The city of Valdez isn’t where it used to be. The entire town had to relocate, following the devastating 1964 Good Friday earthquake. Very little remains at the original townsite, but you can still visit it, and try to imagine what used to be there.
The Old Valdez townsite is located east of modern-day Valdez. From downtown, take the Richardson Highway out of town, then turn on Alaska Avenue (a sign will point you towards Old Valdez). Drive towards the waterfront and explore several dirt roads in the area.
I didn’t know much about Old Valdez, but I saw a small sign on the main road pointing to the old townsite, and I decided to check it out.
The March 27, 1964 earthquake that hit Alaska registered a 9.2 on the Richter scale, making it the most powerful quake in recorded history in North America, and second most powerful worldwide. The quake (and resulting tsunamis) killed about 139 people, including 33 in Valdez. Soon after, it was determined that Old Valdez’s location was particularly unstable, and within three years, the entire town had moved to its current location. A 50-year ban on development was put into place.
As you drive down to the Old Valdez townsite, the first remnant you’ll see is also the best-preserved piece of the old town — and it’s nothing more than a concrete slab. This is where the old post office used to stand. Now, signs display the names of earthquake victims, as a simple memorial.
… you’ll come upon several dirt roads which head out onto the mud flats towards the water. You’d never know anything was ever here, if not for the presence of some small signs on stakes. This spot used to be home to the Hotel Valdez, on McKinley Street. When the tsunamis sparked by the quake hit Old Valdez, the water reached 6 feet high on McKinley Street.
Not far away, in the early 60’s, you would have found the old Klip Joint — the town’s only barber shop. The building had previously served as a telegraph office.
The Village Morgue was actually a morgue, before it became a bar. And before that, it was a stamp mill. The foundation can still be seen at low tide.
The Valdez Dock Company was one of the buildings that was able to relocate to modern-day Valdez. You can currently find it at 201 Hazelet Avenue.
And another building that survived, and was relocated, is the former home of William Egan, the first governor of Alaska, and also the governor in office at the time of the quake. His home is now a gift shop in modern-day Valdez.
There are more historical markers, but most of the area is a muddy, mucky wasteland. Even though the 50-year ban on development expired in 2014, the danger is still very real. Geologists believe sinkholes could open up at any time, anywhere in this area, even without another earthquake. It’s something to think about, as you drive around.
The Bottom Line
Unless you’re really interested in the pre-quake history of Valdez, or you’re just looking for a spot to view the mountains and the bay, there isn’t really a good reason to spend a lot of time exploring Old Valdez. I’d suggest skipping it, unless you have some extra time on your hands.
Here’s a time-lapse look at the drive around Valdez, including a trip out Dayville Road, and around Old Valdez Townsite:
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