Thursday, July 19, 2012

Old Eagle courthouse dates back to days of Territorial justice

U.S. Courthouse in Eagle, Alaska as it looked in 2000

On June 6, 1900, Congress enacted a civil code for the Territory of Alaska that, among other things, split Alaska’s single judicial district into three districts. Eagle City (less than two years old) became the headquarters for the Third Judicial District, and James Wickersham was appointed as its sole judge.

Wickersham, his family and staff arrived in Eagle via riverboat from Dawson City on July 16, 1900. In his book, “Old Yukon: Tails, Trails and Trials,” Wickersham says the entire town (about 500 people) turned out to greet them. He went on to add that in addition to Fort Egbert, (which had been established the preceding year adjacent to the town) and the numerous cabins housing the town’s residents, the community consisted of several stores, a customs house, Presbyterian church, Catholic church, two restaurants and four or five log-cabin saloons.

Wickersham and his clerk quickly set to work collecting license fees from businesses in Eagle, Circle and Rampart to fund the construction of a courthouse and jail, and by 1901 the two structures had been completed. That same year, Eagle City became the first incorporated city in Interior Alaska (and the second in the territory).

The courthouse (shown in the drawing) is a two-story wood-frame structure with shiplap siding and a gable roof. It originally had offices for the judge and his staff on the first floor, and a courtroom on the second floor. The jail, with an office for a U.S. marshal, was a separate log structure directly south of the courthouse.

Wickersham relates in his book that during winter when the Yukon River was frozen over and there was negligible risk of prisoners fleeing, they were allowed to roam about town during the day, having only to return to their cells each evening. With the threat of being locked out of their warm cells at night, few if any prisoners failed to check in.

The Third Judicial District’s office moved to Fairbanks in 1903, but the Eagle courthouse was maintained as a court until the 1950s. After the jail burned down (for the second time) in 1911, a room in the courthouse was used to hold prisoners, and an adjacent room was reserved for a guard.

One of the consequences of relocating the Third Judicial District was the marshal also moving to Fairbanks. After that the Eagle resident who apprehended a suspected criminal had to guard the prisoner until a marshal could arrive. An unintended effect was that during winter, when the trip to Eagle was a long and arduous one, few arrests were made.

During the 1950s the city of Eagle assumed ownership of the courthouse building. From then until the 1970s the rooms allotted for the jail were kept for that function, and a portion of the first floor was used as the community library, but the rest of the ground floor was used for storage. The second floor courtroom was preserved.

The appearance of the courthouse has changed little through the years. The covered porch on the east end of the building was torn down in 1926 due to decay, and a boardwalk along the north side of the building was removed in the 1950s for the same reason.

When the building was restored in the 1970s, the boardwalk and covered porch were rebuilt. The entire building is now operated as a museum by the city, with the courtroom on the second floor maintained in the same state as it was during Judge Wickersham’s tenure.

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