Alaska News

1964 earthquake looms large in childhood memory of Valdez, Alaska

We all had nicknames in those days. It was "Jumpy," "Spike," "Fuzzy," "Cricket," "Four Eyes," "Gig" and everything else you could think of. "Gig," with a soft g, because his little brother Johnny couldn't say "George." We played board games, and "Jumpy" realizing he lost, would upend the board and walk off. Spike was a killer at throwing snowballs and strikes in baseball. To this day, he is still a great guy. If we did not have nicknames, we were called Tommy, Danny, Billy, Jimmy; none of this full-name stuff. I, of course, was "Four Eyes." I was teased unmercifully. My brother has the same vision problems. He, being older, had an operation to correct his vision. He could see straight, he just couldn't see all the colors. My beautiful hazel eyes viewed the world through thick, Coke-bottle glasses.

It was a small town, less than a thousand people. The Army left after World War II and their post was now called "Dayville." The Day family purchased Ft. Liscum as surplus. This was later sold to some oil companies for a pipeline terminal. My father worked for the city and made an unsuccessful attempt to restart the hydroelectric plant in Solomon Gulch above Dayville. The vote, lost by one, kept the diesel generators owned by the Meals family operating for a couple more decades. My dad even went out to find Billy Quits at his mine on voting day to make sure everyone voted.

The town was small enough that everyone knew all of us children. I remember my first cigarette. A bunch of us kids smoked some cigarettes on the edge of town. My parents scolded me as I returned home. Looking back it was good to have the whole town watching out for me. Everyone knew my name or at least my family. We looked out for one another.

The day was March 27, Good Friday, a day off from school. It was not windy, snowing or raining, so people were out visiting and shopping. The Steamship Chena had arrived that morning, where many of the men worked as longshoremen, unloading the groceries and freight for Valdez and Fairbanks. All of the goods were off loaded on pallets and delivered to stores. This was a summer fishing town. In the winter, the fathers took every available job to make ends meet.

At the post office I ran into Billy. We were in Boy Scouts. Billy needed to finish one more training session to become a First-Class scout. I helped him with the compass course he needed. The streets in our town were laid out north-to-south, so it was an easy lesson. After a while, Billy's dad came by and they went off to do some work.

As Billy left with his dad, I caught up with Dennis and Stanley walking toward the dock where the Chena was tied up. In those days, when the ship came in, everyone went down to the dock.

In school the older boys bragged about the "goodies" they received from the ships. This was exciting to me. I was younger and always looking for an adventure. So when I saw the older boys, I tagged along. As boys 12 to 15 we went off to see the steamship; watching the town's dads offload the cargo. The older boys had been on the docks before and knew how to find favor with the galley crew. We wandered on and off the ship taking in the busy activity. They also knew that two was company and three was a crowd. With me, they played the game of hide and go seek. This turned out to be "Ditch Danny." So I decided to go home. Other friends passed me, walking toward the dock, as I left.

The moment I entered the house, the earthquake began. It all started as sound. Sort of like a big truck driving by, followed closely by an endless freight train with a landslide crashing down. A sound I remember to this day. This is my gauge for all earthquakes. I have not heard that sound since 1964.

The sound, however, was the background music to the main event. Everything around crashed onto the floor. I scurried around trying to catch books, plants, bricks, shelves, photographs, lamps and ebony elephants. This was all in vain. It was difficult to stand. With each step the floor moved. My feet never landed where I put them. Looking out the windows the trees whipped back and forth. It lasted so long, my thoughts told me the earthquake was never going to stop. In the end I was on my hands and knees. Our house was still standing.

In those days Valdez had two docks, one at the end of the main road and the second two blocks over at the end of Keystone Avenue. We lived on Keystone Avenue three blocks from the small boat harbor. The Chena was tied up at the main dock. Normally, from the front of our house we could see the warehouses and masts of the ships at either dock. Today was different for the four boys in the family.

After the earthquake we ran outside to see if the trees remained standing. Our interest changed immediately as we watched the Chena rise up over the top of the dock and buildings. We were looking at the red bottom of the ship. We watched the ship travel from right to left, going up and down with each successive wave of water. The ship would go down so all we could see was the top of the masts, then rise to show the propeller. With eyes glued on the ship, we moved closer and closer to the water. The ship ground through the small boat harbor, demolished the second dock and washed onto the mud flats on the edge of town. Another wave came, and drew her back into the bay. The water around our feet finally brought us to our senses. We rushed home to tell our dad about the fate of the steamship and docks.

When my mother came home from work, I told her about my friends on the dock. I remember going with her to tell their moms.

As darkness fell, electrical sparks down the street lit up the water. The water was also higher than earlier. During the earthquake many of the storage tanks ruptured, spilling fuel onto the water. Then the fuel ignited into separate infernos at the fuel depots. The fire alarm sounded to call out the volunteer firemen. The firemen were few in number because many were washed out to sea with the dock earlier.

All seven of us loaded into the station wagon, moving to safety near the Glacier Stream Bridge. We watched from afar, thinking what was left after the earthquake and tidal waves, was now burning. The brave men who stayed to fight the fires built snow berms to contain the flames. All was not lost. We were the fortunate ones who would return to our own beds for the night.

The next day we awoke to a whole new world. A silence now replaced the bustle of the previous day. Our small town would never be the same.

Dan Kendall spent his childhood in Valdez, teenage years in Spenard, and the remainder with his wife Melinda in Chugiak. Together they have raised five children and now have six grandchildren. He has played an active role in the communities of Chugiak and Eagle River for the past 30 years, volunteering on many boards and commissions. He served on the Anchorage Assembly from 1994 to 2004. Dan, after a 35-year career, retired from ENSTAR Natural Gas Co. in 2012. For the last eight years Dan has continued to hone his political skills as president of Knik Little League.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Dan Kendall

Dan Kendall spent his childhood in Valdez, teenage years in Spenard, and the remainder with his wife Melinda in Chugiak. Together they have raised five children and now have six grandchildren. He has played an active role in the communities of Chugiak and Eagle River for the past 30 years, volunteering on many boards and commissions. He served on the Anchorage Assembly from 1994 to 2004. Dan, after a 35-year career, retired from ENSTAR Natural Gas Co. in 2012. For the last eight years Dan has continued to hone his political skills as president of Knik Little League.

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