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Nine Point Two: Denali and the 1964 Earthquake

damaged buildings and fallen powerlines
Downtown Anchorage after the 1964 earthquake

Ruth A.M. Schmidt papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA). Reuse by other parties not permitted without contacting UAA Archives & Special Collections

By Erik Johnson, Denali Historian

Around 8:30am on November 30, 2018, the buildings in Denali National Park’s headquarters area began shaking—long enough for people to observe the strength of the tremor and start considering safety contingencies. The epicenter of the earthquake was near Point MacKenzie, roughly 200 miles south of Denali’s headquarters, and measured 7.2 on the Richter scale—the largest to affect the Anchorage area since the infamous “Good Friday” quake on March 27, 1964.[1] The severity of the most recent event has caused some reflection on the devastating ’64 quake, and raises a question: what was the impact on Denali?

In the April 1964 Superintendent Report, Supt. Oscar Dick reported that the earthquake was very noticeable between 5:37 and 5:40pm and aftershocks were noted for a “considerable period thereafter.” Mail delivery was delayed for a week but a thorough inspection of all facilities indicated no property damage, including no road damage in the headquarters area. Employees were urged to conserve fuel in case of a shortage due to damage to the Alaska Railroad and changed food procurement procedures. The park offered the McKinley Park Hotel as a potential shelter to Civil Defense personnel. Dick mentioned that the outlook for the tourist season was “bleak” because of the damage reported in South Central Alaska, but he also provided optimism regarding the park’s ability to accommodate a record number of tourists expected prior to the earthquake.

In an oral history interview, long-time park employee Bill Nancarrow recounted his ’64 quake experience at his Deneki Lakes home just south of the main park entrance:

We get quite a few earthquakes . . . 1947, 1948 were real bad years up at Park Headquarters. So we didn’t think too much about it until after about 30 seconds we decided that maybe we’d better go outside and get out of the house. The way it felt here was just like riding a wave. There was a series of waves coming through the area. Looking across the lake at the spruce trees, you could see the tops of the spruce sort of acting like scissors. As one part of the wave would go through, they would tip the trees one way, and then the trees behind them would be going the other way on the wave.

When the park plowed the road in April, later reports noted no damage related to the earthquake. Minor tremors continued to be reported well into April. Surprisingly, despite Anchorage’s devastation, visitor numbers increased in May, June, and July. During the summer of 1964 the concessioner reported a decrease in receipts relative to 1963 but they also fared better than most Alaska tourist operations. The 1964 earthquake generated interest and eventually scientific knowledge about Alaska seismology. Later in 1964, a permit was issued to the University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute for installation of a seismic station near the grounds of the Park Hotel. It was one of three locations selected in Interior Alaska at the time. The station continues to operate and provide valuable data.[2]

[1] The Good Friday earthquake on March 27, 1964, was the largest in North American history on record and the second largest ever recorded in the world; it registered 9.2 on the Richter scale and resulted in the deaths of an estimated 139 people (124 tsunami-related), and $311 million in property loss (equivalent of $2.3 billion today). The magnitude was so great that it was felt in Seattle and was detected in water-level recorders of 47 states.
[2] UAF’s Alaska Earthquake Center now maintains several seismic monitoring stations in Denali and around Alaska.