Valdez, Alaska is a tough little town in Prince William Sound on the coast
of Central Alaska. Founded in 1901 when the Klondike Gold Rush was well underway,
the Valdez Trail led into the Interior.
I was there in September of 2011 and found various items that made Valdez different from other Alaska coastal communities. The most outstanding was the wildlife; rabbits and sea otters. We saw six sea otters in the harbor, still a thrill as they were rescued from extinction only about forty years ago and are still rare along the Alaska coast. The rabbits are small, tame, and black, except for the few pale or dark brown ones hopping around. Stories vary as to how they arrived in town, but they are certainly everywhere. Apparently dogs do no harm, although not everyone loves bunnies, I was told rather grimly by a resident. Valdez gets around 30 feet of snow each winter, so where do the rabbits go? Under porches, burrow in the snow, etc. some said; one woman told me they know where the ice and snow are minimal in winter and lots of people around with food Ė the post office.
Another odd item is the fire hydrants. Theyíre painted in all sorts of designs and stand about three feet from the ground. That mystery was solved when I asked a resident. School children were challenged to come up with designs and paint them. The height from the ground is because of the snow.
Itís also a town of murals, including a very large one of mountains, mounted above a dentistís office. No explanation there.
The natural setting is spectacular; just across the inlet the lowish Chugach Rangeís razor-sharp peaks loom. One has a thin dagger of a peak Ė itís the sugar loaf. I had been taught a sugar loaf has a rounded top, but that isnít Valdez.
I couldnít help but wonder what the prospectors thought when they arrived and saw the mountains they must traverse to reach the gold fields where, theyíd been told, gold nuggets lay in the grass ready to be picked up. However, it was not as bad a trail as it looked; Keystone Canyon was found early on and made easier access. Somehow the Valdez Trail fell behind in the competition to the Klondike, (was it the sharp mountains?) but some believers stayed on.
The port was named in 1790 by the Spanish explorer, Don Salvador Fidalgo, who was exploring for Spain along the coast. Unlike its namesake, it is pronounced "Val-deez". I was pleased to learn a few years ago there had been an argument over that when the town was formed, but wondered why it hadnít been corrected. That was solved when I flew from Anchorage with a resident who said they could always tell someone was selling something when they phoned and chatted about "Val-dez". I suppose thereís also a bit of local pride involved. "We donít care how they pronounce it Outside" shows the old Alaska saying is still used.
In 1923 the Alaska Railroad opened nearby Seward as the terminus of the line to Fairbanks, which was thought to be the death knell. Valdez did hang on with some commercial fishing and road jobs here and there. Then in 1964 the massive Good Friday Earthquake, 9.2 on the Richter Scale, the greatest ever recorded in North America, leveled the town. The Alutiq village of Chenega nearby lost most of its population. Today a visit to Old Valdez shows nothing except woods on either side of a small dirt road, although old photographs show the usual town center. By the woods there is a memorial on the concrete floor of the then new post office, with the names of the 38 deaths in Chenega alongside those who died in Valdez. A visit to the old cemetery close by encounters a lawn, several large trees, a few plaques and almost no headstones. Oddly, the deaths were almost entirely men in their 50s and 60s. A baby who lived only a few hours is buried outside the fenced grave containing its mother. Our guide said she believed it was because an unbaptized person could not be buried in consecrated ground. That conjured up an isolated town with no priest and 360 inches of snow on the ground, all overlooked by the razor-sharp mountains.
We saw no bears, but the cemetery does have a lovely view of the water.
Valdez should have died after the quake, of course, but it didnít. It is indestructible, a term used loosely in most cases but truly here. The survivors huddled together in the raw March weather, moved the town site back to the original location, and rebuilt. Residents are firm today that there was no tsunami; a large mass of land subsided in the narrows and caused a giant wave that destroyed the community. As a visitor, I could only nod.
I was at a conference in Valdez ten years ago and vividly recalled the large city blocks, each with about one house. I was told it was a five-minute walk to the Civic Center; it was closer to fifteen. Everyone drove everywhere. I was told later by an engineer who helped lay out the new town that it was expected that the oil pipeline terminus would create a small city. The terminus of the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay on the northern coast of Alaska, finished in 1977, is across from the town. Oil is shipped out in tankers to refineries in Washington and California. The Valdezian on the plane told me when itís dark and the lights are on, it looks like another town over there.
Today everyone still drives everywhere, but the houses are closer together, although the population has dropped to 4,100. Pedestrians cross the wide paved streets wherever they like and drivers obediently stop for them.
I found the Civic Center as impressive on this visit as before. It is amazingly large, has various meeting rooms and an astoundingly luxurious auditorium. I had been told that was due to the Theater Conference (to my astonishment, the British "Theatre" is not used. I thought it was the law for all American Little Theatres to style themselves thusly). N.B. One of the favorite signs I pass every day while walking my dog is a garage with a notice painted on it as "The Centre for Unspeakable Acts". The British spelling gives it a certain cachet.
Ten years ago I was told the handsome building was the result of some New York luminaries being interested in an annual theater festival. Edward Albee and various others no longer come, but the 20th anniversary was celebrated this year.
This time there were far more boats in the harbor; fishing and charters. People drive the 306 miles down from Anchorage. Keystone Canyon is the loveliest spot, although the mountains we see in Valdez this fall are bare brown above, while below the vegetation lies in soft colors of yellow and orange, Snow is beginning to coat a few peaks; am told glaciers at the bottom are retreating rapidly.
Walking across from the harbor, the metal splashing fish motif on poles supporting the fence becomes clear; there is a fish outline in the sidewalk and along a building foundation. The small yard next door has two little black rabbits I notice as I walk past.
There were no rabbits around a decade ago. Nor sea otters. That evening the spectral city of the pipeline terminus across the way glowed across the harbor and all seemed a world away from Alaska. I do need to return in the winter and head for the post office.