Captain James Cook sailed into and named Prince William Sound in 1778; Spanish explorer Don Salvador Fidalgo entered “Puerto de Valdez” in 1790, naming it after Spain’s Marine Minister. In 1898, Valdez was a tent city of stampeders similar to Skagway, except for one critical detail: There was no trail to the Interior. Still, 4,000–6,000 death-defying cheechakos crossed the Valdez Glacier that year.
Army Captain William Abercrombie described the foolhardy newcomers as “terrifyingly incompetent…wholly unprepared physically and morally for what they would face.” They barely knew how to strap packs on their backs, and few thought to carry the two basic necessities: water and wood. Many were blinded by the sun’s reflection off the ice. Many got lost in howling storms, in which it was impossible to see or hear the person ahead.
Of those who managed to reach the summit, many lost their loads and lives on slick downhill slides into oblivion. Those who actually got off the glacier intact had to contend with the fast cold waters of the runoff. Many men with heavy packs lost their footing and drowned in knee-deep water. Some attempted to build boats and float down the Klutina River to Copper Center; few made it. And those stuck between the glacier and the river had nothing.
In the final count, by fall all but 300 (and the countless dead) of those who’d set out from Valdez during the spring and summer of 1898 returned to Valdez the way they came. Abercrombie found them destitute and broken. Many had gone mad, most had scurvy and frostbitten hands, feet, and faces. Facilities were squalid, and there was no food. Abercrombie postponed his orders to blaze a trail into the Interior for six months to feed, clothe, house, and arrange transportation home for the survivors.
Eventually, the army built a road through Keystone Canyon—providing access to the Interior—as well as a military base across the bay from Valdez called Fort Liscum; it lasted until 1923.
The 20th Century
In the early 1900s a corporate copper rush kicked off a fierce competition among Valdez, Cordova, and a town called Katalla, all vying to be selected as the tidewater terminus of the proposed railway to the copper mines of what’s now Kennecott. A dozen projects were conceived, and one was even begun out of Valdez, but Cordova won out in the end. For the next 60 years, Valdez was a sleepy fishing and shipping port, competing with Seward, and later Whittier, to provide access for freight to the Interior.
Then in 1964 the Good Friday earthquake struck, wiping out the entire town, which was rebuilt four miles inland on property donated by a local. Finally, in 1974, civic leaders sold the virtues of Valdez—its ice-free port, 800-foot-deep harbor, and proximity to the Interior—to the pipeline planners, who chose the town as their terminus.
Everything went along without serious incident until March 29, 1989 (Good Friday once again), when the Exxon Valdez ran aground on Bligh Reef a few hours after leaving the pipeline terminal in Valdez, dumping 11 million gallons of North Slope crude into Prince William Sound.
The unthinkable had happened. In the mad summer of 1989, Valdez was turned on its head by the “Exxon Economy.” The waters of Port Valdez escaped the spill, but Prince William Sound is still a long way from returning to the way it was before the spill.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition