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Alaska Whittier Division

Adventurer in Alaska 

Whittier Division

Day 21

  September 21, 2013,  Saturday

Text and photos by Robin Bowers


        The charming seaside town of Whittier lies 60 miles south of Anchorage on the edge of the Chugach National Forest and is the gateway to western Prince William Sound.
        The modern history of the tiny Alaska town began shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in World War II. The U.S. military wanted to find a secret and strategic location to build a base that could also house an ice-free port year round. Whittier's location, surrounded by mammoth peaks and the calm protected waters of Passage Canal, fit the bill. The construction of the town site began along with the two-and-half-mile railroad supply tunnel that was the only land route connecting Whittier to the outside world.  In 2000, the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was rebuilt to accommodate vehicle traffic, making Whittier more accessible. It is the longest vehicle-railroad tunnel in North America.

        This morning found me at the Alaska Railroad station, as it had the past several mornings.  At 7:20 A.M., I climb aboard the train. Today I find a seat in Car 523.
    A Dome-Coach, 523, Budd built in 1954, arrived to ARR 2000, seats 24/38. notes: ex-NP 556, to BN 4623, to Amtrak 9483, re# 9404.

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Cook Inlet.

        We leave Anchorage at 8:00 A.M. sharp. We head south thru town then to meet up with the Turnagain Arm an continue south to Portage. A route covered several time this week. Only way out of town by rail if not going north.

        MP     114.3     Anchorage

        MP    106.2     Turnagain Arm

        MP    103.5     Rabbit Creek - Potter Marsh

        MP    100.6    Potter

        MP      95.5    Beluga Point  - Beluga Point is named after the Beluga whales that are often seen in Turnagain Arm near here. Beluga whales are unique in that they are the only all-white whales. Additionally, due to the food sources here, the Cook Inlet Beluga whale is a genetically distinct and geographically isolated stock. We stop here for several minutes to watch and spot the whales. Several are spotted but you had to look quick. Mostly just a white speck all the way across the water. Most people saw at least a couple Beluga whales.

      MP       93.2    Rainbow- We pull into the siding here at 8:40A.M. to let a freight pass by and pull out at 8:52 A.M.


Goat spotted while waiting in siding.

    At 9:30 A.M. it was time to head to the diner for breakfast. Today I decided to eat two meals on the train, the last day of train travel. For today's breakfast meal, I chose the Country Starter - A warm biscuit smothered in country sausage gravy served with fluffy scrambled eggs. Choose from a side of Alaska reindeer sausage or smoked bacon. It was so tasty and delicious.

     At 10:15 A.M. we pass the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and then arrive at Portage and then take the Whittier branch to Whittier and our first photo run by.


Portage Lake.

Whittier Division

        Once known as the Whittier Cutout or Whittier Branch, this line is becoming more important to the Alaska Railroad as it is the major connection to the Lower 48. Barges from Seattle and Price Rupert dock here, as well as a growing number of cruise ships.

        Plans for this line began in 1914, but the rough terrain made the route seem impossible. Railroad manager Otto Ohlson championed this route because of its ability to provide a shortcut to a deep water port (a trip to Seward added 52 more miles), the Whittier Cutoff didn't become a reality until World War II. In 1941, the US Army began construction of the line from Whittier to Portage. On April 23, 1943, the line was completed. The route provided many challenges, including a one-mile tunnel through Begich Peak and 2.5 mile tunnel through Maynard Mountain. Anton Anderson, an Army engineer, headed up the line's construction and the main tunnel bears his name.

        For the military, Whittier provided a shorter voyage, reduced exposure of ships to Japanese submarines, reduced the risk of Japanese bombings, and avoided the steep railroad grades required on the Seward line. When completed, the Whittier Cutoff became Alaska's main supply link for the military. However, commercial vessels continued to use Seward. In 1960, the  US Army relinquished all control of Whittier and turned the port and Cutoff over to the Alaska Railroad.

        Parts of the 1985 movie Runaway Train were filmed on this line.

        MP    F12.4    COHO - This is a siding and yard just off the mainline to the south. Coho is a species of a salmon.

        We stopped to get read for our photo runby.



Walking to Photo run by at Placer Creek.



MP   F5.8    Portage Tunnel Bear Valley Portal (Door 3)
At approximately 4905 feet long, this tunnel passes under Begich Peak.


