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Old Town

October 31, 2017, by Tabitha Gregory, Chief Customer Relations Officer, Copper Valley Telecom

The Old Town site is a bit disappointing. People going there to see evidence of the gold rush, Valdez's heyday, or even just marine and land-based transportation history, find little more than two potholed dirt roads, decaying pilings, and rusted iron. The natural scenery is stunning, but a thick grove of mature cottonwood and alder has overtaken the area's historical appeal.

Old Town

Valdez residents are aware of this and over the years have repeatedly raised the question of what to do with the Old Town site. The topic specifically arises whenever the City or other organizations engage in tourism planning. Many ideas have been floated, including reconstructing houses and establishing an historical park. None of these have gotten traction or funding.

Recently, however, the Valdez Museum and the Pioneers of Alaska partnered up to develop an interpretive program to address this need - a self-guided tour that would attempt to add depth to an Old Town visit. The final product is enabled by communication technology that is easy for the museum staff to manage and ubiquitous enough to be of value to most visitors and locals.

The program is fairly straight forward. Pioneers of Alaska volunteers installed eighteen simple roadside signs at Old Town locations where buildings once stood. Each sign features a photograph and a short paragraph identifying the building's former owner and use. That part is a classic interpretive technique and familiar to nearly everyone. But the signs also display a QR code and this use of technology is what evolves the old school signage.

The Old Town site has strong 4G LTE cellular coverage which means that anyone visiting the site who is carrying a smart phone may download an app (I use QR & Barcode Scanner by Gamma Play from the Google Play store), scan the QR code, and be taken immediately to the museum's Old Town web page. Here, the visitor views an Old Town map (it's PDF and may be printed prior to visiting the site), scroll through additional photographs of each building, its inhabitants, and surrounding landmarks and read more written information about each location.

I took this self-guided tour for the first time earlier this fall. The program is not ground breaking from either an interpretive or technological perspective, but is impressive in that the organizations involved – the museum is a small non-profit and the Pioneers is all-volunteer – made thoughtful use of readily available technology to fulfill their missions. They've succeeded in making historical material more accessible to the public and – critically – they've made it accessible to an individual while that person is standing at the abandoned Old Town site, trying to make sense out of the tangled alders, wild tidal flats, and crisscrossing paths.

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