Alaska News

'64 Quake: In harm's way: Valdez and Chenega Bay years fail to erase memories of quake (Published 3/28/89)

This story was originally published on March 28, 1989, as part of a series on the 25th anniversary of the 1964 Good Friday earthquake.

Last of three parts

CHENEGA BAY - Every now and then, the ground rocks for a second or two, rattling windows and spooking the island people of Chenega Bay.

Carol Ann Wilson grabs her three young kids and herds them up the spruce covered hill behind the village. Most of the other 60 or so villagers head for higher ground, too.

Across Prince William Sound in Valdez, the shaking sets Tom Gilson's pulse racing. Scenes from 25 years ago flash through his head.

No one in Chenega Bay or Valdez talks much anymore about the 1964 Good Friday earthquake. There's not much evidence left of what happened. But in quiet ways, the earthquake is still being felt by people in both places.

"A truck will rumble by and I'll think about it, " said Gilson, who was 13 years old when the earthquake hit. "We'll get a little shake and I'll think about it. . . . I'm not afraid to admit it: It made a huge impression on me."


Gilson is not alone. In ways large and small, the earthquake shaped Chenega Bay and Valdez. More people - 32 - died in Valdez than anywhere else. Chenega was second. The damage was so bad in both places that they had to be moved. The people were marked by both the disaster and the uprooting, the courses of their lives altered a little or a lot. Kids went to school where they did because of the earthquake. Married couples met because of it. Families were wrecked by it.

Other communities were damaged by the earthquake. Valdez and Chenega Bay were defined by it.

"There's hardly anyone here who's life wasn't affected, " said Wilson, waving her hand around Chenega Bay. "Really affected. I mean, how could you go through that and not be affected.?"


Dorene Eleshansky always wears shoes. Even when she's just sitting home, watching TV with her family at night. She doesn't want to be barefoot in the snow ever again.

She was a newlywed in Chenega that spring, living with her husband, Mike, and his folks in one of the village's 20 or so little woodframe houses. Chenega also boasted a store and a Russian Orthodox church; Chenegans were widely known for their piety.

Most of the buildings rested on pilings above the beach, clustered together at the end of a little cove on an island south of Whittier. On a rise behind the village sat a little white school with a red roof. Behind the school rose a spruce-studded mountain slope.

Chenega was the oldest Native settlement in Prince William Sound. The people who lived there were Chugach Eskimos, a mix of Aleut, Yupik and Athabascan blood, who had inhabited the Sound for thousands of years. In 1964, they still killed and ate seal, sea lion, bear and blacktail deer. But many of the men in the village were commercial fishermen as well, and their families mixed the traditional food with store-bought groceries.

Most of the houses had no electricity or running water. There was no sewer system, and no TV. For fun, movies were shown at the school on Friday nights. On Good Friday the movie scheduled was "The House on Haunted Hill."

Dorene was washing her hands in a basin on the kitchen counter when the floor began to roll and the walls started creaking. She was barefoot, but she didn't stop to put on her shoes as she and Mike dashed out.

As the earthquake continued, Mike jogged down to the little dock. He watched the water rush from the cove, uncovering the sea bottom 100 yards out, 500, 1,000 farther than it had ever gone.

It went out so fast and so far that Mike had a hard time understanding what he saw. But he knew water that went out so fast was going to come back fast, too. So he scrambled up the bank, grabbed Dorene and took off up the hill, joining other villagers in their race toward high ground. Among them was 4yearold Carol Ann Kompkoff, carried in one arm by her father, Nick. He had 3yearold Norma Jean in his other arm, while Julia, 9, ran alongside, clutching his hand.

Mike and Dorene got high enough. The Kompkoffs didn't.

The water returned in a wave 35 feet high. Even though it was starting to break as it hit the shore, the wave swept over the village and raced 70 feet uphill. Carol Ann and her dad were hurled across a creek and into a snowbank. The wave snatched the other two girls from his grip and took them away forever.

From above, Mike and Dorene watched Chenega die.

"We heard a terrible crack, " Dorene recalled recently. "It was the church, I think. Tide just rolled in over everything. It all just washed away."

