Accessing the Deep Sea Port of Whittier: One of WWII’s Top Engineering Feats
by Anne Sanders
In the 1940’s, while World War II wreaked havoc across the earth, protection of the home front brought numerous advances to Alaska’s infrastructure. With Alaska’s strategic location and viable resources, Japanese forces occupied the Aleutians in an attempt to obstruct Alaska’s ability to defend the Pacific Coast. Vital improvements to transportation were made in order to ensure the military would have the necessary supplies to defend against enemy advances. Many underestimate the extent to which military defense projects influence civilian life today.
…the deep sea port of Whittier became the primary supply line for Alaska during the war.
Along with the formation of essential military bases and the construction of the Alcan Highway, the idea to build a railroad spur connecting the deep sea port of Whittier to the rest of Alaska was considered a necessary defense strategy. The idea for the spur was first proposed by the Alaska Railroad in 1914, but it wasn’t until the urgency of war that the project became a reality. Construction of the spur to Whittier began in 1941, and was completed two years later on April 23, 1943. The spur included three and a half miles of tunnels. A one mile tunnel was built under Begich Peak and the other tunnel was impressively hammered two and a half miles through the base of Maynard Mountain.
After the railway’s completion, the deep sea port of Whittier became the primary supply line for Alaska during the war. Whittier’s climate and location were considered ideal conditions for the wartime effort. Today, visitors and residents of Whittier may find the weather to be a nuisance. But during the war the considerable amount of rain, fog, and cloud cover was a fortunate obstacle. The weather conditions successfully hindered enemy forces from disrupting Alaska’s lifeline. Whittier’s location also spared the railroad the extra fifty two miles of steep terrain to travel further south, down the Kenai Peninsula to Seward; the next viable alternative route.
After the end of WWII the railroad spur to Whittier continued being the primary supply route for Alaska. Without the threat of war the beauty of Whittier and Prince William Sound brought a rush of visitors to the area. The railroad soon began shuttling people through the tunnels, in their vehicles, on flatbed rail cars. As years went by an easier and more affordable means of traversing to and from Whittier became necessary. Thus, in 1998 construction began to convert the two and a half mile tunnel under Maynard Mountain to accommodate both vehicle and railroad traffic. On June 7, 2000 the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was opened for the first time to automotive vehicles, and was fittingly named after the army engineer who led the construction of the tunnel over fifty years prior. More commonly referred to as the Whittier Tunnel, the underground passage is the longest tunnel in North America to serve both highway and rail traffic.
According to Gordon Burton, the Whittier tunnel’s facilities manager, the first few years operating the tunnel were very challenging. Not surprising considering the tunnel, designed to support both modes of transportation, was the first of its kind. After thirteen years, operation of the tunnel now runs smoothly. An average of over 100,000 round trips are made through the tunnel each year.
The necessity of wartime mobilization brought forth record achievements accomplished by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Their ingenuity has given Alaskans and tourists access to the convenience and beauty of the Prince William Sound.
Article by Anne Sanders
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Last Frontier Magazine.