Valdez Rises: One Town’s Struggle for Survival After the Great Alaska Earthquake
By Tabitha Gregory. Sapphire Mountain Books, 2021. 325 pages. $19.95.
A visitor to Valdez today may very well look around and say (or think), “Wow, this place has a spectacular setting, but why is the town so characterless and unattractive?” Of course, the pipeline years, when Valdez became the terminus of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, had a role in that. The bigger story, told now in detail by Tabitha Gregory, has to do with the relocation of the entire community after the devastating 1964 Great Alaska Earthquake.
Gregory, who now lives in Spokane, Washington, lived in Valdez for 22 years and served as director of the Valdez Museum. She’d wondered why, in a museum heavy on the town’s gold rush history, the earthquake, the building of the pipeline, and even the Exxon Valdez oil spill, there was next to nothing to tell the story of how the entire town was moved. She set out, with intensive archival research and interviews with long-time Valdezans, to recover the untold story.
Nearly 60 years after the events, she’s produced a definitive and readable text that’s also instructive for our present time.
The author enlivens the story by supplementing her research-based narrative with the personal stories, told in their own words, of key characters, plus excerpts from newspaper stories and gossip columns, letters and other primary sources. What might have been a dry telling of this-happened-and-then-that-happened becomes a story driven by personalities and anecdotal details. Period photos, maps, drawings and footnotes all add to the effect.
The first section sets the stage with the introduction of several characters who each tell of their earthquake experiences through oral history, interviews and other documents. Facts of the earthquake, its extensive damage to infrastructure, the deaths of 32 local people and the immediate aftermath are described. The town’s history, going back to its gold rush days and proceeding, fills out this section. We learn of the town’s character through the lives of its intrepid pioneers and the challenges of living with severe weather.
The next section, covering the rest of 1964, tells of the arrival of help (so many agencies with so many acronyms that residents referred to them collectively as “the government people”) and all the confusion and chaos of disaster response. Geologic studies quickly determined that the town’s location on an outwash delta built of fine sediments was inherently unstable and was continuing to slide seaward. Fortunately, it seemed, there was an alternative. A couple of pioneer families owned a large, flat parcel 4 miles to the west, resting on cobble gravel. The owners were willing to donate it to the city. (The “donation” became something less than that and resulted in years of litigation, but at the time seemed a perfect, altruistic solution.) A decision was made to move the entire town, and a planner was hired to lay out a model community with separate commercial and residential districts and a park strip.
From today’s point of view, when just getting a building permit can take months and improving a road can involve years, things in Valdez moved impressively fast. Meetings — many meetings — were held, plans drawn up, properties appraised, construction begun. A new school built of steel was up and running by fall. (Today it houses the community college.) A commercial dock and harbor soon followed. Families began building new homes on lots distributed by an agreed-upon system, while others moved and upgraded existing buildings. The federal deadline for the complete move was Oct. 1, 1967, at which point whatever was left at the old site was to be razed and burned.
Not everything went smoothly, of course. The city council, with non-stop meetings and weighty decisions, faced exhaustion, infighting, and a very high turn-over. Some people resisted the move until the very end and had to be evicted. Neighbors fought over property lines and with contractors. A significant portion of families left Valdez altogether — although new ones moved in, attracted by construction and other jobs. By February 1968 the old town was finally abandoned and the new, modern one up and running, with 225 dwelling units and 40 commercial and public buildings.
One thing that didn’t happen was any preservation of the old town and its heritage (other than what residents took with them.) A late effort to save some of the historic buildings in a “pioneer village” or as a state park came close to success but ultimately fizzled. Today, all that’s left of the old town is the foundation of its post office.
There was barely time for the residents of the new town to settle in before word came of an oil pipeline. Gregory makes the point that “Valdez’s leadership was quick to recognize opportunity.” Its administration and council had just completed a massive bureaucratic and labor-intensive project and had significant experience working with state and federal agencies, congresspeople and engineers. When the town won the terminal, Gregory writes, “The memories of the relocation epic faded quickly. The pipeline tsunami overwhelmed and overwrote the years of upheaval, tedious processes, burn out, and loss along with the hope, tenacity and resilience” that resulted in the new town.
“Valdez Rises” should appeal to anyone interested in the community of Valdez and its people, local history, planned communities, and the functioning of communities following disasters. In its final section, where Gregory considers “lessons learned,” she discusses the new reality of community relocation due to climate change and other environment disasters. The story of a town forced to relocate in a sudden emergency shows that with community commitment and government help it can be done. Preplanning and careful execution of a move can make the job easier — if never easy.