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‘I get the shakes every time’: An eyewitness account of the Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964

Rick Sinnott
Alice and Bob Arwezon lived off of Rabbit Creek Road in Anchorage's Hillside neighborhood during the Great Alaska Earthquake in 1964. Courtesy Alice Arwezon

There were premonitions. On Oct. 27, 1962, two months after moving back to Alaska, Alice felt the “sharpest” earthquake so far. Her husband, Bob, was working on the roof and her first thought was that he had fallen. Bob thought the house was shaking because Alice had done something wrong with the washing machine. But the house kept rocking. The quake was strong enough to knock a few items off shelves.

Alice and Bob Arwezon were in their early 30s. Bob was a big strapping fellow, a former Olympic-level swimmer who had served in the U.S. Army a couple of years. Alice was stick-thin but never one to shy from an adventure. After graduating from college she had worked in Peru. After returning to Michigan, she drove up the Alaska Highway with her cousin Polly DeLong in 1955. She met Bob, who was stationed on Fort Richardson, in Anchorage. They were married a year later in Massachusetts.

Newly minted Alaskans

The couple returned to Alaska in August 1962 and purchased a small home made of cinder blocks. The house was on Mercedes Lane on Anchorage’s Hillside, near the northern end of what became Goldenview Drive. It was about 1,800 square feet. About a third of that was the attached garage, which they turned into a storeroom and workshop. According to Alice, Bob wouldn’t call their new home a basement because it wasn’t underground. He preferred “a flat-roofed ranch.” With the house came five acres of land “and a couple of hundred miles of view.”

The Arwezons embraced Alaska like most newcomers, perhaps with a little more gusto. They attended the Matanuska Valley Fair in September to pay their respects to the prize-winning cabbage, which weighed 48 pounds. A couple of months later, two neighbors shot moose in their backyards. Bob came home later than usual, covered in blood from “chin to toes, front and back,” after helping field dress one. Living on the Hillside was more challenging in the early 1960s. Some neighbors were still proving up on homesteads. The Arwezons were on a 10-party telephone line, which was common outside the city limits of Anchorage.

By January 1963, Alice was describing Alaska as “The Great Land” in a letter to her mother because “that’s what we natives call it.” A week later, while writing to her mother again, Alice felt another large tremor. She noted the exact time in her letter, admitting “I get the shakes every time.”

One of the Arwezons’ neighbors, Charlie Cannon, was a dog musher. In March 1963, he introduced them to Bergman Sam, a musher from Huslia in town for the Fur Rendezvous sprint races. Sam couldn’t transport all his dogs downtown in a single truckload, so Alice filled their Pontiac station wagon with the rest of the team and parked on “Dog Alley,” on Fourth Avenue in front of the post office. Bergman Sam came in second that year, just ahead of his fellow musher and neighbor, George Attla, the Huslia Hustler who would eventually win 10 Rondy world championships. The Arwezons attended the mushers’ banquet and Cannon gave Bob his first lesson in mushing. Smitten with dog-mushing fever, the Arwezons were both running dogs the following winter and “have the bruises to prove it.”

Getting back to normal

Most of Alice’s frequent letters were one or two pages long. On March 31, 1964, she started writing a six-pager. Her first sentence was: “Things are rapidly getting back to normal here.” However, despite that assurance, she still didn’t have the house cleaned up.

The Great Alaska Earthquake is the second strongest ever recorded. When it hit, Alice had just fed the dog. It was immediately apparent that this quake was the strongest she had experienced to date. Alice, the dog, and a cat raced for the front door. Outside on the lawn she noticed the dog food can was still in her hand. Alice tried to prop the storm door open so their other cat could get out, but the door “kept flying away from me.” When the young cat, Demon, finally reached the door, “he was running as though he would never stop.”

The house rocked uncontrollably for about five minutes. So did the grader that Bob used to plow Mercedes Lane after snowstorms. Alice said the massive piece of equipment was dancing like an animated character in a Walt Disney production. The earth didn’t move up and down so much as side to side. It was impossible to stand during the worst of the shaking.

When the shaking subsided, Alice ran into the house to shut off the oil stove. She grabbed a pair of boots, a coat, and a transistor radio. There was nothing on the radio. The telephone was out of order too, although she could still talk to other families on the party line. “The phone system,” Alice remarked tartly, “doesn’t need an earthquake to knock it out.”

For an extended period, every time she entered the house, the shaking would start again. Aftershocks rattled the house four days later.  

During the quake Alice could hear items falling from shelves inside the house. Before she could survey the damage, she had to clear a path to the kitchen. “The smell was awful,” she recalled. “Take some Wesson Oil, some vinegar, some liquor, lots of instant minced onion and some celery seed. Mix well with broken glass and throw on the floor.”  Absent the glass, the concoction would have made a tasty house dressing.

