Saturday, January 14, 2012

Fort Egbert at Eagle, Alaska brought order to Alaska-Canada border

Fort Egbert NCO quarters as it looked in 2000

The non-commissioned officers (NCO) quarters at Fort Egbert, Alaska is one of the few buildings remaining at the former Army post (now managed cooperatively by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Eagle Historical Society and Museums).

Fort Egbert (adjacent to Eagle, Alaska) was established in response to the 1897 Klondike Gold Rush in Canada.  This was a rough and tumble period.  Rumors of disorder, food shortages, and lawlessness, especially on the U.S. side of the border, caused consternation when they eventually reached Washington, D.C.

The U.S. War Department investigated in 1898 and decided to establish a series of forts along the major transportation routes in Alaska and near mining regions. A fort at Eagle, Alaska (12 miles from the Canadian border) was the closest to the Klondike.

In July 1899 a contingent of about 100 Army personnel arrived in Eagle by steamer. According to BLM literature, the troops were sent to “provide law and order, protect commerce, care for impoverished miners, build roads and trails, and develop better communication with the nation.”  The soldiers hastily began constructing barracks, barns and other facilities before winter set in. 

The next year Fort Egbert became headquarters for construction of the first telegraph line in Alaska. The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), built between 1900 and 1904, linked military posts in Alaska with the rest of the nation.

Maintaining the telegraph lines proved more difficult than anticipated. A 1903 U.S. War Department report lamented that although the telegraph lines were meant simply to link Alaska’s military posts, almost the entire garrison of several forts (including Fort Egbert) were constantly maintaining the lines and not available for any other duties.

More dependable and easily maintained wireless telegraph systems (radio) gradually replaced the land lines. By 1911 infantry troops were no longer needed to maintain the lines, and the Army withdrew most of its soldiers from Fort Egbert. A wireless telegraph station was operated by the Army Signal Corps there until 1925 when the station burned down.

After the Army departed, the Alaska Road Commission (ARC) took over a portion of the site. Some of the buildings were moved or salvaged—others simply fell apart. But by 1940 only five of the fort’s original 45 building remained in decent condition. The remaining buildings included the quartermaster's storehouse. mule barn, granary, water wagon shed, and NCO quarters.

Eagle’s residents have worked diligently to preserve what is left of Fort Egbert. In the 1970s they secured funding from The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the federal government. The funds were administered by BLM, and the fort’s buildings were restored between 1975 and 1980.  In 1975 the Eagle Historic District (including Fort Egbert) was declared a National Historic Landmark. 

In 1991 the Eagle Historical Society and Museums, the City of Eagle, and the BLM signed a Cooperative Agreement to continue protecting significant cultural resources and historic properties within the Eagle Historic District National Historic Landmark. 

One of the most recent projects at Fort Egbert was additional restoration work (completed in 2008) on the NCO quarters. The project included repairing original materials such as doors and floor, replicating and replacing the wallpaper, and stabilizing the building’s foundation.

There were originally three NCO quarters buildings. Only one remains at the fort, but another was moved to the riverbank in 1915 (after Fort Egbert closed) and used as the Customs Service office and residence. It has also been restored as a period residence and Customs Service museum, and is open to the public.


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