Elsie Seaman experienced the 1964 Alaska earthquake in an apartment on the top floor of what is now the Seaman building in downtown Kenai.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Editor’s note: This is the last of a five-part series examining the lasting effect the 1964 Good Friday earthquake had on the Kenai Peninsula, especially the residents who lived through it.
In the midst of the earth’s quaking grip 42 years ago, Katherine Parker looked out her window, looked at the trees, and thought of an image of peaceful serenity.
“They just swayed back and forth, just like wheat in the fields,” Parker recalled during a slow afternoon at her store, the Map Shop, on a hill on the Sterling Highway in Soldotna. “But these were birch trees and they were 40 feet tall.”
Not that Parker was calm and serene during the quake. It’s just that the swaying trees, seen from the windows of the Soldotna home she shared with her husband, Charlie, hearkened back to times spent 10 years prior walking the three miles from her family home over the rolling, wheat-covered hills of Mobridge, S.D., to the banks of the Missouri River.
She came to Alaska for adventure, but this event drove the point home in a way her 10 years of homesteading, teaching and writing had yet to do.
“This was definitely different from the Dakotas, all right,” she said. “I hadn’t experienced any earthquake before then.”
What a way to start. The 1964 quake was the largest ever recorded in the United States, a 9.2-magnitude monster with an epicenter near Valdez that left trails of devastation from that city, where burning tankers and tidal waves leveled most of the town, to downtown Anchorage, where 4th Avenue sank 30 feet, and southward to Kodiak, a city rendered practically unrecognizable by waves that tossed boats into the city center.
In the Soldotna and Kenai area, the damage was decidedly less dramatic. Windows fell out of buildings, a few unfinished buildings suffered major damage, and some trees, telephones poles and automobiles were relocated in an arbitrary fashion. The general sense in cities after the quake, as Parker remembers, was one of confusion and curiosity.
In fact, Parker’s plans in the immediate aftermath included a trip with Charlie to Anchorage, where any supplies needed would surely be available, she thought. Then the radio sparked back to life.
“I started throwing a lunch together, but then we turned on the radio and started hearing some shocking things. One man was reporting from Anchorage and talking about all the devastation, then he signed off for a while,” Parker said. “That man never came back. I didn’t know if that was because it was just too shocking to report or if that man ran into some type of disaster himself.”
Shocking reports were seared into the memory of another man who watched the quake rock Soldotna that evening, Mike Seaman.
Seaman displays a commemorative coin depicting a Richter scale of the Alaska earthquake.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
“We had heard on the radio in the car that night, they started talking about the tsunami and stuff, and it never dawned on us how high the bluff was,” Seaman said.
Mike was in Soldotna, winding down from a day of work as a carpenter’s apprentice in a friend’s apartment when the quake hit. He watched cars lurch around in the parking lot then he and a few friends started driving around the city to assess the damage. When they heard news of a tidal wave, he started to worry about his parents in Kenai.
By the time he made it to Kenai, his parents knew there weren’t any waves to worry about.
“I remember him coming running up, he’d been visiting someone, and he’d heard that this tidal wave was coming in and he wanted to warn us,’” Seaman’s mother Elsie said.
Elsie said that the building in which her son found her must have been quite a sight during the quake.
“I’m sure they would have seen the whole building swaying back and forth,” she said of Seaman’s Furniture, the store she and her husband, Carl, owned.
She was upstairs, Carl was downstairs, and she recalls hearing vases fall from tables and seeing a coffee pot fall on the floor in front of her.
“I heard it was not good to go up stairs, so I just climbed under a table, which was probably not very smart, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
Elsie met with Carl after the quake, with Mike arriving much later to greet both parents with the hyped message. Elsie, Mike and Katherine Parker all have similar assessments of life in Kenai and Soldotna after the quake, which Mike summed up in words echoing the words of all three:
“Life just went on,” he said. “We just didn’t get hit hard enough to worry about it.”
Parker said the impact the quake had on other peninsula communities hit home on a trip with her husband to Anchorage in August 1964. By the time the pair hit Turnagain Arm, they had seen some of the damage wrought on the roadway, but there were some things they didn’t see on it: cars.
“It was just spooky, we didn’t see traffic coming from either direction,” she said.
Then they did see something: cars carrying fishermen. They later learned those fisherman were on their way to a salmon fishing derby in Seward. For Parker, the sight was both curious and reassuring.
“I didn’t see how they could be going to the salmon derby, but it was really amazing to see how many people still had the courage to drive those roads.”
Parker also said the quake was not the most memorable of her Alaska adventures. The quake helped set the place apart from South Dakota, but the years since brought enough rugged adventure to do that, with or without an earthquake.
“So many other things have happened along the way,” she said, her words trailing off as she looked out the windows of her shop across the highway’s knotty spruce trees.
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