Twenty three villagers died with Chenega. Many of them were elders, who had sought refuge in the church. Three other villagers were killed on an island nearby. In no more than 10 minutes, about onethird of the population of Chenega had been wiped out.

When the killer wave receded, it left little but the splintered stumps of broken pilings. All that was standing was the little white schoolhouse and the stunned, frightened survivors. Terrified of more waves, they did not go down to stay in the schoolhouse. Instead, the villagers spent the night huddled in the snow around a campfire. On her chilled feet, Dorene wore a pair of borrowed slippers.



In Valdez, 100 miles to the east, 13yearold Tom Gilson was squeezed into the back seat of a car, cruising through town with his big brother and three friends. They were headed toward the waterfront, hoping to scrape their boredom away by watching the 400foot steam freighter Chena unload. Boredom wouldn't be a problem much longer.

Valdez should never have been built where it was the middle of the outwash delta of a glacier, on a spongy bed of sand, silt and gravel. But the town hadn't been planned; it was thrown up in a blur during the Klondike gold rush.

Its location had been favored over higher ground a few miles west because it was closer to the Valdez Glacier, which thousands of prospectors tried to use as a highway to the Interior and Canada. A census in 1905 found 12,000 people there. In 1912 three newspapers and a magazine were being published. In 1916, the University of Valdez opened, offering 20 courses. Neither the census nor the history books counted the saloons and brothels.

By 1964, Valdez was a dying. Freight was bypassing the port for Seward, where it could be loaded on the Alaska Railroad. Fewer than 1,000 people remained and businesses were closing.

"We were losing money and we wanted out, " said Bob Kelsey, whose family owned the dock and a fuel distributorship. "The problem was nobody wanted to buy it. We couldn't get out."

With the Chena in town, though, the Kelsey dock was bustling on Good Friday afternoon. Men working as temporary longshoremen were unloading everything from Easter lilies to heavy equipment. Families drifted down a long pier to watch.

When the ground started shaking, Gilson and his friends thought someone had snuck up behind their car and was jumping on the trunk. Once they scrambled out, though, they could see that something else was happening. Something horrible.

Utility poles crashed down. Buildings shook apart. The bell of the Catholic Church rang of its own accord. Avalanches plunged down the mountains that surrounded the town. The earth rumbled and groaned. The ground split open in long, deep cracks that spouted water, sewage and sand into the air.


Things happened so fast that, afterward, eyewitnesses couldn't agree on the order of events. Water rushing away from shore. A 30foot wave coming back. People on the pier racing for dry land. The big docks dissolving. The piers disintegrating. People vanishing into the water.

As he scrambled up the flooded street toward home, Gilson turned toward the waterfront and saw something so amazing that its with him still: the Chena on its side, held above the waterfront by a wave, thrown so far forward that he could see its propellor turning slowly in the air.


Tom Gilson and his friend, Bill Walker, sat at a table in the Totem Inn recently, finishing their morning coffee and trying to explain how the earthquake changed Valdez.

"When we sit down and talk, we don't say 1962 or 1966, " said Walker, a lawyer. "We say two years before the earthquake or two years after. It changed everybody's point of reference."

It also changed the town's location. The earthquake and tidal wave convinced city leaders to move to higher, firmer ground.

Gilson, the Valdez city treasurer, pointed out a short, wiry man sitting with a group of retirees, joking with the waitress.

"That's the guy you need to talk to, " Gilson said. "That's Red Ferrier."

Ferrier, a retired commercial fisherman, is a local legend because he rode out the tidal wave that rolled through the narrows that day.

"That damn wave gets a few inches bigger every time I tell the story, " he said, shaking his head and chuckling.

Ferrier and his wife, Marion, were among the last people to move out of old Valdez. Their house wasn't damaged that badly, and like a lot of people they were in no hurry to move.

Many had to go into debt to afford a new house in the new town, and even with low-interest government loans they weren't happy about it. The move caused a lot of infighting and political turmoil. In the first post-earthquake election, every city councilman who ran was turned out of office.

