Whittier life, we spoke with Jen Kinney, a writer and photographer who lived in Whittier for several years and became fascinated by a town whose peculiar physical structures have had such a profound effect on its social structures as well.
“This really was the most community-centred place I had ever lived in my life,” Kinney explained over the phone. “But at the same time, because you’re so close to everyone, sometimes you feel really claustrophobic. Other times you feel enormously grateful that they’re there. And still, other times, even when you’re surrounded by all your neighbours, you can feel completely and utterly isolated.”
It’s hard to imagine why anyone might want to stay in such claustrophobic, closed-in Alaskan quarters, which is part of what makes people so fascinated by Whittier in the first place. But take a closer look, and you’ll realise there’s nothing all that extraordinary about how many of Whittier’s residents ended up there. Or why they stayed.
Back to that tunnel. Computers dictate the timing of the car and railway schedule, but a human still has to be on call at all times. After all, in the case of an emergency, you don’t want to take any chances on what could literally be your only path to help.
Once a year, pedestrians are allowed to walk through Whittier Tunnel, via Jen Kinney.
The abandoned Buckner building (left) and currently occupied Begich Towers (right) via Travis/Flickr.
The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel (or as it’s more commonly known, Whittier Tunnel) was built in 1943 and was first designed with trains in mind. The tracks would carry supplies from the protected, deep-water base of Whittier and away into Bear Valley. Over 60 years later, the space carved through through Maynard Mountain is still the longest highway tunnel in North America.
Train exiting the tunnel on its way out of Whittier via NAParish/Flickr.
Once the military pulled out and handed the little inlet over to civilians in the 1960s, though, the long, lonely entrance needed a makeover to match. A fresh coat of concrete brought the rails flush with the road, allowing cars and trains to commingle in peace. To help stave off the anticipated claustrophobia, so-called “safe houses” were thrown in at various intervals, so if disaster did strike, anyone unlucky enough to be caught mid-trip could bunker down somewhere (slightly) safer.
But caving-in isn’t the only worry in a tunnel of that size. The single entry and exit points mean all that exhaust doesn’t have a whole lot of places to go. Which is why actual jet engines at both ends constantly pump new air through the tunnel in the direction of traffic. That way, if anything in the tunnel ever were to ignite, the flames would get blown behind the cars on their way out — and not back into oncoming traffic.
Those are the worst-case scenarios, though. On a daily basis, concerns mostly centre around regulating the flow of traffic — which is a complicated enough task in its own right thanks to that lonely, single lane. Cars heading into Whittier get a chance to enter every half hour, while those exiting can enter the tunnel on the hour. The addition of the occasional train makes it a complicated little dance, one that’s been farmed out to an automated algorithm.
Still, a human does have to sit behind the six big screens for as long as the tunnel’s in use (depending slightly on the season, it closes each night at around 11pm and opens up again around 5.30am), watching the tunnel and intervening when necessary. Should an ambulance need to enter after tunnel hours, it takes the tunnel operator on call to open up those great, big tunnel doors.
That sparseness of infrastructure and general isolation is part of what drew Jen Kinney to the mountain-lined inlet years ago.
“In terms of how it functions as an ecosystem, Whittier is such an interesting case because it’s so unique,” Kinney explained to us. “For example, think about emergency medical services in the context of a town with a tunnel; it takes all these extra considerations. Someone has to always be on call all night in case an ambulance needs to get through. A volunteer EMT service has to be accessible at all times.
“Everybody has to play a role. The town just wouldn’t function if at least half of the people weren’t willing to step in and be an EMT or even just cook for your neighbours when they’re sick — everybody functions as part of a larger organism.”
Whittier in winter (above) and resident in Buckner building (below) via Jen Kinney.
In a town of Whittier’s size, it really does take everyone to keep the town functioning. A few residents work on the railroad, some monitor the tunnel, but for the most part, people are employed by the City of Whittier itself. Whether it’s snow clearance, building maintenance, city functions, or the school, for those who stay year-round, Whittier itself is their livelihood.
Because the town is so small, everyone has to play a vital role to keep this self-contained organism alive. Without the the high school teacher, without the volunteer EMTs, — even without the guys sitting at the bar, drinking from 9am to closing — Whittier’s social and physical infrastructure just wouldn’t quite work.
View of Whittier from the Buckner building via Jen Kinney.
The tourists, and seasonal workers who visit Whittier in the summer to work on the dock and at the cannery make sense. They’re there for work or just passing through. But what about those who claim Whittier as their sole, year-round residence? According to Kinney, the longer she stayed amongst the town’s relatively few walls, the more difficult it became to make any generalisations about what it was that drew her neighbours to Whittier in the first place.
“For one person,” Kinney explained, “living in Whittier was idyllic because they were really social and were constantly able to be around people. And for others, it was really idyllic because they were able to be completely isolated all the time. But as for why people are there and how they ended up there, the range of stories was really staggering.”
For the majority of people, though, Whittier is a transitional town. They will come, stay for a year, and never live in Whittier again. Or they will come as a tourist on a summertime cruise. Or to traverse the abandoned Buckner building. But it’s the ones who stay the winter that make up its core.
Whittier resident via Jen Kinney.
Kinney recounted to us how one woman found herself in Whittier because her mother, a one-time heavy drinker and partier, traveled to Alaska in the ’70s, found a job in there, fell in love, and turned her life around. After mending her relationship with her daughter, the daughter came to visit for two months that eventually turned into 35 years and four generations, all in Whittier.
Another resident sought out Whittier explicitly as a safe haven from her abusive ex-husband. There, she was able to tell the train conductors not to let him through the tunnel. For her, Whittier meant a safer life.
Views of the Buckner building via Jen Kinney.
Residents of Whittier via Jen Kinney.
What makes Whittier so fascinating to the outside isn’t just that this wildly diverse group of people happened upon Whittier, but that they happened upon Whittier together.
“You have this sort of forced camaraderie where, superficially, these people might not necessarily have anything in common,” Kinney elaborated. “In the summer, we would have these bonfires, and everybody would come. The age range might be between 17 and 55, because you can’t have much social distinction in a place with so few people….
“I’d lived in New York City, so I was used to being totally surrounded by people all the time; that wasn’t what phased me. What was so weird was knowing the person on the other side of every wall. In most cases, I knew exactly who lived next door on my left, on my right, above, and below.”
Church in Whittier via Jen Kinney.
When you do start to feel closed in, Whittier certainly doesn’t make it easy to escape. Want to hop in your car to go catch a movie in Anchorage an hour away? Better hope you’re back before the tunnel lets the last cars through for the night. Otherwise, you’re going to be sleeping in your yours. Even if you just feel a sudden impulse, a need, to go somewhere, anywhere but where you are, if you miss your tunnel window by just a minute, you’re going to have to wait for an hour before it switches directions again and you can actually exit the town.
Gary at the Kozy Korner store in Begich Towers via Jen Kinney.
Indoor playground via at the school via Jen Kinney.
But what is it that really ends up making people stay in the long run? According to Kinney, a lot of it’s pure inertia.
“I wanted people’s stories to have some dramatic and then I realised that I loved it here, but it was usually more banal than that. Think about why any of us live anywhere — it’s partially chance, partially desire, and partially inertia. Once you’re somewhere, it’s just easier to stay there. So whatever I was searching for, for some mystical explanation as to why people love this place, often it just came down to loyalty. People are loyal to places they have been and the people they know.”
In the end, what keeps people in Whittier isn’t all that different from what keeps any of us in our hometowns. It just so happens that, in Whittier’s case, that hometown is also just one gigantic home.