Fifty years ago, a large earthquake centered near Anchorage, Alaska, set off a fatal chain of destruction that reached through Washington and all the way down into California.
March 27, 1964 – Good Friday – was a typical early spring day in Seattle. But just after 7:30 p.m., an earthquake disrupted the peaceful evening all along the Pacific coast.
The quake was one of the largest ever recorded in North America and registered a whopping 9.2 on the Richter scale. The epicenter was about 75 miles from Anchorage, Alaska’s economic capital and its most populous and urban city.
Anchorage and its downtown was hit hardest during the three minutes of shaking, with buildings collapsing and roadways twisting out of shape. Other nearby cities like Valdez, Seward, Whittier and Kodiak all suffered heavy damage from both the quake and the tsunami that followed.
Officials feared as many as 600 dead. In Western Washington that Friday night, civilian and military authorities began scrambling to send help up north.
But the Alaska quake also did a surprising amount of damage around Seattle, too.
On Lake Union and in Portage Bay, the far-away tremor caused the lake water to shift so violently, houseboats came loose from their moorings and water supply lines broke.
A restaurant called the Four Winds, housed in an old ferry boat at what’s now Lake Union Park, was tossed around so much, a mooring cable snapped, glasses and dishes shattered, and a wall collapsed. Fifty customers had to be evacuated by way of a temporary gangplank.
Out on the coast, the damage from the tsunami spawned by the quake was more serious than broken dishes. At Long Beach, Wash., tents and cars were washed away, and weekend campers ran for safety. Fortunately, no lives were lost there.
Along the Oregon coast, four young children from a Tacoma family were hit by a wave and drowned.
At Crescent City, Calif., more than 1,500 miles from Anchorage, the tsunami destroyed much of the town and 12 people died.
In the days following the quake, Seattle became a headquarters for relief and rebuilding efforts.
Seattle had been a jumping-off point for Alaska since the Klondike Gold Rush of the 1890s. People had personal and business connections to where the quake had hit, and they followed the recovery closely.
A little over a month after the quake, on April 29, the Seattle Times reported in a front page story that Alaskans were bouncing back. The official death toll had been revised to fewer than 150. And in spite of the “pitiful wreckage,” the paper said, the “pioneer spirit” was coursing again through the 49th state.
And this pioneer spirit of bouncing back is something Seattleites themselves would become quite familiar with. Exactly one year after that Seattle Times article was published, a 6.5 magnitude quake hit western Washington.