Buckner Building, Whittier, Alaska


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Explorers: Freak
    I decided to take Memorial day weekend to visit this odd little town, which boasts not only a rail tunnel, utility tunnels, and possible abandoned pedestrian tunnels, but also the largest abandoned building in Alaska. The 2 hour trip into Whitter was largely uneventful, although it was the first time I'd ridden on the Alaska Railroad (roundtrip fare was $55). Along the way we passed through two tunnels, a short rail tunnel and the longer Anton Anderson tunnel. Until recently this was the only land route into Whittier, but now it's possible to drive through the longest combined road/rail tunnel in the US.
     I intended to do some kayaking and/or hiking as well as investigating the many tunnels and the large abandoned building, but the weather prevented me from doing much (I could have on the first day, Sunday, but I delayed untill Memorial day monday when the wind and rain were too bad). The train ride from Anchorage was fun, I was able to spend a lot of time in the rear RDC control cab, including the ride through both tunnels. Once we arrived I spent a little time around town, visitited the Begich tower where most of the town lives to see if I could get on the roof or into the tunnels, but found the place too unfreidnly and spooky to hang around (cameras everywhere, no decorations, wierd smells, wierd people, and most of the interesting parts locked up tight). I then walked over to the Buckner building, the large abandoned Cold War relic that I'd mainly wanted to see. I circled the structure once, it's quite large, then entered and looked around briefly on some of the lower floors. My full pack was getting heavy, so I decided to stash it in an out of the way place and continue exploring. I went up to the top of the building, past the highest full floor and up two floors of an elevator penthouse, where I found a place to leave my gear behind a motor. I then got what I thought I'd need (camera, headlamp, and survival kit) and explored the building floor by floor from the top down.
     I tried to methodically examine the building, and after the day and a half there I think I saw everything, but the first full exploration was the most inteteresting. I found most of the best areas mentioned on websites elsewhere, and saw that the place was not as "stripped" as I had somewhat expected. Most of the furniture was gone, but there were a lot of remaining bathroom fixtures, pipes and utilities, and built in fixtures like bars and kitchen equipment. The vandalism was pretty heavy, almost every window was smashed and there was grafitti everywhere. Water damage was also very extensive. All the roofs are flat, with raised lips that collect large ponds in some areas. The drain pipes are cracked and broken, letting water run down through the building and soak through every level. Decaying sheetrock makes a calcium sludge on the floors and creates stalactites and other cavelike deposits on the levels below. The elevators are all stalled on various floors, some of the doors have been pried open to reveal the dark shafts filled with water at the lowest level, and a few of the elevator cars have been broken into. 4 elevators and 4 main stairways provide paths through the building, along with fire escapes at each end of the side wings that extend out from the main building. A large hallway runs down the center of each floor serving as a main street of sorts, although in some of the areas reserved for officers this is blocked by double doors. The building is actually made of 6 independent sections with a 6in gap between each, allowing protection from earthquake damage. A lot of the wood and metal panels covering these gaps are missing, allowing a view down 6 floors to the basement. The floor numbering system is rather odd, the upper 4 floors are called 1,2,3, and 4, but the floor below 1 is the ground floor, even through it is only at ground level at the rear of the building. The "basement" is at ground level and has exterior doors on three sides, and below that are several sub-basements and standing-height crawlspaces connected by small utilitiy tunnels. Some of the steam tunnels likely extend out of the building to other areas of town, a book about Whittier described twin pedestrian and steam tunnels connecting the Buckner and Hodge (Begich) buildings, and a manhole between the two is stamped "steam". (Update: this was found to be a vault accessing buried steam lines)
     I searched for the connecting pedestrian tunnels with at first little luck. I found one tunnel, which seemed intended for public access by it's size and the setup of stairways and handrails, but it was at the wrong end of the building away from the rest of the town. At the bottom a large cluster of pipes seemed to deny the public access idea, but a welded and bolted door led out under the street, and a camera pushed through a hole showed a wide tunnel beyond. I later talked to a few locals about the potential tunnel under town, and from what I was told it seems that this tunnel led to the power plant near where a boat yard is now (I found a large concrete column or shaft in a cliff crack near here, it seems the tunnel parralells a road above it, then drops down to the flat area where the power plant was). The pedestrian route then branches off under the rest of town, a store clerk traced out an unlikely-looking web of tunnels on a map, saying they were partly from WWII and partly from the 1950's when the two buildings were constructed (there were originally supposed to be 10 large buildings, all connected by tunnels). I wasn't able to get into the one that I'd found without better tools, although it looked like the local kids had tried in a halfhearted manner.
     I looked around the eastern areas of town a little more, at the docks and trails and a couple old rail cars being converted into gift shops. I went back up to my gear and sat in the doorway of the mechanical penthouse for a while sorting through my digital camera's photos and deleting or resizing some to make room for more. While I was sitting there two people walked out of the next penthouse, glanced my way and continued across the roof to stand and look out over the town. I walked over and said hi, they turned out to be a couple from near Anchorage who were interested in abandoned buildings and tunnels, they'd even explored some of the same dredges I had while they were living in Fairbanks. We talked for a while and exchanged contact information, I was excited to find more people who were interested in UE. They didn't have boots and so couldn't explore a lot of the building, but I showed them the jail and some of the other rooms in the basement. After they left I kept looking for tunnels, then walked around the rail yards and over to the rail access tunnel where I found a small pipeline tunnel and a few bunkers (I'd scouted the bunkers by looking at online satellite photos, I was pleased to find that my interpretation of the imagery was accurate).
     While wandering around in town (there's not much of it) I'd seen two storm drains that looked like they'd be worth exploring, but they were difficult to enter without attracting attention. One had a completely collapsed corrugated entrance, and a grated upper end, while another had a wooden lattice covering the upper end and the lower apparently somewhere under the rail dock. The newer pedestrian tunnel under the rail yard passed along parallel to one drain, with a possible connection, but I didn't think it was worth spending too much effort to get into them.
     After exausting myself hiking all over town and up the hills a little way, I went back to Buckner and found a place to camp in one of the upper common rooms. I'd wanted to try the roof, but it was starting to rain and there were few dry areas. I found a dry protected spot on the 4th floor (actually the 6th in any normal numbering system) and secured the tent with a line to a support pillar and one to a heavy light fixture that had fallen from the ceiling. I cooked my chilli and read some local brochures, then went to bed. Aside from a few odd dreams and the occasional sound that could have been a local kid I spent an uneventful night. I slept somewhat late in the morning, then decided to get up and see about renting a kayak for the day. Unfortunately the weather had become very bad, and even with my previous experience the rental agency was reluctant to let me go out on my own and didn't think I'd get my money's worth ($40) so I hung around town the rest of the day instead. I had lunch at a small tourist cafe on the shore, then looked for a museum without luck. I checked out Begich tower a few more times, and did another walkthrough of every floor in Buckner. I got pretty bored waiting for the 6pm train, I ended up sitting around reading tourist literature in the penthouse doorway again. By the time the train got there I was quite ready to leave, it came early so I waited for a while inside various harborside stores, then just got on board and sat around until the rest of the passengers showed up from other local tours (mostly cruises, there's nothing else to see). I spent the ride back primarily in the rear RDC cabin again.
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