Placer Creek    GPS:  60 47 26.3, -148 49 23.5  To see map, click here  Click Back button on your browser to return to this page.



        MP    F5.3    Bear Valley - Bear Valley has been described as a desolate bowl full of willows, rock, and tundra south of Boggs Peak, aptly named for the wildlife that roam the area. To the south you can view Portage Glacier and Portage Lake, favorite day trip destinations for people out of Anchorage.


Bear Valley.

        MP    F5.1    Whittier Tunnel Bear Valley Portal (Door 2) - Today known as the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, the tunnel passes under Maynard Mountain and is the second longest highway tunnel and longest combined rail and highway tunnel in North America. The rail line was originally opened on April 23, 1943, linking Whittier to the Alaska Railroad's main line at Portage. In the mid-960s, the Alaska Railroad began offering a shuttle service for automobiles through the tunnel between Whittier and the former town of Portage. As traffic to Whittier increased, the shuttle became insufficient, leading in the 1990s to a project to convert the existing railroad tunnel into a one-lane, combination highway and railroad tunnel. Construction on this project began in September 1998, and the combined tunnel was opened to traffic on June 7, 2000. To coordinate movements through the tunnel, traffic is scheduled in 20 minute blocks - twenty minutes each for eastbound highway traffic, westbound highway traffic, and the Alaska Railroad. By the way, the tunnel is now a highway toll route with a $12 fare collected on the eastbound move for a round trip.
        We approach the tunnel and wait for out turn through the tunnel, we notice the alpine look of the portal. The engineering report on the tunnel stated the " the portals are built of structural steel and concrete to safely absorb the shock of any potential avalanche and are shaped like A-frames to split any snow slide. Each portal building will house two portal fans (for tunnel ventilation), emergency vehicles and equipment, power distribution equipment, furnaces to heat ice-control panels within the tunnel and remote operations consoles (the main operations center is in a separate facility). Each portal building has a train-sized "garage" door that rolls up and down to let automobiles and trains in and out of the tunnel. Due to the potential for avalanches, the portal roof on the Whittier side had been constructed to withstand forces of 1,000 pound per square foot. The roof in made with 14-inch-thick concrete panels. On the Bear Valley side, the roof is designed to withstand forces of 220 pound per square foot which is equivalent to about 11 feet of new snow. For comparison, the building code for Anchorage requires that building roofs can be constructed to withstand a load of 40 pounds per square foot."
    The tunnel was also rebuilt with other concerns such as ventilation, escape rooms (called "safe houses" -rooms at 1600 foot intervals for use in case of an emergency), and pull-outs for broken down vehicles.
    By the way, the tunnel is named after Anton Anderson, an army engineer who in 1941 headed up the construction of the railroad line from Whittier to Portage.


Train and autos queue up for a trip through the tunnel.

        After waiting our turn we travel through the tunnel and arrive in Whittier.

             MP  F1.2    Whittier Creek - The railroad crosses Whittier Creek on a 9-span wood trestle. Whittier Creek drains the northwest corner of Whittier Glacier. Whittier Glacier, to the south, was named for the American poet John Greenleaf Whittier in 1915, and the creek and community also took the name. Taking a look around, especially to the south. Whittier is surrounded by the Chugach National Forest, the second largest in the United States and a vast wilderness.
        The main road into town crosses the tracks just east of the Whittier Creek bridge.

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Crossing Whittier Creek and approaching the town's main road with new cruise ship terminal in right background.
The Alaska Railroad operates dedicated passenger trains from here to Anchorage and Denali for the cruise ship lines.

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The main road in Whittier.


Begich Tower.

        Originally called the Hodge Building, and now know as the Begich Tower, this 14-story structure was at one time the tallest building in Alaska. Built for family housing, it was completed in 1956, only four years before Whittier was inactivated and mothballed by the US Military. The building initially held 177 apartments and now consists of condos in which most of Whittier's residents live. The first floor contains the city offices, grocery, library, post office and so forth. The interior is '50s institutional. Its hallways resemble those of a school or a detention center. One can often find residents shuffling around in slippers and pajamas. In winters the city gets about 250 inches of snow and 60mph winds are not uncommon. The weather is so brutal that children commute from Begich Towers to school trough a tunnel.

        The building was renamed in 1973 for Congressman Nick Begich, who was killed in a plane crash the previous year.

        MP    F0.8    Whittier Yard - Whittier Yard contains about a half dozen tracks as well as a small inter modal facility. The yard was designed to provide space for cars moving on and off the barges.
        To the north of the yard is the ferry terminal for the Alaska Marine Highway. Ferry service is available from Whittier to Valdez, Cordova, Juneau and even Dutch Harbor. With an increase in cruise ship activity in Whittier, there has also been some recent development of tourist facilities around the ferry terminal.

harbor 9434

Yard and Prince William Sound.

ship 9438

Diamond Princess.

caboose 9440

Whittier US Coast Guard Auxiliary - District 17, with their ex-ARR caboose 1076, which was built by Pacific Car and Foundry of Renton, WA in 1949.


Bart J. directing the photo line to its position.


Diamond Princess had arrived from China on a reposition cruise.

        MP    F0.3    Barge Terminal - The Alaska Railroad conducts most of its railcar interchange through the slips at Whittier. The Alaska Railroad operates weekly service to Seattle using special barges built by Gunderson of Portland, Oregon. Each barge has 8 tracks of about 400 feet in length. The barges are designed to handle the railcars on the deck with containers stacked on frames above. Each round trip requires three weeks. Besides the ARR service, barge service is also provided by Canadian National Aqua Train. This service operates between CN's northwest terminus of Prince Rupert, B.C., and Whittier.
        The barge slip is like a bridge, one end is on the land side and the other end rests on the edge of the barge. There are three sets of tracks on it. The two towers by the barge slip are the slip towers that have cables and counterweights on them. Due to the incredibly fast and high/low tides, the window of time to unload and reload the barge is rather short, leading to an intricate ballet of trains, barge, tug and their crews.

photo line9446

Photo line.

        MP    F0.0    End of Track - The Whittier Branch ends/begins along Depot Road near an independent barge service on Passage Canal, which leads to Prince William Sound. Whittier is on the northeast shore of the Kenai Peninsula, at the head of Passage Canal, a location that is ice-free throughout the year. While a wonderful port area, the issue has always been access to the interior of Alaska since this area is surrounded by glacier-covered mountains.


Rail yard with the Buckner Building in the distance.


Buckner Building.

            On the hillside to the south is a large white building about six stories tall overlooking the harbor.  This is the Buckner Building, built in 1953 and damaged in the 1964 earthquake and now vacant. (Whittier was severely damaged by tsunamis triggered by the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake; thirteen people died due to waves that reached 43 feet.) It once held 1,000 apartments, a hospital, a bowling alley, theater, gym, swimming pool, bank, post office, rifle range, and shops for Army personnel. For many years it was the largest building in Alaska, and was sometimes called the "city under one roof," It still stands due to the difficulty of demolition as the building contains great amounts of asbestos.

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Photo of author by C. Parker.


One last look back.

blue ice 9461

Blue Ice.


Auto's exiting tunnel in Whittier.

tunell 9463

Whittier Portal. (Door 1)

        MP    F2.6    Whittier Tunnel Whittier Portal (Door 1) - Traffic through the tunnel is closely monitored and scheduled to prevent accidents since the route is single lane throughout. According to the tunnel's website, "two complex computer systems are dedicated to help the tunnel operating staff operate the tunnel in a safe and efficient manner. One of the most complicated aspects of tunnel construction and operation is the Tunnel Control System (TCS) and Train Signal System (TSS). These two computer-based systems make it possible for cars and trains to safely take turns traveling through the tunnel.

        "The TCS is responsible for all vehicle movement within the tunnel. An intelligent traffic system, the TCS tracks each vehicle and meters through the tunnel. One of its main functions is to monitor the direction of vehicle movement and, through its control of the traffic signals and gates, allow vehicles to travel only in one direction at a time. The TCS also monitors tunnel operations via live video covering the length of the tunnel. If a car stops for any reason, the vehicle detection equipment will alert the tunnel control operator in the Tunnel Control Center, direct the video cameras automatically to display that area of the tunnel, and shut apporopriate gates. The TCS also conntinually monitors and adust the lighting and ventilation systems."

        "In a simalar fashion, the TSS is responsible for train movements through the tunnel. This system conrtols train switches and signals and ensures that trains only move in one direction at a time and only when there are no vehicles in the tunnel."

