Ed. Note: Through protracted coaxing and arm-twisting that literally wore us out, ECHO team member Frank Baker convinced us to let him relate his 1964 earthquake story.
Every year about this time I think about the March 27, 1964 earthquake — in an odd way, almost anticipating another shaker.
The January 23rd earthquake of this year, measured at a magnitude of 7.9, brought that memory into sharper focus.
Everyone in Alaska from Ketchikan to Dutch Harbor has told their 1964 earthquake story except me. You see, I was never allowed to tell one because I wasn’t in Alaska when it happened. Even my parents wouldn’t let me have an earthquake story. To this day, I’ve considered it terribly cruel and unjust. So now I finally have the chance to settle the score!
On March 27, 1964, I was a college student enjoying Spring Break near Vancouver, Wash, on the Washington-Oregon border.
Yes, I felt the earthquake, and I don’t care if anyone believes me.
I was staying by myself in a friend’s cabin on a small lake, out in the country. It was about 7:35 p.m. (There was a two-hour time difference between the U.S. west coast and Alaska back then). I was standing on the lake shore, admiring the stillness that was settling in with the approaching darkness, when I thought I felt the ground move slightly. The lake’s calm surface seemed to ripple, and a couple of small waves lapped against the shore. There wasn’t a breath of wind, yet the air seemed to change.
I wasn’t alarmed–just sort of intrigued– as I returned to the cabin. I turned on the radio to get some music, but all the stations had the same thing: news about the disastrous earthquake in Alaska. Here’s my recollection of the sensationalized news reported during the first few hours after the quake:
“Anchorage has been leveled….Valdez and Cordova have been washed away by a giant wall of water…Seward is a sea of flames… fishing boats in Kodiak are resting on the sides of the mountains…Alaska has been devastated…thousands are feared dead…”
The next morning’s reports weren’t much better, so I decided to hightail it to civilization to see if I could contact my parents, who lived in Spenard.
In the closest large city, Vancouver, I was told telephone calls weren’t getting through. It was taking the Red Cross days to get messages back and forth, so I decided to try a long shot. I got the name of a Vancouver ham radio operator and by telephone asked if he would call the ham who lived next door to my parents. The ham’s Spenard call letters were etched in my mind because his powerful signal bled into everything in our house: telephone, radio, television, even our electronic organ. In less than an hour I got my reply: “Parents okay. House intact. Don’t worry.”
This made me feel a lot better, but it was still kind of difficult enjoying the rest of Spring Break.
That next week I got ahold of my mom on the telephone. I asked her what it was like to go through an 8.7-plus magnitude earthquake.
“You had to be here,” she said.
I started to tell her about my strange experience on the lake. “You really had to be here,” she interrupted. “The car was jumping around so high on the driveway that you could see daylight under the tires. Dishes from the kitchen flew around the corner into our living room, and other rooms.”
Life and land-changing event: It was one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded in the world. It had been felt over 700,000 square miles, which included Alaska, portions of western Yukon Territory and B.C., Canada. It was accompanied by vertical displacement over an area of 170,000-200,000 square miles. The major area of uplift trended northeast from southern Kodiak Island to Prince William Sound, and east-west to east of the Sound. The earthquake generated a gigantic seismic sea wave, or tsunami, that devastated towns along the Gulf of Alaska and left serious damage at Alberni and Port Alberni, Canada, along the west coast of the United States and Hawaii.
There were 122 deaths from the tsunami wave generated, and nine from the earthquake itself. Total damage from the earthquake and Tsunami was between $400 and $500 million.
Returning to Alaska that summer, I was eager to share my earthquake experience with friends, but before I could begin they would shake their heads and say something like, “did you hear about the folks who were trapped inside the 4th Avenue restaurant that sank beneath the street? They were down there for days–just having the party of their life…” or, “I was standing on the bluff in Turnagain and six houses just fell away toward Cook Inlet, out of sight…” or, “I saw the tidal wave in Seward toss a railroad locomotive into the air like it was a toy…”
I gave up trying. Would anyone in proximity of North America’s strongest earthquake ever want to hear what it was like a couple of thousand miles away? I saved this story for more than half a century, and…
Ed. Note: We decided to cut it short at that point because Frank began droning on with more stories about Lower 48 reactions to the earthquake, and we had to gently remind him that he wasn’t in Alaska during the great earthquake.
Frank E. Baker is an ECHO team member and freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Birchwood ABC school teacher. He welcomes comments and column suggestions.