Portage, Turnagain Arm

Portage, Turnagain Arm

by | Aug 26, 2021

Portage is a historical community and railroad siding at milepost 64.2 on the Alaska Railroad at the head of Turnagain Arm in the Chugach National Forest, about 41 miles (66 km) south of Anchorage and 11 miles (18 km) northwest of Whittier, Alaska. Portage was once a major train station and had 20 buildings and a population of 100 in the early 1960s. The community was almost destroyed by the 1964 Good Friday earthquake when the ground subsided about 8 feet (2.4 m), and subsequent tidal flooding buried the remains of the town with silt. Residents abandoned the area as it was impossible to rebuild. Little remains of the town today but the ruins of a few buildings, abandoned vehicles, and a “ghost forest” of trees that died from saltwater inundation. The community was named for Portage Creek which drains Portage Lake, which is the terminus of Portage Glacier. Portage Glacier was a local name first recorded in 1898 by Thomas Corwin Mendenhall of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, so-called because it was once part of a historical 14 mile (23 km) portage route between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm. The portage was historically used by Dena’ina people, Russian and Euro-American explorers, and by prospecting miners. During World War II, the U.S. Army constructed a military facility, complete with port and railroad near the Whittier Glacier on Prince William Sound, and named the facility Camp Sullivan (now called Whittier). A spur of the Alaska Railroad to Camp Sullivan was completed through the Portage Valley in 1943, using a tunnel through the mountains, and the port became the entrance for U.S. soldiers into Alaska.

Gold placers were first discovered in Alaska by the Russians in 1849 when Peter Doroshin reported a gold occurrence on the Kenai River. He followed the Kenai River to its sources and prospected the Russian River. Doroshin searched for gold and other minerals without much success for several years. In 1891, Al King, a veteran prospector from the interior, located gold on the Kenai Peninsula at Resurrection Creek, a steep-graded stream flowing north into Turnagain Arm. A secretive sort, King kept his find quiet until 1893. That year the prospectors and traders followed the usual practice of establishing a mining district, creating rules for claim ownership, and electing a recorder. The Hope-Sunrise Mining District boomed in 1895-1896. News of the rich finds on the tributaries of the Sixmile, Resurrection, and Glacier Creeks drew thousands of people to the boom towns of Sunrise and Hope. At that time there were limited travel options to this remote corner of Alaska, and all involved taking a steamship from a west coast city like Juneau, Seattle, or San Francisco to the only deepwater ports in Southcentral Alaska at Passage Canal in Prince William Sound, Seward, or Seldovia. The Seldovia route involved transferring to a small shallow draft vessel and traveling up Cook Inlet to Tyonek and then finding or building a boat to continue up Turnagain Arm to Sunrise. Some prospectors attempted to go overland from Seldovia but this proved too difficult. The Seward route involved continuing overland north from Resurrection Bay on the Iditarod Trail, through the avalanche-prone Johnson Pass and Turnagain Pass. The Passage Canal route had steamships entering Prince William Sound and docking at Portage Bay on the north side of Portage Pass. The fortune seekers hauled their supplies up and over Portage Pass, then climbed on to Portage Glacier and descended the ice field to Portage Creek where they found a beaten path through Portage Valley and around Turnagain Arm. This route covered only about 30 miles (48 km), but according to one account, the trip took 17 days. Recession of the Portage Glacier made this route unusable after the 1930s.

In 1903, the Alaska Central Railroad started building a rail line north from Seward and succeeded in laying 51 miles (82 km) of rail by 1909 before going into receivership. This route carried passengers, freight, and mail to the head of Turnagain Arm where the small settlement of Portage was established as the terminus station. Passengers and freight were transferred to small boats at high tide during the summer months and otherwise traveled by dog team or pack train to Knik. In 1909, another company, the Alaska Northern Railroad Company, bought the rail line and extended it 21 miles (34 km) north to Kern Creek and the settlement was moved to the new rail terminus. The Alaska Northern Railroad went into receivership in 1914. U.S. President William Howard Taft authorized a commission to survey an all-weather railway route to the interior in 1912. In 1914, the government bought the Alaska Northern Railroad and moved its headquarters to Ship Creek on Knik Arm, and began extending the rail line northward. In 1940, at the beginning of World War II, the U.S. realized that Alaska in general, and particularly the railroad connecting Anchorage and Seward was a vulnerable invasion target. The U.S. Armed Forces under General Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr. made plans for the construction of a road from Seward to Fairbanks, and for transferring the existing railroad port terminal from Seward to a new facility at Whittier on Portage Bay in Passage Canal. The new route to Whittier would entail building a rail spur from the settlement of Portage up the Portage Valley, through a tunnel underneath Begich Peak, across Bear Valley, and through a second tunnel underneath Maynard Mountain. The U.S. Army hired the West Construction Company to assist in the construction of the railroad tunnels. Work began in late August 1941 and was completed on April 23, 1943. Anton Anderson was the lead engineer for the tunnels. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. military pulled out of Whittier, allowing the town to grow as a commercial port. The Alaska Railroad began offering a shuttle service between Portage and Whittier allowing private vehicles to drive onto flatcars which would then be transported by train through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel to Whittier. The 1964 Alaskan earthquake, caused extensive infrastructure damage across Southcentral Alaska, as well as ground fissures, subsidence, tsunamis, and about 131 deaths including 13 people in Whittier. The village of Portage subsided about 8 feet (2.4 m) causing flooding so severe at subsequent high tides that the village had to be abandoned. Today Portage is still an important railroad and highway junction for the Seward Highway and Portage Glacier Highway, as well as the Alaska Railroad to Whittier through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. Read more here and here. Explore more of Portage and Turnagain Arm here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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