Have You Heard Of Whittier, Alaska, The City Under One Roof?

Aerial view of Whittier and its harbor, photo courtesy of whittieralaska.gov. Note the large residential building (Begich Towers) in the center-right of the image.
Aerial view of Whittier and its harbor, photo courtesy of whittieralaska.gov. Note the large residential building (Begich Towers) in the center-right of the image.

One of the strangest towns in the world, Whittier, located in the Valdez–Cordova Census Area of the Alaskan State of United States, has a building called the Begich Tower that houses the entire town's population of 217 people (as per 2014 estimates) within its premises. The remoteness of the place can be judged from the fact that the only land route connecting Whittier to the rest of the world is through the one-way Whittier tunnel, which alternates directions every half an hour and closes down at 11 pm, stopping all traffic on route after that time.

6. Civilian and Military History

During the Second World War, the United States government, fearing the invasion of Alaska by the Japanese, dispatched an Army battalion into Alaska. During this time, Camp Sullivan, a U.S. Army Camp, was set up in Whittier. To enhance the access of U.S. military forces to these remote areas in Alaska, the military personnel of Camp Sullivan quickly established a port and railroad terminus in the area. In April of 1943, a spur of railroad connecting Whittier to Portage, a former settlement in the Turnagain Arm in Alaska, was completed. Along its route were two tunnels (of 1 mile in length and 2.5 miles in length through Begich Peak and Maynard Mountain, respectively). These tunnels thus became the only land connections between Camp Sullivan and the rest of the world. After the end of the Second World War, the U.S. Army initiated the construction of several large infrastructural projects in Whittier. However, in 1960, the military withdrew from the town, and Camp Sullivan was decommissioned. Then, in 1969, the civilian town of Whittier was incorporated.

5. Construction and Architecture

Only two, large, man-made residential structures, the Buckner Building and the Begich Tower, stand in the Whittier town of Alaska. Both buildings were built by the U.S. army personnel in the post-World War II era. The Buckner Building, often regarded as the "the city under one roof”, was constructed in 1953. It had a mess hall, sleeping quarters, and recreational, medical, and other facilities, all built under one roof. Military and civil services personnel and their families would live in this building until the military control of Whittier was decommissioned, and then completely abandoned by 1966. The second building, the subject of much current talk, presently houses nearly all of the residents of Whittier within its premises. This, the Begich Towers Condominium, was originally known as the Hodge Building, and was designed in 1953 to serve as a headquarters for the US Army Corps of Engineers personnel working in the region. In 1972, the building was renamed as the Begich Tower after the Alaskan Congressman Nick Begich. The 14-story building has a simple rectangular shape, and a flat roof. Three connected modules make up the entire structure. A large maze of branched corridors and elevators allow the residents of the building to stay connected to every part of it without ever having to go outside to get to its various places. The building houses every possible civil amenity, including a grocery store, laundry mat, hotel and conference rooms, indoor pool, and play area, as well as the Whittier City Department, a school, police station, post office, hospital, and even a small church. Besides these residential buildings, Whittier also has a deep-water port and harbor, an airfield with a one-aircraft runway, and the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel connecting Whittier to the Seaward Highway south of Anchorage.

4. Economy and Trade

Whittier has very little industry of its own, and most of the adult population of this Alaskan town is engaged in local railroad construction and maintenance jobs, the recreational industry, and education, as well as all types of local jobs that predominately serve other members of the Whittier community. The average income of a Whittier household is around $47,500 per year, while the per capita income is $25,700. 7.1% of the town’s population lives below the poverty level, and the unemployment rate is around 9.2%. Nearly 24.6% of the population of Whittier work in the management, business, and finance sectors. Sales, office, and administrative support jobs employ 17.46% of the population, and food preparation and serving, as well as building maintenance, are the other major employers. Shipping and port related jobs, fishing, and tourism also comprise large parts of the town’s economic revenue, and a number of Alaskan cruise lines utilize the port of Whittier as an embarkation and debarkation point. From there, the Denali Express nonstop rail service to and from the major Alaskan tourist attraction of the Denali National Park can be accessed by travelers. Every year, nearly 900,000 tourists pass through the town of Whittier during the summer months.

3. Susceptibility To Natural Disasters

One of the worst natural disasters that struck this peaceful town was the March 27th, 1964 "Good Friday earthquake". This was when massive post-earthquake tsunamis wrought havoc on this town. Three tsunami waves, the last two being 30 and 40 feet high, slashed across the town, giving no time for the residents to take shelter. 13 people were killed in this disaster, and sawmills, a railroad depot, and homes were destroyed. A fire that broke out in the Union Oil Company Tank Farm also added to the damage of the town. Currently, Whittier has a much higher susceptibility to earthquake damage than the general Alaskan average and the national average. However, the chances of a tornado disaster in this town is much lower than the national average.

2. Are Crime And Personal Privacy A Problem?

The Whittier Police Department, located in the first floor of the Begich Towers, was founded in 1974 by Chief of Police Gordon Whittier and two subordinate officers, James Estes and Patrick Hames. The Police Department is most in need during the tourist season when property crimes, cases of trespassing, and traffic offenses rise sharply. The rest of the year, the department primarily deals with cases of domestic violence and assaults. As per surprising data provided on the Areavibes website, the overall crime rate in Whittier is shown to be 64% higher than the national average, and there is 1 in 21 chance of becoming a victim of crime in Whittier. When it comes to questions of personal privacy, as per the scores of interviews given to media persons by the residents of Whittier, they appear to be quite happy and even contented with their lives, and many believe the entire community they live with is like an extended family. According to these residents, there is always a supporting hand to be found in terms of need, and all residents tend to share each other’s joys and sorrows together. Thus, the question of personal privacy seems not to bother the residents too much, despite all living together under one roof.

1. The Future of Whittier

Currently, the citizens of Whittier continue to lead their peaceful lives, living together as one big family and treating outside tourists as their guests in the summer months. No plans for current expansion of the town appear to be reported, while efforts to widen the harbor in Whittier have been ongoing for several years. The future of this town depends on its people and their occupational decisions, as well as the role of the Alaskan state and U.S. Federal governments in nurturing the overall growth and development of Whittier.


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