Even so, the move went quickly. Planners from Indiana laid out the new town on the higher ground a few miles to the west, the same place rejected by settlers 70 years earlier.


The buildings of old Valdez were condemned and bought by the federal government. Some were moved to the new town site; most were burned. Residents were given the choice of taking a lot in the new town or leaving.

A couple of big meetings were held to let people pick their lots. Few of the residents had really looked the new town site over; many of the lots hadn't even been cleared yet.

"We just put up a big map on the wall, " recalled Charles LaPage, who was brought in from Anchorage to oversee the project for the state.

"We needed to get the ball rolling, so I said to George (Gilson), who had the grocery store, I said, "George where do you want your store?' He said, "Aw, I don't know.' Nobody wanted to go first. Finally, he said, "Where's the main street. What's a good corner?' He finally picked one, then someone else picked one and so on."

One by one, businesses and families moved to new Valdez, abandoning the old town.

"It was eerie living over there in the old town by the end, " said Marion Ferrier. "All those vacant buildings all around you . . . Fires going all the time." She and Red finally gave in and traded their fishing boat for a mobile home in the new town.


Within three years of the earthquake, old Valdez was a ghost town.


The surviving Chenegans spent the summer after the earthquake living in government-issue tents in the village of Tatitlek, on the coast south of Valdez. The Bureau of Indian Affairs finally put up some small houses, dubbed "Chenega houses." But many of the Chenegans weren't happy in Tatitlek and started drifting away.

"That place wasn't right for some of the people, " said Paul Kompkoff Sr. "I don't know what it was . . . They were away from the hunting and fishing that they knew."

Some of them had terrible nightmares for years about running from the water, about losing their families. Nick Kompkoff moved what was left of his family to Cordova and then Anchorage, where he worked for the post office, then became a Russian Orthodox priest. His daughter, Carol Ann, remained so terrified of water that she fought her parents for years when they bathed her.

The Chenegans scattered as far away as Seattle, but maintained a village council for the next 20 years, a sort of government in exile that would met once a year in gatherings as much like the old village potlatches as they could make them. Nick Kompkoff and others began talking about resettling their village.

For years, back-to-the-village leaders were fixed on a return to Chenega Island until 1976, when a group of Chenegans returned to the old site. Villagers became so upset during a ceremony to put up a memorial plaque that it became clear another site would have to be found.

They settled on a hillside above Crab Bay, on Evans Island 20 miles south of the old village. It took congressional action and years of bureaucratic maneuvering, but a new village was built, and in 1984, the Chenegans began trickling back. They named the place Chenega Bay.


Old Valdez is just a big field nowadays, with a few cement foundations and a sign listing the dead.

New Valdez has no center, no real downtown, few old buildings. The original master plan, calling for a big central mall with most of the stores and offices under one roof, was scrapped early on and businesses today are scattered among huge, vacant lots. Houses are packed in neat rows with small, treeless yards, set back away from the rest of the town.

"I think it's nicer here now, " said Marion Ferrier. ". . . Even if it did take a while to get used to your new neighbors and being thrown into a new place."

It's richer, too. The earthquake was good for Valdez business. People like the Kelseys, who were thinking about leaving, suddenly found a reason to stay and tens of millions of outside dollars flowed into the town during the relocation. A new dock and smallboat harbor were built.

"There was a future all of a sudden, " said Kelsey.

When oil was discovered at Prudhoe Bay, Valdez was picked as the place where the pipeline would end and oil would be loaded on tankers. The population boomed. The economy heated up. Public buildings were built. Money poured through Valdez, so much that the town has its own $20 million permanent fund.

Yet, there always has been a division in Valdez, one that goes back to the earthquake. The 3,500 townspeople are divided into two groups: those who endured it and everybody else. It's a hard place for a newcomer to fit in.

"I was talking to somebody just the other day, " said Gilson, "and he said, "What is it with you people? I've lived here 12 years and I feel like I just moved here. You're so damn cliquish.' I don't think of us like that, but there's definitely that impression."

