History of Valdez
The City of Valdez (pronounced Valdeez) lies at the head of Port Valdez, a natural fjord that reaches inland about 11 miles from Prince William Sound.
We invite you to explore the following descriptions of significant periods form our rich history, as a starting point in your journey of discovery.
Prehistory (to 1741)
Historically — as well as now — the territory south of Valdez belonged to the Chugach (pronounced Chew-gach) Eskimo, a maritime hunting people. To the north, the land is that of the Ahtna, an Athabaskan speaking people of the Copper River Basin. Although it is unclear whether there was a native village at one time in Port Valdez, it is certain that the Chugach and Ahtna did use the area for fishing and trading copper, jade, hides and other furs. The Chugach had eight principal villages spread throughout the rest of Prince William Sound. Of these, only Tatitlek survives today.
Russian Era (1741-1867)
Captain Cook was the first non-native visitor to Prince William Sound. He sailed into the Sound in 1778, naming it Sandwich Sound after his patron, the Earl of Sandwich. When Cook returned to England the editors of his maps renamed the sound after Prince William IV, popularly known as “Silly Billy.” Cook named Hinchinbrook and Montague Islands, as well as Bligh Island and several other locations in the Sound.
Several years later, in 1790, the Spanish cartographer Lt. Salvador Fidalgo was sent to Alaska to investigate the extent of Russian involvement and to reestablish Spanish claim to the area. As Fidalgo explored the Sound, he named Cordova, Port Gravina, and other spots. The exploratory party, which he sent to Columbia Bay, guided by two natives, was the first to approach Columbia Glacier. The group did not stay long near the glacier, concluding that it was an active volcano because of the loud thunder and “great pieces of snow” being flung from it. The men ventured down the Valdez Arm and, perhaps, Port Valdez. Fidalgo named the area “Bay of Valdes” after Admiral Antonio Valdes, who was head of the Spanish Marines and Minister of the Indies at the time.
George Vancouver, who had sailed with Cook on his earlier voyages, did the most extensive exploration of Prince William Sound and it was he who was able to establish conclusively that the Sound was not any part of the fabled Northwest Passage.
The Russians, during their ownership of Alaska, did little exploring of Prince William Sound; they were primarily interested in amassing sea otter pelts. Nuchek, on Hinchinbrook Island, became the center for trade in the area, both between Russians and the natives and among the various native groups.
U.S. Purchase through Gold Rush (1867 – 1910)
Few people lived in the Valdez area until the winter of 1897-98 when gold-seekers came to Valdez to follow the “All-American Route” over the Valdez Glacier into the interior. Some planned to prospect in the Copper River Basin; others planned to continue on to the Klondike. The route was based on an inaccurate description by U.S. Army Lt. William Abercrombie of a trail that he quite probably had never actually traversed during the course of his 1884 Copper River Expedition. Nonetheless, the route was advertised all over the continental United States as an established, pre-existing trail. It was a great surprise, therefore, to the would-be miners to arrive in Valdez and find no town and no real trail. A tent city sprang up at the head of the bay and, thus, Valdez was formed. 4,000 stampeders came through Valdez that year. Some of them stayed on shore to set up shops and other businesses; others dragged themselves and their gear up and over the glacier. The trip over the glacier was a difficult one and some people died in the attempt. Snowslides, snowblindness, glacial crevasses, and extreme physical challenges were just some of the problems encountered. Supplies of goods had to be transported on people-pulled sleds; as many as 20 trips back and forth over the steepest legs of the journey were needed in order to get the necessary year’s worth of supplies across. The following winter of 1898-99 was long and difficult; huge numbers suffered from scurvy and inadequate supplies. Rescue missions were organized by prospectors to move sick people out of the interior and back to relief cabins in Valdez.
In the late summer and fall of 1898, Abercrombie’s men had begun cutting a rough trail through Keystone Canyon and over Thompson Pass. The following spring, the Army approved that route as the new military trail to Eagle and upgrading work began. Recognizing that Valdez was a strategic location for communications and defense, the Army built Fort Liscum at the site of the present Alyeska terminal; laid a telegraph line connecting Seattle, Washington, to Eagle, Alaska (thereby bypassing Canada for the first time); and further developed the Keystone Canyon trail. The latter, which became the Richardson Highway in 1919, served as the only viable inland route to Fairbanks until the 1920’s. Valdez became the coastal port for the majority of traffic going into and out of the interior.
