Dennis Chapman Collection
Top: The remains of the Columbia Lumber Co. after the earthquake March 1964.
Middle: The forklift at the Two Brothers Lumber Co. at the head of the Passage Canal.
Bottom: Union Oil Co. tank farm after the fires set by the earthquake.
By Ted Spencer
Special to the Turnagain Times
The Michelson and Barnes children were very excited. A big birthday party was in the making for the Dad of the Michelson kids. And the father of the Barnes kids was also coming in on the train after being gone a week.
The residents of the little port town of Whittier were starting to feel the anticipation of spring even though snow flurries were swirling in the air. March was about over and the sunlight was lingering a little longer each day.
The three Michelson and three Barnes kids lived together in the Columbia Lumber Co. personnel housing with their fathers Lewis Michelson and Dave Barnes. The two motherless families had spent the summer together fishing and roughing it in a log cabin in Whittier. As the brutal winter approached they were grateful for the cozy house at the mill on the banks of Whittier Creek. The lumber mill had shut down for the season and the facility was quiet.
An older couple, Lenard and Alberta Day, were serving as caretakers and lived in another company house also at the mill. This was to be their last season in Whittier and they were packing up their belongings to head into a life of retirement in the States.
At the Michelson/Barnes house the aroma of the birthday dinner wafted through the building. Joining the two families were a couple of visitors from Soldotna who had also come in on the afternoon train. Francis Damon and her 16 year old son Larry were friends of the family and the boy was going to help Lewis Michelson work on his fishing boat for the upcoming season.
It started with muted rumble that seemed to come from every direction. A slight trembling sensation started in the floor racing upward through the soles of one's feet. The dishes and glasses in the cupboards started to tinkle and click together and then the dishes on the table began to shimmy across the surface. Everyone instantly fell silent and glanced at each other—another quake.
In the twinkling of a second the room started to throw from side to side. It picked up speed and everyone tried to hang onto whatever they could. The small children started crying out. The whole building began to whipsaw, thrashing and tilting from one position to the next as an unreal world turned upside down. The steaming dinner flew off the stove and splattered across the floor. The cupboards and the refrigerator door flew open and the contents shot straight out into midair. In slow motion, the heaving walls of the room collided with the suspended dishes and food and crashed to the floor.
Then the floor itself buckled and no one could stand. The whole world was now rapidly slamming back and forth at 45 degree angles. The mind races to understand what is happening. Furniture, the television set and the refrigerator are hurling across the room to smash into pieces against the walls. Water jets up from broken pipes and the sound of splintering wood and breaking glass terrify the ability to think. And the sound of the ethereal rumble permeates it all.
For most people in Southcentral Alaska this surreal destruction went on for five minutes. For the 12 people at the Columbia Lumber Mill, they didn't have that kind of time. In addition to the earthquake, Whittier was about to experience its own special unique disaster.
Offshore, beneath the gray green waters of Passage Canal, giant landslides with hundreds of tons of earth, gave way. The massive movement of the earth displaced the waters of Prince William Sound causing a localized tsunami. The flat surface of the Passage Canal rapidly rose like an overflowing bathtub.
Whittier School Collection
The Columbia Lumber Co. before it was wiped out by a 104' tsunami.
A 20-30 foot wave crashed into the Whittier waterfront, administering the first blow. Within moments a second wave, an unbelievable monster later measured at 104 feet high, slammed ashore. This second wave, full of churning timbers and debris, crushed and wiped away everything in its path. The Columbia Lumber Co. and its twelve inhabitants disappeared. The mill was leveled to the ground leaving only splinters of wood. The remains of the four families were never found.
At the opposite end of town another life and death drama was unfolding.
“Jerry Ware, a railroad maintenance man, was standing at the car barge dock. He drove to his house near the depot for his wife and six month old daughter. A wave came in the window and smashed the trailer, throwing Mrs. Ware clear but washed away Geriann, the infant.
Ware was swept through the porch wall and rode and swam with the porch door. He found his wife in the mud and water clear of the trailer. She had serious injuries, with pieces of wood embedded in her body, a fractured ankle and an injured shoulder. She was airlifted out of Whittier the next afternoon on the first flight out and eventually evacuated to Seattle where she recovered. Her baby was found alive in a snow bank but died shortly afterwards.” (Courtesy of Norton & Haas ca. 1970).
All up and down the Whittier waterfront the destruction was complete. Two Brothers Lumber Co. suffered the same fate of the Columbia mill. The plant at the head of the Canal was reduced to rubble leaving only the steel “wigwam” burner still standing. The conveyer used to deliver the scrap wood into the burner was driven by the force of the waves clear through the steel structure. The tsunami flipped and flung a large forklift onto its back with a length of 2x6 lumber piercing the rubber of a heavy ply tire.
The Whittier Creek bridge, docks and Union Oil tank farm also suffered destruction. One of the dock towers crashed into the water, sections of the wharf disappeared and the railroad marshalling yards were torn up and covered with debris.
The railroad depot took a heavy hit from one of the killer waves caving in one end of the building. The large Union Oil tank farm, consisting of 13 huge fuel storage tanks and a dock facility was demolished. The tanks held 9.5 million gallons of gasoline, diesel fuel, aviation gas and kerosene.
The tsunamis' ruptured the giant tanks and a spark from the boiler house set the entire tank farm ablaze. Fire and explosions sent huge black billowing smoke clouds thousands of feet up into gray sky. Union Oil families living across the street from the tank farm had to run for their lives to higher ground. The fire burned for three days.
Electric power was knocked out plunging Whittier into darkness. As the snow softly fell, the ground continued to tremble. The massive fire from the tank farm roared away into the night. Communications were down. Avalanches, destroyed roads, bridges and rail lines completely sealed Whittier from the outside world.
Initially dazed, the residents quickly rallied into an emergency mode to bring systems back on line, assess the damage and to look for the missing. Within six hours they had the power back on. Fortunately beyond the catastrophic damage on the waterfront, the main buildings of Whittier suffered only light to moderate damage. This was due in part to the bedrock foundation upon which the community of Whittier sits. The stout construction of the military buildings that make up most of the town protected the majority of the inhabitants from one on the largest earthquakes on record.
The next morning the US Army sent a twin engine “Iroquois” reconnaissance plane over Whittier to access the status of the little town. Down below were the billowing clouds of black smoke roiling up into the sky, little splinters of wood, mangled piles of equipment, buildings and logs. Begich Towers and the Buckner Building were still standing.
Soon the sound of U.S. Army's H-21 helicopters filled the air as the silver and red machines settled down on roads and open spaces. The Great Alaskan Earthquake was over; leaving but the massive cleanup and the mourning of the lost souls to be done.
Today one can still see twisted metal and other debris on the water's edge around Passage Canal, The Inn at Whittier Hotel sits where the Columbia Lumber Co. used to be. The evidence of March 27, 1964 may be fading into time, but the memory is never far away from the minds of the survivors.
Many thanks to: Coleen Mielke, Dick Osborn, Margret Basta, and Dennis Chapman for their research memories and photos.
Ted Spencer is the Executive Director of the Prince William Sound Museum in Whittier.