World of Exploration

Some of the greatest explorers visited Prince William Sound. Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator, served in the Russian Navy and discovered Alaska in 1741. Georg Wilhelm Steller, the famous German naturalist, was a member of the Bering Expedition, which made landfall at Kayak Island, approximately 100 miles southeast of Whittier. We hear his name often today: Steller Sea Lion, Steller Jay, Steller Eider and Steller Sea Eagle.

Capt. James Cook entered the Sound on May 12, 1778. While he traded with the area's indigenous people, William Bligh – later of Mutiny of the Bounty fame – took a small boat and paddled long enough to determine it was not the Northwest Passage. It was Bligh Reef that the Exxon Valdez struck in 1989. Cook called the area Sandwich Sound, but the British Admiralty renamed it Prince William Sound in honor of King George III’s third son.

In 1794, Capt. George Vancouver mapped most of the western and eastern portions of the Sound, including much of the area we travel today. Vancouver was a midshipman and on the Cook expedition.

Edward Harriman's 1899 Alaska expedition brought a team of twenty-three biologists, taxidermists, geologists, artists, photographers, and writers from New York to Alaska. John Muir, was one of the many distinguished naturalists and scientists on this two month voyage of discovery. From this voyage, a twelve-volume "Alaska" series of albums was produced containing many newly named species, flora and fauna.

Chugach Native People

The Native people of the coastal communities in Prince William Sound had abundant natural resources and productive fisheries. Harvesting of natural resources, fishing and fur trading provided a way of life. In the early 1900's, many Native communities were devastated by a smallpox outbreak and later by a pneumonia epidemic in the 1930's. Both had a significant impact on the population in this region. In 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake and Tsunami washed away many of the residents along the coast and caused extensive damage to most of the buildings. And in 1989, The Exxon Valdez oil spill had a negative effect on their subsistence lifestyle and culture.

The Natives of the Chugach Region are taking a lead in expanding the social and economic development of their communities. For more details about Alaska Natives and their economic structure today, read about the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) of 1971.

World War II

A perfect hideaway for the military to build a base during World War II. This deep water, ice free port was protected from air attacks due to the towering mountains that encircle Whittier which were also frequently covered by clouds. In 1943, a military facility named Camp Sullivan was completed and the port of Whittier became the entrance for United States soldiers entering Alaska.

The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel construction started in 1941 by the U.S. Army to connect Whittier to Portage. Once complete, the rail became Alaska's main supply link for the war effort. Two large building in Whittier were built to house the military, the 14-story Hodge Building (now Begich Towers) and the Buckner Building that was damaged in the 1964 earthquake and has remained uninhabitable since that time. Whittier was an active military port until 1960.

Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel

The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel construction started in 1941 by the U.S. Army to connect Whittier to Portage. Once complete, the rail became Alaska's main supply link for the war effort. Two large building in Whittier were built to house the military, the 14-story Hodge Building (now Begich Towers) and the Buckner Building that was damaged in the 1964 earthquake and has remained uninhabitable since that time. Whittier was an active military port until 1960.

Earthquake

On Good Friday, March 27, 1964, Alaska experienced what has since been referred to as the "Good Friday" earthquake. Initial readings put the earthquake at 8.3 on the Richter scale, but there have been new findings that place this quake at 9.2 on the Moment Magnitude scale. Experts placed the epicenter forty miles from Valdez. Submarine landslides triggered 30-foot waves that destroyed 80% of Valdez. Another 270-foot wave caused slides that demolished Chenega. Over 100 feet of Valdez docks were lost and 31 people on the docks were never found. The original townsite was condemned and the town of Valdez moved to a new location. In Whittier, the waterfront installations were demolished and extensive damage was done to the Buckner Building.

Today in Whittier

Today, Whittier's main industry comes through the port, bringing goods in for supplies to interior Alaska. Tourism provides a strong resource of economic impact for the community. The latest economic developments include oyster farming which started in Ketchikan around 1950. Because of the cold waters, Prince William Sound has earned a favorable reputation for oysters that have a uniquely pleasant taste.