Life after the earthquake: How Good Friday forced Valdez to rebuild and relocate

Published: Oct. 18, 2018 at 12:52 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

The small town of Valdez, on Alaska's Prince William Sound, used to be even smaller.

“It was a very small town. We only had about 460 people and it was one big family. I don't think anybody locked their cars or locked their houses or anything like that,” Tom McAlister said.

McAlister moved to Valdez in the late 1950s. Work brought him up — it was supposed to be only a few months. But like so many, McAlister fell in love with Alaska and settled into the small coastal community.

He and his wife have lived in the same home for decades. The yellow and red house sits on a concrete foundation. It wasn’t always like that. The house was relocated from the original townsite of Valdez, 4 miles away from where the city currently sits.

“The old town was built at the base of Valdez glacier and It grew up organically,” Andrew Goldstein, the Curator of Collections and Exhibitions for Valdez Museum and Historical Archive said, “As a result of that, the entire town was built on a glacial moraine.”

When the deadly Good Friday Earthquake hit in 1964 the glacial moraine gave out. McAlister remembers the minutes of destruction well, “when it shook it turned to mush and went out in the bay.”

“The town was told that they had to relocate, they had 3 years to do it and it was a real traumatic process for the people who lived here,” Goldstein said.

The first building established in the new town is known as Warehouse 1. It currently houses the town’s archives and a museum almost entirely devoted to the new and old townsites.

Blueprints, photos, surveys and documents all housed to chronicle the work of Paul Finfer, the man credited for the new town’s design. To this day, the town showcases its elements of mid-century suburbia. “He said using these cul-de-sac designs is new and it’s just coming in. A few years later I flew over southern California and it's all over the place,” McAlister said before letting out a laugh.

The post-earthquake era allowed the city to establish building codes, use modern materials, create extra-wide streets to deal with snow and rewire the dozens of homes that were moved to the new site.

“One aspect of the town's character that I think was really brought out by this whole process is how Valdezans really had this history of pulling together when we need to and perseverance and determination,” Goldstein said.