Friday, August 29, 2008

Whittier

Previous post: Hope at the End of the Day

We had to leave Hope early this morning to make it to Whittier in time for our day cruise on Prince William Sound. More precisely, we needed to make the 9:30 passage through the tunnel.

Yes, through the tunnel.

Only 50 miles from Anchorage, Whittier is actually pretty isolated, accessible only by water (it’s a cruise ship port) or via the combined rail/highway Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The tunnel cuts through Maynard Mountain and, at 13,000 feet in length, it is the second longest highway tunnel in North America. (It was the longest until dethroned by Boston’s Big Dig.) Traveling through the tunnel is made more of an adventure by the fact that highway traffic and trains share the same space – on a carefully controlled basis. It’s sort of creepy, as becomes clear in this video.

photo by Mark Fickett, published on Wikimedia Commons

My engineering colleagues should be pleased to know that the tunnel has also been designated as an Outstanding Engineering Achievement. However, some of the reasons behind that designation are a little unsettling: That it was the first place with computerized regulation of both rail and highway traffic sounds reassuring, but being the first tunnel designed to withstand temperatures of –40F, winds of 150 mph, and avalanches makes me wonder. . . . maybe this part of Alaska wasn’t really meant to be inhabited.

Seeing Whittier itself does nothing to resolve that question in my mind.

This is a long narrow town that lies along the railroad and the sea. Rugged, strikingly beautiful mountains tower above.

While the setting is stunning, the town itself isn’t. There are no inviting residential neighborhoods, since most people living in town live in the Begich Towers. With the hulking carcass of the long-abandoned Buckner Building looming over a thrown-together mix of commercial and industrial buildings (and the one very large former military building that houses most of the town), it isn’t a place that really draws one in.

But I have a weakness for harbors and, while Whittier’s is mostly hidden behind a strip of tacky tourist businesses, it is a beauty.


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