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The Other Side of the Tunnel: The Story of Whittier

Published On: Jul 29 2013 11:15:00 AM AKDT

Outsiders have called it one of Alaska's strangest towns.


Outsiders have called it one of Alaska's strangest towns.

Whittier is surrounded by beautiful mountains and water and is not easy to get to, but residents are proud to call this small town home. Its population inflates to as large as 1,500 in the summer and deflates to less than 200 the rest of the year.

Only about 75 miles away from Anchorage, the only access to the town and its gorgeous backdrop is through the Anton Anderson Tunnel that goes right though the Maynard Mountains.

The roughly two-and-a-half-mile-long tunnel officially opened to vehicles in June of 2000. It makes for an interesting entrance to what the locals say is an even more interesting town.

Majestic views, little urban sprawl, and lack of history -- residents who call Whittier home have their own reasons for moving here.

"This is kind of like a theme park down in the lower 48, like Disney Land or Sea World," said longtime mayor Lester Lunceford who calls Whittier a utopia because it defines the best of what Alaska has to offer.

"You come through the tunnel and you have beautiful ocean scenery here with occasionally seeing whales out here in the bay here, lots of sea life and glaciers all around us," Lunceford said.

The city boasts a year-round ice-free deep water port and harbor.

With 37 percent of the town’s 19.7 square-miles under water, residents say the port is their number-one asset.

"In theory you can motorize your boat out here in the dead of winter in January and the heat of the summer," Lunceford said.

The area was used as a military camp during World War II because of its unique location to the Alaska Railroad and the Prince William Sound. Before that Whittier was a route for the Chugach Alaska Natives, Russians, and Americans who sought out fish and gold. The community wasn't incorporated as a town until 1969. Now, it’s a town of about 180 people who live here year round. Almost all of which live in one building and its one of Alaska's tallest.

The 14-story Begich Towers houses 80 percent of the town's population.

The mayor was once the police chief.

"It's not uncommon both as a police chief and mayor for people to come and knock on my door all hours of the day and night," Lunceford said.

It's the closeness of residents that attracted Margie Shepard to Whittier. A fixture at the Anchor Inn Restaurant for years, Shepard said it is Whittier’s beauty that stands out most. It's a town that she considers safe because everyone knows who you are and where you will be.

"Sometimes you take a walk along the beach, you see whales, sea lions," Shepard said. "We don't have shopping malls, theaters and whatnot, but a lot of us don't need that, most of us are home bodies here."

Brenda Tolman has lived in Whittier for 31 years. The owner of Log Cabin Gifts, she raised her twin sons in the small town.

"Both of my kids say that moving them here and raising them here is the best thing I could have possibly done for them," Tolman said.

It's a place of familiar surroundings and limited space that visitors have often referred to as strange and residents like Tolman are quick to note it’s not for everyone.

"I usually say nobody invited you here," Tolman said. "If you have a family, you’re doing family things, and whatever type of work you do, your time is pretty much taken up."

Whittier, with its sole entrance through a long tunnel, shares many qualities with its residents: unique and interesting, with a focus on letting its history unfold organically. Whittier is a town that is trying to grow not only in population but through land. Lunceford says 25 years ago they were deeded 640 acres in an area known as Shotgun Cove by the State of Alaska to develop. So far through grants they have built 2 miles out of the 11 miles needed to expand the road.

"Sometimes you fight with your brothers and sisters,” Lunceford said. “That is not uncommon out here either, but whenever trouble happens, everyone pulls together."

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