On the southern coast of Alaska, located on one of the many bays of the Alaskan Gulf, the town of Whittier might be the most remote and hard-to-access towns in the United States. The only way to get to Whittier by land is through a 2.6-mile tunnel that closes at night.
Photographer Jen Kinney has spent a lot of time in Whitter, living with and photographing the people of the town. It takes a special type of person to live in such an isolated place, and her photographs document the brave citizens of Whittier, through the good times and the bad. We asked Kinney to give us some of the stories behind her favourite photographs.
Whittier, Alaska is home to fewer than 200 people in winter, more than half of whom live in a 14-story condominium: Begich Towers, a relic of Alaska’s Cold War development. The only road in or out of the former military base passes through a 2.6-mile, single-lane tunnel that closes for the night.
With wind that can gust up to 80 miles per hour and annual snowfall up to 55 feet, it is easy not to leave Begich Towers for days or weeks. Some residents have boasted that they have not left in years, a not impossible feat with corner store, post office, and church all in the building.
TiNoi and son Demetrius attempt to shoot molting salmon as they swim upstream. TiNoi traveled to Whittier to work at the cannery eight summers ago. He and wife Ata moved into Begich Towers and stayed, he working for the harbor and she at the school and tunnel.
In summer, the town’s population swells with transients. Terry works at the cannery, living in a bunkhouse across from the crumbling Buckner Building, once the largest structure in the Alaskan territory, abandoned and uninhabited since the army left in 1960.
Terry’s roommate in the bunkhouse is Dut, an immigrant to Anchorage from the world’s youngest country, South Sudan. He and the other cannery employees will work for the summer and leave Whittier again before winter sets in.
The town lies nestled on a delta between the Chugach Mountains and Prince William Sound. The harbor is the basis of Whittier’s economy, as the water accommodates barges, fishing boats, tour boats, and this vessel, pulled from the water and being scrapped for parts.
Charlene and Arnie have lived on their boat in the harbor on and off since the 1960s, and have participated in the town’s evolution nearly since incorporation, playing the roles of harbormaster, school district superintendent, and mayor. But they don’t live in Begich Towers anymore. “I call it the bat cave,” said Arnie, “Because you have to be battier than hell to live there. When one person sneezes, everyone sneezes.”
Brenda doesn’t live in Begich Towers either, but her two pet reindeer live in a pen across the street. In the thirty-five years she has lived in Whittier, Brenda has been notary public, weather woman, gift shop owner, resident artist, and sign painter. “Whittier magnifies what people are about,” she said.
When the military base at Whittier was mothballed just 20 years after the tunnel’s construction, civilians inhabited the abandoned base and incorporated a town despite its blend of isolation and claustrophobia. From the tunnel to the end of an unfinished road, the town is just three miles long, barely longer than the tunnel itself.
Until 2000, the tunnel was railroad-only and residents could enter and exit the town by train only a few times a week. Today, cars stage on both sides, passing into Whittier on the bottom of the hour and out of the top. At night when it closes, one is acutely aware which side of Maynard Mountain one is stranded on.
“If you can deal with yourself, you can love Whittier,” said Jim, a stone carver who lived in town for 20 years. In his last years in Whittier, he lived in a hotel room in the Anchor Inn, between the town’s only year-round restaurant on the first floor and its bar on the third.
NOW WATCH: Executive Life videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.