        Because these systems are linked, the TCS and TSS together ensure that cars and trains never meet in the tunnel. When the tunnel is in the railroad mode, the TSS controls the trains and locks out the operation of the TCS syustem. All highway gates are closed and the highway signals are set to red. When the tunnel ia in highway mode, the TCS locks out the TSS until highway vechicles are cleared arom the tunnel.

enteing 9464

Entering the Whittier Portal (Door 1).

        It was nearly 1:00P.M. when we enter the tunnel at Door 1 and make our way to Portage and the Turnagain Arm. After meeting the main we then head south towards Seward. Meanwhile I make my way to the dining car. For my last train meal on this trip to Alaska I choose Healy Miners Lucnh. A burger fit for a hungry miner. Choose an Angus beef patty or Garden burger served with crisp green leaf lettuce, tomato and onion on a bun with pickle wedge. Choose Alaska Chip Company Kettle Chips or a side of fresh fruit. Add cheddar, Swiss, blue cheese crumbles, or bacon. It was a good hanburger that hit the spot.

        MP    55.8    Spencer - Spencer is a 3054-foot siding to the west, named after railroad employee who seemed to have everything in the area named after him. This was a flagstop by 1913. The Tincan Peak immediately to the west. Tican is one of the most popular areas for backcountry skiing due to its acess from the Seward Highway. Spencer is one of six locations between Portage and Moose Pass getting new passenger shelters, toilets and interpretive displays.

        We stop here for our next photo run by. For this one I decide to stay on the train and watch from this side of the window.



Where the photographers were drop off.


Waiting to re-board after taking photos.

        After our stop here we head north to Anchorage along the Turnagain Arm. At Beluga Point we stop and spend some time watching the white wales.

        At 5:35 P.M. we arrive at the Anchorage. Stepping outside in front of the station, I take a picture of Alaska Railroad # 1.

ak #1 9472

# 1 in front of Anchorage Station with the Anchorage Hilton in background left of center.

            Across from the station is Alaska Railroad # 1, an 0-4-0ST built by Davenport in October, 1907. This locomotive was originally built as narrow gauge #802 for work on the Panama Canal. In 1917 a large amount of equipment was transferred from the canal project to the Alaska Railroad Commission, including this engine as # 6. It was converted to standard gauge in 1930 and renumbered to # 1.

        Back at the motel, our little group decided to go to dinner together as this was the last night here for us. Tomorrow we would leaving for home with everyone taking different flights and at different times. So our little group of Chris G., Chris P., Elizabeth A. and I head to the Sizzlin Cafe for dinner. We each had a good meal and talked about all our adventures on this 2013 NRHS convention. After breaking bread, we then all head back to the motel.

        I saw an article in the local paper that peaked my interest. The "Anchorage Daily News," 9/20/2013 article: Performance art - Light Brigade. Anchorage aerialists, dancers, musicians and others join as "The Light Brigade" in a site-specific multimedia art performance that will include wild lighting and film projections outside the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St. The event takes place as the night falls on summer for the last time in 2013, at 9:30 P.M. Saturday. The show is part of the museum's Northern Initiative and it's free.

        I thought this would be a great ending to this visit to watch this performance. It was happening in a few hours, a short ten minute walk from the motel and this was a chance to get out and mix with the locals. I went by myself as no one else was interested in going. Tonight was also "Pirate Night." The locals were dressed in pirate costumes, going on a bar circuit and stopping in each for drink and then moving on to the next on the circuit. So while walking to the museum, I saw some wild and interesting costumes with everyone in a festive mood.
        Upon arriving at the museum, the area in front of the building was filling with spectators. When the performance started the crowd had filled the lawn with hardly any place left to stand. I was impressed with the turnout to watch this show. There were a lot of people here at 9:30 P.M. with some overflow into the sidewalk.
I really enjoyed the show and the talented performers were excellent. The show seem to me like a marriage between rock climbing and ballet. Aerialists are suspended from the roof of the Anchorage Museum and perform on the front facade of the building. So glad I decided to attend this once in a life time experience.


Light Brigade - a group of local performance artists.


        After the show the crowd and I move to the city streets. I head north to 5th Ave and then walk back to the motel.

        Tomorrow is the last day here in Alaska and we are going to visit Wasilla.

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Engine 557 & MATI -Last Day in Alaska

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