No, we’re not talking about Whittier, California. This special spot is Whittier, Alaska. This is the remote, small town ensconced about 58 miles southeast of the city of Anchorage. Incorporated in 1969, it’s now known to some as the “town under one roof.”
A port for the official Alaska Marine Highway, Whittier is technically accessible by ferry, but the only other way to get there is via a two-and-a-half-mile-long, single lane Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. Also known as the Whittier Tunnel, It’s only 16 feet wide so while it’s rarely if ever crowded the traffic flows in one direction with that direction changing every half hour.
Travelers must wait patiently for lights to signal the right of way. Chosen and constructed in 1943, and originally designed for trains, it was used to transport supplies from the deep-water base of Whittier to Bear Valley. More than six decades later, this pathway through Maynard Mountain remains the longest highway tunnel on the entire continent.
In the late 1960s, the federal government turned the little inlet over to the locals. Residents thought the lengthy, lonely entrance was in sore need of a makeover. They gave it a fresh, new coat of concrete and made the steel rails even with the road to allow both motor vehicles and trains to use the tunnel.
Today technology rules and a computer now controls the timing of both the traffic and railway schedules but there is always someone on call in case of an emergency. After all, this could very well be the only way to help anyone in trouble. In order to fend off potential claustrophobia, reputed “safe houses” were installed at different intervals. In case of a cave-in or some other emergency situation, anyone unfortunate enough to be caught midway through could wait it out somewhere (somewhat) safer.
Of course, there are other everyday concerns as well. With only one place to enter and exit, all the vehicle exhaust has no place to go. Thus real jet engines have been installed to continuously pump fresh air into the tunnel in the current direction of traffic. This was done so that if there was ever a fire in the tunnel, all the flames would be blown behind the vehicles on their way out as opposed to being blown into oncoming traffic.
By the time claustrophobic visitors reach the end of the dimly-lit tunnel, they will discover a welcome albeit unusual sight that includes all the essential ingredients of a city. In this case, however, rather than urban sprawl, Whittier has been built to include almost everything into what appears to be a single, solitary tower. Whittier is literally a handful of buildings, few of which are still used for their original intent.
Just how small is Whittier, Alaska?
This lonely-looking spot covers an area of less than 20 square miles. According to the 2016 census, the population was estimated to include 214 people. It is estimated by various online sources that between 75 and 80 percent of the locals presently reside in the above-mentioned single building.
Whittier’s two most significant buildings are named the Buckner Building and of course the Begich Towers. Both of these buildings were built at the close of World War Two. These structures, built by the Army Corps of Engineers, along with the previously-noted railroad track leading into Whittier, cost a total of 55 million dollars and provided the American military a home base for logistical support at what was then considered the outer edge of the “Cold War frontier.”
The military abandoned the Buckner Building a mere seven years after it was completed. It did not take all that long for military intelligence to come to see that the United States did not actually have a lot of use for this far-flung military outpost. The Begich Towers, which is actually composed of three structures, is also known by the locals as the BTI.
In essence, once it was legally deeded over from the United States Army to the city sometime in 1974, this building became the city in that it reportedly houses between 75 and 80 percent of the permanent and seasonal population. The fourteen-story structure includes 196 condominiums. Residents are allowed to make use of the space in the main basement as well. under the main building. Each individual condo owner is provided a specific storage area to keep anything he or she is not able (or chooses not to) keep inside his or her actual condominium.
The Begich Towers also includes almost all of the expected municipal essentials. Most of the basic city functions can be found on the first floor. In fact, within the building one will not only find the city offices but also a church, a clinic, a convenience store, the police station, a post office, a school, and a grocery store as well.
This former Cold War-era army barracks also hosts vacationing visitors in the comfortable bed and breakfast units situated on both the 14th and the 15th floors. Guests are always welcome to observe just how life is in a nearly one-building city.
The locals boast of the breathtaking views of the glaciers, ocean and even the waterfalls cascading down from the nearby towering mountains that surround this unique place. Indeed, veteran visitors confirm that one can “see pretty much the whole town from the top floor of the condo.”
There’s even a pen of real live reindeer outside the front of the building. (How fun!) Also dotting the local landscape are a few other, smaller buildings. There are a few apartments that are not part of the main structure. Additionally, there are a couple of inns that also serve as a bar, laundromat and restaurant, and a sizeable ex-military gymnasium. Finally, there is yet another store about the size of a typical gas station too. Thus concludes our official tour of Whittier, Alaska, the famous “town under one roof.”
Don’t forget to tell them just who sent you if you decide to visit!