Photos courtesy of Mike and Joan Sinnwell June 2010
Eagle Alaska Ghost town site.
Eagle was established in 1897, by a group of disgruntled gold prospectors who were unable to locate lucrative gold claims in the Klondike. After a group of business people joined them, they decided to start their own city on the other side of the International border. Finding a desirable location twelve river miles beyond the Canadian border, they called it Eagle for the large birds nesting on the bluff. They were now ready to share their new community with anyone willing to purchase any of the 300-400 lots they had staked. For a $5 recorder fee, each owner was given 30 days to brush the adjoining streets and one year to erect a building. Of the 200 cabins built during its first year, most were crude one-room log cabins with pole and dirt roofs.
The only way to Eagle was the Yukon River by boats in the summer and dog sleds over the ice in the winter. It wasn’t until the telegraph wires were strung from Eagle to Valdez that a trail was established. Along this trail, about every 18 to 20 miles, small cabins were built to provide shelter for those maintaining the wires.
In 1897 there was no mechanism to incorporate a city or to provide law and order. During a public meeting on Feb. 2, 1898, the citizens formed a Chamber of Commerce and elected a Board of Trustees and Mayor. Mass meetings continued to be held to vote on irregular matters, major disputes or law infractions brought to their attention.
By 1898, the population had reached 700. The main commercial center was a row of log cabins housing several saloons, gambling halls, restaurants and four large commercial companies. A few of the commercial buildings were constructed with lumber and galvanized metal roofs. Many of the lots changed hands, selling as low as $10 to $25 and as high as $2500 for a prime river front business site. Eagle had now become a major commercial center for the Upper Yukon.
A needed economic boost was received when the U. S. Army arrived in 1899 to build Fort Egbert adjacent to the city. The military's charges were to provide law and order, establish roads and communications, specifically telegraph lines, and to assist the indigent miners in the area. By 1903 the telegraph line from Eagle to Valdez was completed, becoming part of the 1,497 mile WAMCATS (Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System).
In July 1900 Judge James Wickersham established the first Federal Court in Alaska's interior, making Eagle the headquarters for the Third Judicial District. This district covered 300,000 square miles and did not include a single courthouse, regular jail, school, public building, and not a mile of wagon road or trail for transportation. Judge Wickersham improved some of those statistics when he completed the much-admired courthouse in Eagle.
With the passage of the Alaska Civil Code in 1900, it became possible to establish self-rule. In January 1901, Eagle voted to become an incorporated city - the first in the interior of Alaska.
The creeks around Eagle attracted many prospectors. They often built their cabins near their claims. Eagle was important to them as the source of their supplies, mail and social activities, which included active membership in the fraternal organizations.
Many miners kept diaries just to keep track of the dates, so they didn't miss any holiday festivities in town. It was not uncommon for the miners to walk 35 miles to attend a lodge meeting, dance, party or smoker in Eagle. A few gold miners still make a living on their claims around Eagle. In the gold rush days, the town was a supply center for miners and stampeders, until they moved on to Fairbanks or Nome.
The famous Norwegian polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, arrived in Eagle, Dec. 5, 1905, after mushing over 400 miles by dog team from Herschel Island where his sloop, the Gjoa, was frozen in the Beaufort Sea. He was the first to sail a ship through the long sought Northwest Passage. He had traveled overland to Eagle to send a telegraph to alert his family of his success and well being after a two and one-half year silence. He also request money be telegraphed to him. He remained in Eagle for two months. Maybe it took that long to get the money.
In 1903, the Gold Strike in the Tanana Valley brought many changes. In 1904, Judge Wickersham moved his court's headquarters to Fairbanks. In 1911 the U. S. Army Infantry abandoned Fort Egbert. This is when the population of Eagle dropped dramatically, as many of the residents were civilian employees at the fort.
The remaining residents hung on and Eagle did not become just another gold rush ghost town as did many of the Alaskan communities established at that time. The remaining residents continued to work as mail carriers, roadhouse operators, bean peddlers, teachers and federal employees besides the trappers, hunters and miners. Many of the original prospectors continued to work their claims, remaining for the rest of their lives. Though the miners weren't getting rich, they enjoyed their independent life.
Eagle, Alaska it is often called the Jewel on the Yukon. It can be reached by road, air, and water. Thanks to the Eagle Historical Society buildings, like the old church, City Hall and Waterfront Customs House have been restored and preserved with care.