Early Valdez and Old Town (1911 – 1963)
Once the rush to the Klondike subsided, prospectors concentrated on the gold, copper, and silver deposits on the islands and shores of Prince William Sound. The most profitable mines in the vicinity of Valdez were the Cliff Gold Mine and the Midas Mine. In 1906, H.E. (Red) Ellis discovered and then leased out what was to become the Cliff Gold Mine about five miles east of Valdez on the north shore of Port Valdez. That mine resulted in about 51,740 oz. of gold (about $19 million in current prices) and 8,153 oz. of silver. The Midas Mine, in nearby Solomon Gulch on the south shore of the Port, was the fourth largest producer of copper in the Prince William Sound area. Further away, Ellamar, near Tatitlek, and, of course, Kennicott Mines, near McCarthy, both of which were owned by the Morgan-Guggenheim Alaska Syndicate, produced far more copper than all the other mines combined. Nearly as much gold came out of Ellamar as a by-product as came out of the Cliff Mine.
Valdez was a busy town in the first two decades of the 20th century. It supported a bowling alley, a university (for one semester), several breweries, a dam and hydroelectric plant, a sawmill, the seat of (The Territory of) Alaska’s Third Judicial District, a bank, two movie theaters, two newspapers, an Ursaline convent and an excellent public library, hospital and public school system. In addition to the main industries of mining and shipping, fox farming, fishing, and tourism provided additional employment and revenues.
There was much talk and speculation about construction of a railway line from Valdez into the interior and even some preliminary track laid; however no line ever reached any further than the Keystone Canyon. Two rival companies, in particular, were the cause for considerable upheaval in Valdez. The Alaska Syndicate was initially interested in using Valdez as the terminus for its line from the Kennicott Mine. The Alaska Syndicate was choosing among Valdez, Cordova and Katalla for a terminus for their railway from the Kennicott Mine. When it appeared that Valdez would not be selected, H.D. Reynolds appeared on the scene touting his plan for the Alaska Home Railroad. He convinced the people of Valdez that “his railroad was their railroad.” Many Valdezans invested their entire savings or businesses into supporting his project. Reynolds bought up much of the town; he soon owned a newspaper, hotel, bank and even some of the streets. In 1907, a shoot-out erupted over the right-of-way through Keystone Canyon between the two rival railroad companies. The Alaska Home Railroad project fell apart and the Alaska Syndicate chose Cordova as the terminus for its Copper River and Northwestern Railway. Reynolds left town in a hurry, owing a great deal of money, and was last seen in an insane asylum. Valdezans were left with no railroad, 500 unemployed workers, and little money.
By the 1920’s, Valdez’s first boom had busted. With the completion of the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks, via Anchorage, in 1924, Valdez was no longer the only entry to the interior; mining had ceased to be profitable; and, in 1925, even the army pulled out. The population of Valdez fell to 400-500.
Earthquake and Relocation (1964 – 1975)
On March 27, 1964 (Good Friday), disaster struck Valdez. At 5:36 in the evening, an earthquake lasting over 4 minutes and registering 8.6 on the Richter Scale and 9.2 on the Moment Magnitude Scale struck 45 miles west of Valdez. The quake triggered an underwater landslide that, in turn, created several tremendous waves. The first waves washed away the Valdez waterfront and drowned the 32 people who had been standing on the dock. Three men on the steamer Chena, which had been tied to the dock, also died. In all of Alaska, 114 people died as a result of the earthquake. The town of Valdez was condemned when it was discovered that the entire town had been built on unstable ground. In 1967, the relocation of the town to its present site was complete.
Pipeline & Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1976 – 1990)
In 1973, Congress approved the plans for the Trans-Alaska Pipeline with the terminus at Valdez. Thousands of people moved to Valdez to be part of the construction boom. The town’s population soared to 8,000 people, then settled at 3,500 by January of 1989.
On March 24, 1989 (another Good Friday), the Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef, causing the largest oil spill in North American history and thrusting Valdez into the national limelight again. During the months following the spill, the population of Valdez multiplied to almost 10,000 as clean-up workers, reporters, and state and federal employees streamed into town. As a result of the spill, thousands of birds, sea otters, and other wildlife died and hundreds of miles of beach were oiled. Crews worked all that summer and fall and into the next year, cleaning the beaches and rescuing animals.
New Resources and Beyond (1991 – present)
Now, the population of Valdez is approximately 5,000 people. Its residents are mainly employed by the city, in the oil industry, in winter and summer tourism, fishing or transportation and shipping.
Today, Valdez continues to be the focal point of issues of national significance: What if ANWR is opened to oil development? What environmental safeguards should exist? What will be the long-term environmental effects of the largest oil spill in North America? Should the natural gas pipeline be developed? How can a small town stabilize within Alaska’s “boom and bust” economy?
Return to top of page.