The city of Valdez lies at the head of Port Valdez (pronounced "val-deez"), a natural fjord that reaches inland about 11 miles from Prince William Sound.
Historically—as well as now—the territory south of Valdez belonged to the Alaskan Native people of the Chugach (pronounced "chew-gach") region, a maritime hunting people. To the north the land is that of the Ahtna, an Athabaskan speaking people of the Copper River Basin. Although there was no known permanent native villages 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 village spread throughout the rest of Prince William Sound. Of these, only Tatitlek survives today.
Captain Cook was possibly the first non-Alaska Native in 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" (the English royalty was by this time already in decline). Cook named Hinchinbrook and Montague Islands, as well as Bligh Island and several other locations in the Sound.
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 part of the fabled Northwest Passage (a route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Arctic archipelago of Canada).
In 1790, the cartographer Lt. Salvador Fidalgo followed other Spanish explorers to Alaska to investigate the extent of Russian involvement, establish the Spanish claim in the area, and curb British claims to the Pacific Northwest. As Fidalgo explored the Sound, he named Cordova, Port Gravina and other places. 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 into Port Valdez. Fidalgo named the area "Bay of Valdez" after Admiral Antonio Valdez, who was head of the Spanish Marines and Minister of the Indies at the time.
The Russians, during their ownership of Alaska, were primarily interested in amassing sea otter pelts, focusing on the Aleutian Islands, Kodiak archipelago, and the Southeast Panhandle. However, they did also explore Prince William Sound, founding at least two forts and trading posts on Hinchinbrook Island. One of these, near the Alutiiq village of Nuchek, became the center for trade in the area between Russians and the Natives, and among the various Native groups.
THE GOLD RUSH
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 US 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 US as an established, preexisting 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; thus Valdez was formed. Four thousand 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 the prospectors to move sick people out of the interior and back to relief cabins in Valdez.
CUTTING THE PATH THROUGH KEYSTONE CANYON
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 Pipeline 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 Goat Trail). The latter, which became the Richardson Highway in 1919, severed as the only viable inland route to Fairbanks until the 1920's. The population of Valdez soared to 7,000, as it became the coastal port for the majority of traffic going into and out of the interior.
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 ounces of gold (about $19 million in current prices) and 8,153 ounces 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 Kennecott 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 byproduct as came out of the Cliff Mine total.
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 farther than Keystone Canyon. Two rival companies in particular were the cause of considerable upheaval in Valdez. The Alaska Syndicate was choosing among Valdez, Cordova and Katalla for a terminus for their railway from the Kennecott Mine. When it appeared that Valdez would not be selected, H.D. Reynolds appeared on the scene touting his plan for the Alaska Home Railway. 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 between the two rival railroad companies over the right-of-way through Keystone Canyon. The Alaska Home Railway 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.A newpaper report from shortly after reported that he was seen in Mexicon. Valdezans were left with no railroad, 500 unemployed workers and little money.
BUST FOLLOWS BOOM
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, the Valdez route 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 between 400 and 500.
FORT LISCUM CLOSED
In 1923, the Army shut down Fort Liscum.
FORT LISCUM CONVERTED TO DAYVILLE
Fort Liscum was obtained by the Day family, who renamed it Dayville. The Days prospected the land, ran a cannery, a sawmill, a school and a store on the old Fort site.
WORLD WAR II
World War II further drained the town's population, although Valdez was a major port for military freight.
KEEPING THOMPSON PASS OPEN
Alaska Freight Lines (AFL), run by Al Ghezzi, held a contract with the Army to deliver military supplies and freight to Interior Alaska bases. He therefore needed to be able to drive the highway year round. In a partnership that became known as "Operation Snowball", Ghezzi and the Alaska Road Commission (ARC), agreed to jointly attempt winter maintenance to keep Thompson Pass open during the winter of 1949-1950. Keeping the Pass open was challenging, but Ghezzi and his crew proved that it could be done, and ARC took over the full duties the following year. Valdez re-established its place as a strategic point to the Interior, leading to a small trucking book in the 1950's.
GOOD FRIDAY EARTHQUAKE
On March 27, 1964 (Good Friday), disaster struck Alaska. At 5:36 in the evening, an earthquake lasting over four minutes and registering 9.2 on the Richter Scale struck 45 miles west of Valdez. The quake triggered an underwater landslide, which in turn created several tremendous waves. The first waves washed away the Valdez waterfront and drowned the 30 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.
VALDEZ CONDEMNED AND RELOCATED
The town of Valdez was condemned when it was discovered that the entire town had been built on unstable ground. In 1967, the town was relocated to its present site, four miles east of the former site. 52 buildings were moved and the other structures were burned and the ground razed.
TRANS-ALASKA OIL PIPELINE
In 1973, Congress approved the plans for the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline with its southern 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.
EXXON VALDEZ OIL SPILL
On March 24, 1989 (another Good Friday), the tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh reef, approximately 25 miles outside of Valdez, causing the largest oil spill in North American history and thrusting Valdez into the national spotlight again. During the months following the spill, the population of Valdez grew to almost 10,000 as cleanup 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.
VALDEZ REDEFINES ITSELF AS A MECCA FOR WINTER SPORTS
After the Exxon Valdez spill, Valdez tried to diversify its economy by redefining itself as a mecca for winter sports. Between 1991 and 2000, the World Extreme Skiing Championships helped define the word "extreme". WESC successfully tapped into the early 90s zeitgeist for the extreme, the full-blown embracement of experience over mere observation. The championships helped to stimulate Valdez's winter economy and made a name for the town as a winter destination.
Today, the population of Valdez is approximately 4,200. Its residents are mainly employed by the city, the oil industry, winter and summer tourism, fishing, or transportation and shipping.