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Area History

The city of Valdez was named in 1790 by the Spanish explorer Don Salvador Fidalgo after the Spanish naval officer Antonio Valdés y Basán. It lies at the head of Port Valdez (pronounced "val-deez"), a natural stillwater fjord in the northeast area of Prince William Sound. It is located about 11 miles inland from the Sound and is surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, which are the most heavily glaciated mountains in the Northwest.

This is the northernmost port in North America that is free of ice year round. As a result, a town developed there in 1898. The northernmost point of the coastal Pacific temperate rain forest is located in Valdez, on Blueberry Hill. Some steamship companies praised the Valdez Glacier Trail as a better way to get access to the Klondike gold fields or as a better way to find new gold fields in Alaska than the route from Skagway. But many prospectors found that they had been deceived, as the glacier trail was twice as long and steep as reported. Many died attempting the crossing. The town covers 277.1 square miles. 220 miles of it is land and 55.1 miles is water. Deep-sea and freshwater fishing, as well as sightseeing of the marine life and glaciers boost the tourism industry in Valdez. The Valdez oil terminal is where oil from the Trans-Alaska pipeline is loaded onto ships.

Valdez is a commercial and sport fishing port. A port of call in the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system, freight moves through the town, bound for the interior of Alaska, by way of the Richardson highway, built between 1899 and the early 1900's. It was a summer-only highway, until 1950, when it became a year-round road. Thompson Pass, north on the highway, is home to spectacular waterfalls and glaciers. Thompson Pass is also known for hazardous driving conditions during the winter.

Major Tragedies

In 1964, the Good Friday Earthquake destroyed the city. In Valdez, 32 people lost their lives as a result of a 30-foot-high tsunami. The tsunami was caused by liquefaction of the glacial silt, which formed the city's foundation and it led to huge underwater landslides, causing a section of the city's shoreline to break off and sink into the sea. In 1967, the town was relocated four miles east to its present site.

Between 1975-1977, the Trans-Alaska pipeline was built designed to carry oil from the Prudhoe Bay oil fields in northern Alaska to a terminal in Valdez. The oil is loaded onto tanker ships for transport. As a result of the construction and operation of the pipeline and terminal, the economy of Valdez got a huge boost. However, in 1989, Exxon-Valdez oil spill occurred as an oil tanker was leaving the terminal full of oil. The spill took place at Bligh Reef, about 25 miles away. The oil did not reach Valdez, but it destroyed much of the marine life in the surrounding area. The clean-up of the oil brought a temporary boost to the economy, but caused the bankruptcy of the Chugach Corporation, which had partially depended on the sea for its sustenance.


Before 1778, as well as now, the territory south of the town has belonged to the Chugach Eskimo, a maritime hunting people. To the North, the land belongs to the Ahtna, an Athabaskan speaking people of the Copper River Basin. The Chugach and the Athna used the area for fishing and trading copper, jade, hides, and other furs. The Chugach had eight villages spread out through the rest of Prince William Sound. Of the eight, only Tatitlek survives today.

In 1778, Captain Cook the first non-Alaska Native sailed into the Sound 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 a few other locations in the Sound.

In 1790, the Spanish cartographer, Lt. Salvador Fidalgo, was sent to Alaska to establish the Spanish claim in the area and also to investigate the extent of Russian involvement. As Fidalgo explored the Sound, he named Cordova, Port Gravina and other places. 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.

During the 1800s, while the Russians owned Alaska, there was little exploring of Prince William Sound. They were mostly interested in gathering sea otter pelts. Nuchek, on Hichinbrrok Island, became the center for trade in the area, between Russians and the natives and among several native groups.

During the winter of 1897-98 gold seekers came to follow the "All-American Route" over the Valdez Glacier into the Interior. The advertised route was inaccurate, even though it was advertised as an established, preexisting trail. It was a great shock, therefore, to the would-be miners to arrive and find no town and no real trail. A tent city sprang up at the head of the bay, thus Valdez was formed. The trip over the glacier was difficult and many of the four thousand stampeders that came through that year died. The following year, during the difficult winter of 1898-99, large numbers of people had a long and difficult time due to inadequate supplies. In 1899, a trail was cut through Keystone Canyon and over Thompson Pass. The following year the Army approved the road as a military trail to Eagle. Known as the Goat Trail, it later became the Richardson Highway in 1919, the only route to Fairbanks until the 1920's. As Valdez became a major port of traffic going into and out of the interior, it's population soared to 7,000. During the years of 1900-1920, Valdez goes through a major “boom” as the prospectors started concentrating on gold, copper, and silver deposits. Along with the main industries of mining and shipping, fishing, tourism, and fox farming provided additional employment and revenues. By the end of the 1920's, Valdez's first boom had busted. In 1924, the Alaska Railroad that connected Seward to Fairbanks via Anchorage was completed. As the Valdez route was no longer the only entry way to the interior, mining slowed down, and became less profitable. In 1923, the army shut down Fort Liscum, and in 1925 pulled out completely, with the population falling to around 400 - 500. Fort Liscum was renamed Dayville as it came under the ownership of the Day family. The Days prospected the land, ran a sawmill, a cannery, a school, and a store on the old Fort site.