Not your average travel blog
The American outback, the boondocks, nestled in the sticks, appears barely operational. There’s evidence of gigantic agricultural farms operating in the lower 48, but prominent cities and towns built on a boom are now ghosts, stowed away in fields or mountains, at the end of a track, normally with a rickety disused railroad running to them. Many remote towns along the baron, bumpy highways are like a fish out of water, desperately gasping to survive, trying to suck absent water, air and commerce through their gills. When you pull in for some gas or to find a loaf of bread, it often feels like you’ve arrived after the party; the streets are deserted and dry, and the composition of where the dance was, is all out of shape with discarded fancy dress and junk by the side of it. Most places have a landmark; a stream that was once a raging river before a dam was constructed, a closed mine, a rotten marina, a stale plantation, an abandoned quarry, and many have succumb to a slow, natural takeover as wood rots, buildings fall, bridges collapse, brush grows from the roads, and the majority of people have long since left. Hanging on a whisper, after a few decades of post war neglect, mangling weather, post baby-boom desperation and abandonment, remnants of not even century old cabins and farms, and sometimes elaborate houses still barely stand. In the woods, by lakes, on mountain sides, wherever; the decaying and ageing, sporadically inhabited towns are now home to the mystical and the eery, the magical and the haunted. As well as the struggling and the unconventional, the decrepit and the mislaid, there are also the weird. Treading water with a few hundred people and a fair bit of energy to spare, Whittier is one of the weird.
At the end of an old portage route, over the mountains and past numerous glaciers to the sea, lies a natural harbour; deep, protected from the worst of the North Pacific’s weather and free of ice all year round. On the southern coastline, it is perfectly located for ships travelling up the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, needing to reach Alaska. Perfect, you might think…except for the mountains.
During World War Two in 1941 a monumental effort began to create Whittier. Monumental, because in order to utilise the harbour, it was decided that they would dig through a mountain. Upon completion in 1943, the 2.6 mile long tunnel to Whittier was the second longest tunnel in North America. It’s design was to withstand the earthquakes which regularly hit the area, and it contained just a rail track, for the sole use of the army.
Soon after such a titanic struggle to put the town of Whittier on the map, and towards the end of the war, it was abandoned. It became an almost forgotten rumour. Normally, you would hope, when armed forces set up a camp or a tactical position, they do so temporarily. However, the most recent draft of the Whittier construction, in the late 1940’s, would outlast any earthquake, and human abandonment.
The uniqueness of Whittier, was its experimental, “one community in one building” design.
For the increased defence of Alaska during the Cold War, one building alone would home over 1000 men – almost the entire population of Whittier. To quote the info sign on its current “no access” perimeter, the Buckner Building had “…a hospital, a 350 seat theatre, a four lane bowling alley, a jail, bakery, church, barbershop, library, radio and TV station, rifle range, photo lab, commissary, huge cafeteria and kitchens…..all connected with wide stairwells and elevators”. In Whittier, officers practically lived in just one building and apart from an experimental notion of how all eggs in one basket would be sensible in this susceptible-to-earthquake harbour, I can only imagine it was designed to make it easier to shelter from the weather and to keep moral up during the long, dark nights.
The army again abandoned Whittier in 1960, this time mothballing the entire town. Only the Cold War, concrete block buildings remained.
In 1964, an earthquake of 9.2 (Richter scale) demolished what was left of the port, but all the Cold War additions, including the Buckner Building were left standing. In 1972 the government sold the area to the City of Whittier and today, nearly all of its residents still continue to live in just one building (although other blocks around town are used for business).
The greying, Cold War blocks haven’t been dismantled or demolished due to their high asbestos content, and it has safely been contained in the block where people live. Surrounded by steep mountains, overlooking the deep harbour and tunnel, the derelict but solid Buckner, still stands above Whittier. She’s a decrepit, concrete shell, looking like a dead fish made of stone or an exoskeletal hovel of possibly a once grand hospital, with all her facade and makeup removed. She’s gasped her last breath, her bones await an imminent and quick, natural demolition as Mother Nature struggles to take her slowly. For some while yet though, she’ll awkwardly remain one of America’s resting, biggest weirdos.