An Alaska town living under one roof
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Whittier, Alaska, about 60 miles from Anchorage, is both beautiful and yet gritty. It’s wild, but tame. It’s accessible, but also very remote.
“Yeah, it’s a very strange town, because there’s only one way in and one way out,” said resident Lee Shuford.
Correspondent Lee Cowan asked, “It’s not for everybody. right?”
“No, it’s not for everybody.”
The path to Whittier goes straight under a mountain, into a tunnel bored through more than two miles of solid rock. And that tunnel shuts down at night, leaving Whitter cut off until morning.
“You know, you get to thinking, Oh man, the tunnel’s the only way out. What if there’s an emergency or something and I can’t get out?” Shuford said. “But, I’ve gotten used to it.”
He also had to get used to his address. Shuford, originally from North Carolina, now lives on the 12th floor of what some describe as the “Wilderness Tower.” Now, a high rise does seem out of place here, but what’s more surprising is, the Begich Towers (as they’re officially called) is about the only place to live in all of Whittier.
“People think it’s weird,” said Anna.
“Yeah, it is known as the weirdest city in Alaska,” said her husband, Dave Dickason, who is Whittier’s Mayor.
But is it? “It really isn’t,” the mayor responded.
Anna said, “If I had one word, I’d say it’s magical.”
Just look at the view:
Dave, Anna, and their 18-year-old daughter Jenessa say they have almost everything they need right here at Begich Towers. The Kozy Korner grocery store is stocked with essentials. There’s a post office, a notary, even a church, all just an elevator’s ride away.
“We don’t need all of the big box stores,” said Dave. “We don’t need all of the so-called conveniences of a large city.”
Anna added, “I feel like it’s made us better people. Because it doesn’t matter where you came from, how much money you have, you know, we’re all just here in this town trying to make it work.”
That said, it’s a hard place for a social life. “There’s not a lot of, you know, single people in their twenties and thirties here – I mean, I don’t know why!” Anna laughed.
When asked about Whittier’s social life, Shuford said, “Yep, that can be a little troublesome.”
A few weeks ago, Jenessa started posting about her life in the building on TikTok, and soon had millions of views – and just about as many questions. Regarding the dating question, she said, “Nobody really dates here because we all grew up together and that’d be kinda weird.”
Cowan asked Jenessa, “What are people asking the most?”
“I think the weirdest question that I got was like, ‘Is it a cult?'” she laughed. “It’s like, no, it’s not! I got so many comments on my TikTok saying, ‘It looks sad. It looks depressing.’ The community here, it’s so nice that you don’t really ever feel sad. And you always have someone to talk to.”
It was built by the military during the Cold War as a no-frills barracks. When the military left, the Alaska Railroad took over. It now owns almost all of the inhabitable land in Whittier.
Dickason said, “No one’s going to build a home on property that they don’t own.”
About 300 or so residents live here year-round, many of them new families. The school (yes, there is one; it’s connected to the building by, you guessed it, yet another tunnel) currently has about 50 students ages 3-18.
“It’s important to be here for the right reasons,” said Lindsey Erk, who moved here from South Dakota to teach. “No kid in this school can sit in the back of the classroom and not do something. Every kid is seen. That’s what fills my bucket, and that’s why I want to stay.”
They do take care of their own here – breakfast for the kids is often made by the teachers, and during COVID is delivered right to the doorsteps of students.
“We’re too small to function in isolation,” said Erk.
“You have to collaborate?” asked Cowan.
“You do! You have to be willing to work with each other.”
Victor Shen also works with students here – and he’s also a graduate. He was born and raised in Whittier, and came back because it’s home.
Cowan asked, “What don’t people understand about Whittier?”
“That there’s nothing to do here,” said Shen. “But, everything’s here. I mean, when you think of all those things that you value in a community, we found that here. It’s home.”
To some, it may just be the strangest town in Alaska, but for residents Whittier seems to be the answer to the call of the wild.
Cowan asked Shuford, “What do you want people to know about Whittier?”
“I just want them to know it’s just a unique, beautiful place in its own way,” he said. “Before you judge the town of Whittier, you need to come visit it first.”
For more info:
- Begich Towers, Whittier
- City of Whittier
- Visiting Whittier
- Prince William Sound Museum, Whittier
Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Steven Tyler.