Yukon Nuggets

1964 Yukon Nuggets

Alaska Earthquake 1964


Good Friday, March 27th, 1964. It was a quiet afternoon across Alaska, but the silence would soon be broken. And there would be little good on this good Friday.

At 5:36 p.m. Alaska Time, the first rumble was first heard in towns and villages near the earthquake's epicenter in Prince William Sound. The land begang to shake. Not an unusual event in this earthquake prone region of the world. But it seemed the shaking would never end.

When it did, four or five minutes later, Alaska was centre stage of the largest earthquake in North American history.

The magnitude 8.6 earthquake was centered in Prince William Sound off the coast of south-central Alaska. It was 22 kilometers under the earth's surface and about 88 kilometers west of Valdez. The earthquake caused many avalanches, landslides, and, worst of all, a huge tsunami.

The effects of the tsunami were felt all around the Pacific rim. It was the highest at Shoup Bay on Valdez Inlet, at 67 meters. Even Port Alberni on Vancouver Island received a tsunami wave measuring 6.4 meters. The tsunami waves were also recorded as far away as Hawaii, Japan, Chile, and Antarctica.

In Anchorage, huge landslides pummelled the downtown business section. An upscale development known as Turnagain Heights is where the largest and most devastating landslide occurred. It destroyed about 75 homes and severely damaged water and gas mains, sewer and telephone lines, and disrupted electrical systems.

In the town of Old Valdez, the freighter SS Chena had just docked with the first fresh fruit and goods of the season. It was customary for the people of Valdez to be at the docks when the ships came in. There were many adults and children on the dock when the quake struck, triggering a huge slide that caused millions of cubic yards of earth to slip into the Valdez Bay. Thirty-two people, mostly children, died.

In the Aleut village of Chenega, 23 people died when a 90-foot tsunami washed over the local beach packed with people waiting for an evening movie to begin.

Most towns, especially the ports such as Seward and Kodiak, were heavily hit by a combination of seismic damage, tsunamis, and fire. A two-meter wave reached Prince Rupert, about three hours after the quake. It then headed for Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and travelled up a fjord to strike Port Alberni twice, damaging 375 homes and washing away 55 others. Luckily, no one was killed.

However, the Good Friday Alaska earthquake directly resulted in 131 deaths. Alaska alone recorded 115 fatalities, 106 of which were caused by the tsunami. The other 16 deaths occured in Oregon and California and were also caused by the tsunami.

For an earthquake of this magnitude, the death toll was remarkably small. But the drama wasn't over. For days, eleven aftershocks were recorded with magnitudes over a remarkable 6 on the Richter scale. Total damage from the earthquake and tsunami was between $400 and $500 million ... which translates into billions of dollars in today's currency.

A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin.

Les McLaughlin

Les McLaughlin

As storyteller, radio man, and music producer, Les proved a passionate preserver of Yukon heritage throughout his life — nowhere more evident than as the author and voice of CKRW’s “Yukon Nuggets,” from its inception until his passing in 2011.