Alice noticed odd things about the pattern of damages. When cupboard doors flew open, “there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason as to why one thing fell out and another thing did not.” A chest of drawers walked away from the wall and the lamp sitting on it fell off, yet a plant perched on the window sill above the lamp stayed put. A friend who had supper on the stove “watched while a pan of beans flew into the air, the tray under the burner flew out, and the pan landed on the tray without spilling a drop.”

‘We sat down and had a drink’

Alice didn’t mention where Bob was when the quake struck; he was probably driving home. After the initial shaking tapered off, neighbors started checking on neighbors. When Bob returned from his house calls, “we sat down and had a drink while we still had ice cubes.”

The battery-powered radio started broadcasting about 55 minutes after the quake. Power lines were down. Bob filled the bathtub full of snow because the well pump wouldn’t work without electricity.

After eating supper they went to bed and rode out a series of aftershocks that kept them awake. When a particularly long and hard shock hit about 5 a.m. they gave up trying to get any sleep.

In the days following the quake Bob helped a good friend, Bob Renkert, get cameras, tape recorders and records from his storage area under Bagoy Florists, in downtown Anchorage. The building was a total loss and was due to be demolished. The Bobs had to crawl under jacked up chunks of sidewalk to reach the storage area. The entire building had dropped at least 10 feet, turning much of the store into a basement, according to Bob Arwezon’s simple formula.

It wasn’t easy to drive across town. “Lots of roads had fissures across them,” Alice reported, “and some were wide ones.” While most of the serious damage was downtown and in other developed areas along the coast, even Rabbit Creek Road had several gaping fissures.

Their radio broadcast information on how to sterilize water with Clorox bleach, where typhoid shots were available and other useful information and instructions. Soon reports of damage and casualties around Anchorage and in other communities started rolling in. Bona fide Alaskans by now, Alice protested, “worst of all, we found out that the outside world thought that the whole state was in ruins. There was no way for us to get messages out that we were fine.”

As she was writing that line to her mother on April 3, one of the worst aftershocks rocked the house. Alice said she flew outside and propped open the storm door, like she had during the first jolt on March 27. “Bob was sort of snickering as I went out,” Alice told her mother, but when the shaking didn’t stop immediately, he left the house too.

Comparing notes with other survivors, Alice observed everyone had similar reactions. On Saturday, the day after the quake, “we were dazed and worried and tired.” On Easter Sunday, “everyone was saying, ‘Weren’t we lucky! Wasn’t it a miracle!’” By Monday the jokes had started.

Over the front door of Mac’s Foto on hard-hit Fourth Avenue, George Herben hung a sign that said “Closed due to early breakup.” A photo of the sign was published in newspapers around the world, according to an Anchorage Times supplement published on the 20th anniversary of the quake. Another store, sunk well below the level of the street, posted a sign: “We knew it was tough doing business in Alaska, but we didn’t think we’d go this far in the hole.”

In another exercise in black humor, Alice reported someone had compiled a parody of Top 10 earthquake-themed tunes based on well-known songs: “A Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On.” “Standing on the Corner Watching All the Streets Divide.” “On the Sunken Side of the Street.”

It wasn’t all fun and games

Of course, it wasn’t all fun and games, and the lucky ones knew just how lucky they had been.

Unlike the Hillside, Turnagain was hard hit by the quake. The area was off-limits to casual onlookers at first. Alice was curious to see the damage. She finally got her wish on June 11. Cleanup was still underway. Houses were being pulled out and the wreckage graded. Homes still standing were getting water from irrigation pipes and hoses that were strung through the streets and yards. Alice told her mother, “I imagine they are getting tired of tourists like us gawking at them, but they had better get used to it because they’re going to have them around all summer.” She estimated 20 cars were cruising the streets at the same time they were. She marveled that more people weren’t killed in the topsy-turvy neighborhood.

Earthquakes continued long after the initial shock. Thousands of aftershocks rocked Southcentral Alaska for more than a year. Most weren’t felt in Anchorage, but Alice wrote of a “quick hard shake” on Dec. 5 that “almost knocked me off my chair.”

In her Christmas 1964 letter to relatives, Alice summed up the Great Alaska Earthquake in five words: “The earth flipped its wig.” In retrospect, she believed the earthquake “may have been a blessing in disguise for Alaska as a whole. The year turned out to be the best ever economically.” New construction was “really new, not just replacement or repair of earthquake damaged buildings.”

Despite her optimistic assessment four days after the big one, things were not quite back to normal, not even by the year’s end. After praising reconstruction efforts around town, she couldn’t resist swatting Alaska’s favorite whipping boy, the Department of Transportation. “Our roads still leave a lot to be desired, however.”

Bob passed away in 2005, Alice last year. She donated slides taken during her early years in Alaska to the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dozens of the Arwezon’s photos of earthquake damage in Anchorage, including their kitchen, can be viewed on the Alaska Digital Archives website

After admitting to doing her own post-quake rubbernecking in Turnagain 50 years ago, I don’t think Alice would mind strangers looking at the mess on her kitchen floor.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com.