Aaron Selbig/Turnagain Times
Walkers head toward the exit of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel on the Whittier side.
Aaron Selbig/Turnagain Times
Walkers get to see the facilities of Safe House Number Five inside the Whittier Tunnel.
By Aaron Selbig
Turnagain Times Correspondent
“Remain calm and do not panic.”
Those are the first words printed on a list of “emergency instructions” inside Safe House Number 5, one of eight emergency pullouts located throughout the 2.7-mile Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. The safe houses, each stocked with water, toilet facilities, blankets, heat, and an independent circuit for lights, were built in 2000 as part of a $101 million renovation that opened up the tunnel to vehicle traffic for the first time and dramatically improved safety.
“We didn’t want another Mont Blanc happening here,” said Gordon Burton, who manages the tunnel for the state Department of Transportation.
In 1999, 39 people were killed when a truck carrying flour and margarine burst into flames inside the Mont Blanc tunnel, a 7.25 mile-long highway route that runs through the Alps between France and Italy. Although the Mont Blanc tunnel had safe houses similar to Safe House Number 5, they were not, at the time, equipped with doors that could withstand the intense heat of a raging fire. Many of the Mont Blanc victims burned to death inside these “safe houses”.
On a beautiful, sunny Sunday afternoon, June 8, hundreds of people got a rare up-close look at Safe House Number 5 as part of the 7th annual “Walk to Whittier”, a free event that encourages participants to put on hard hats and travel through the tunnel on foot.
“This is the only time I would want to be in here,” said Anchorage resident Larissa Johnson, as she snapped some photos inside Safe House Number 5. Johnson walked the tunnel for the first time last year.
“It was a lot of fun,” she said as she passed the half-way point and strolled toward the light at the end of the tunnel. “Whittier makes a nice destination because it’s so close to town. It’s good to just to get out and have a nice walk.”
The idea of the Walk to Whittier is to show off what the small Prince William Sound community has to offer, according to Whittier Chamber of Commerce vice-president Kelly Bender.
“We’ll never charge for it,” she said. “It’s the one day you can get into Whittier for free.”
Bender said the event, which started as a conversation in the Chamber about how to promote the town, has grown beyond expectations. “That first year we thought maybe a 100 people would show up and we had 400,” she recalled. “Every year it has been growing.”
Bender estimates that 90 percent of the walkers are, like Johnson, local Alaskans who are looking for something a little different to do.
As Bender signed up walkers at the tunnel entrance, local Whittier musher Perry Solmonson had his dog team harnessed and ready to lead the pack through Maynard Mountain—the mountain the tunnel passes through. Whittier Mayor Lester Lunceford grabbed a bullhorn, greeted the hard-hat participants and promised sunshine on the other side of the tunnel.
With that said, the crowd was off and walking.
The bright sunshine in Bear Valley quickly turned to darkness upon entrance into the tunnel. There is a sidewalk running along one side and overhead lights line the ceiling, casting eerie shadows on the jagged rock walls.
“It’s very hard rock”, commented Burton, “It doesn’t fall much.” The hard hats are purely a safety precaution, he said, and there is reinforced netting in place along the length of the rock ceiling that can handle a load up to 1,300 pounds.
The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel was built by the US Army at the onset of World War II, designed to quickly get munitions and other war materials to Anchorage and Interior Alaska. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during the early stages of construction, hastening completion of the project. The tunnel’s namesake, project engineer Anton Anderson, was not present for the big day when the first train went through the tunnel—he was nervous that it wouldn’t work. Finished in 1943 (six months ahead of schedule), the tunnel still serves as a vital link to the port of Whittier, though the military is long gone.
The tunnel is the longest combination road/railway tunnel in North America, and handles 35 percent of all Alaska Railroad freight. For vehicle traffic, motorists pay a $12 toll for a round-trip through the tunnel and must wait for it to be opened in the direction they are traveling either from Bear Valley or Whittier. In the winter, the tunnel’s hours of operation are considerably less than in the summer months, but that is set to change next winter when DOT will receive $500,000 in state funding to expand operations in the winter to 14 to 16 hours per day.
During the renovation project in 2000, the existing railway was removed and replaced with a series of 8,000 pound concrete slabs that line the length of the tunnel. The concrete has grooves built into it to accommodate trains, but is also wide enough for vehicle traffic. In addition to the eight safe houses, the tunnel is equipped with twin Oshkosh T-1000 fire trucks (originally designed to put out fires in commercial jetliners) in the event of an emergency.
The safe houses provided a way for the walkers to mark their progress through the tunnel. Once they got past Safe House Number 5, the light at the end of the tunnel became brighter than the light back at the Bear Valley side. As walkers approached Safe House Number 8, the tunnel exit grew bright and inviting. The green mountains that surrounded Whittier came into view, patched with melting snow and reflected an afternoon sunlight.
Mayor Lunceford was right, it was a beautiful day to be in Whittier.
Did you Know? The Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel has its own website. For more information on the construction and operations of the tunnel, visit dot.alaska.gov/creg/whittiertunnel.