So many people moved to Valdez in the past 10 years that newcomers easily outnumber the earthquake survivors. Some of them are only vaguely aware of what actually happened on Good Friday 1964.

"When was it, Easter Sunday?" asked Mike Penagis, who moved to Valdez a decade ago and runs a pizza parlor on the waterfront. "It doesn't bother me. That's history as far as I'm concerned. I kind of like the little (tremors) that we get."

Valdez today is as prepared for an earthquake as anyplace in Alaska. When the city was rebuilt, homes and most businesses were placed several blocks from the waterfront and a strict building code was enforced.

Still, whenever there's a tsunami warning and there have been six in the past four years some owners of fishing boats and cabin cruisers head out of the harbor toward deep water to ride it out.

People get in their cars and head for higher ground, even driving up the Richardson Highway into the Chugach Mountains to wait out the warnings.

Others, mostly newcomers, go down to the waterfront to watch the wave come in.

Earlier this year, there was talk among some residents of using the 25th anniversary of the earthquake for a celebration of the town's history. Some of the oldtimers bristled.

"I think there's a lot of people who don't understand, " said Dorothy Moore, a junior high school teacher and a Valdez native who is chairwoman of the city's historical commission. "We'll have a rememberance, a memorial service. But we definitely don't want to call it a celebration."


The only outward sign of the earthquake in Chenega Bay is a little wood-grain plaque listing those who died, atop a door frame in the village corporation office.

Even though nearly everyone in the village lost family in 1964, the earthquake is rarely mentioned.

"We don't talk about it any more, " said Pete Selanoff, one of the original settlers of the new village. "We've heard each other's stories."

Most of the two dozen houses in Chenega Bay sit 50 to 100 feet above the water, in an area untouched by waves during the 1964 earthquake. Yet people still climb up the mountainside whenever there's a tsunami warning, and village leaders are considering a shelter up there to keep people dry and warm.

Chenega Bay is as comfortable as any village in Bush Alaska new, prefabricated homes with picture windows and postcard views of the bay and mountains, a water and sewer system that means bathrooms and washing machines in each house. The water is full of fish; the woods are full of wildlife, so much that Selanoff shot and killed a black bear from his bedroom window last summer.

Some of the older residents, like Paul and Minnie Kompkoff, Mike and Dorene Eleshansky and John and Maggie Totemoff, mix the old ways with the new. They hunt seal and sea lion but fish commercially. They take long steam baths, then watch satellite TV or videotapes.

"I liked the idea of coming back with my own people, " said Paul Kompkoff "I wanted it to be like old Chenega."

Some of the younger ones, those who grew up in the city and never really knew old Chenega, were eager for a taste of village life. Carol Ann met her husband, Philip Wilson, in Anchorage. He is an Athabascan from Nondalton and was curious about living on the coast, and she wanted to raise their family near her mother and relatives. Her father, Nick Kompkoff, died two years ago and is buried next to the Orthodox church.

"I used to think, "My God, how can I go without McDonald's?' " she said. ""How am I gonna heat with a wood stove?' Now, when I go back to Anchorage, I can't wait to get back here."

Yet Chenega Bay faces many of the same problems confronting other villages. There aren't enough jobs. Young people spend a dizzying amount of time in front of TVs. Many of the kids show little interest in traditional culture but don't do well in school. Older residents complain that no one works together like the old days.

Many survivors never came back. Villagers say it was just too tough for some of them emotionally. Others got used to urban conveniences. Many of the older Chenegans wanted to live closer to hospitals and doctors and be less dependant on erratic float plane service. Because of that, Chenega Bay is now a village without many elders.

"There's days when you're downhearted and kind of blue, and you get to thinking about it, " said Maggie Totemoff, who lost her mother, step father and stepbrother. "You miss the ones you love, even after all these years. You miss 'em and you want to cry."

David Hulen

David Hulen is editor of the ADN, He's been a reporter and editor at ADN for 36 years. As a reporter, he traveled extensively in Alaska. He was a writer on the "People In Peril" series and covered the Exxon Valdez oil spill. He was co-editor of the "Lawless" series. Reach him at