Thursday, March 27, 2014

Northern Commercial Company helped city of Eagle survive



 
Eagle NC Co. store in 2000
If you have an eye for detail the front door is a give-away. Otherwise, glancing at Eagle’s old Northern Commercial Company (NC Co.) store, shown in the drawing, you might be deceived into thinking it is a small structure. However, those seemingly four-foot tall windows along the front of the building are actually eight feet tall. Instead of being 12 feet wide, the building it is about 24 feet wide and about 60 feet long, with 10-foot ceilings.

The tall front windows, and transom window over the centrally-placed front door, which allowed as much light as possible inside, are typical of commercial buildings built across the United States in the early 1900s. There are no side windows except at the very back of the building since the walls would have been lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves.

The NC Co. (at the turn of the 20th century it was the Alaska Commercial Company) built a store at Eagle in 1898, shortly after the community was established, while the Klondike Gold Rush was in full stride. Although the Dawson City area was a major gold producer, many U.S. miners, disgruntled with Canadian regulations and unable to find claims to stake, had returned to diggings on the U.S. side of the border, establishing numerous mining camps along the Yukon River between Eagle and Circle. Many of these camps had patriotic names such as Nation, Independence, Eagle and Star City.

Eagle became a commercial and government center. A U.S. Army installation (Fort Egbert) was built there, and the town became headquarters for the Third Judicial District. Three major trading companies opened stores: The NC Co., North American Trading Company, and the Alaska Exploration Company.

According to the book, Flag over the North, the story of the Northern Commercial Company, the first NC Co. store in Eagle was a large log structure located on B Street, a few hundred yards from the river. Sometime before 1905 the log store was replaced with the current wood-frame building.

When the Third Judicial District moved its headquarters to Fairbanks in 1903 as the Klondike Gold Rush waned, the future of Eagle dimmed considerably. However, mining techniques learned in the Klondike, such as hydraulicking and dredging, opened up new areas in Alaska.  The book, Yukon, the Last Frontier, states that by 1916 there were 70 mines in the Circle-Eagle area, and in the 1930s and early 1940s the region supported seven gold dredges. Because of its location and already existing infrastructure, Eagle became a regional support center.

The NC Co. was the major trading company along the lower Yukon River. At its zenith, it owned 22 stores from Eagle near the Canadian border to St. Michael near the mouth of the river on Norton Sound. In addition to its stores, it also operated a river navigation company, as did the two other trading companies in Eagle. Over time, as Klondike mining ebbed, the NC Co. absorbed some competitors and forced others out of business. Eventually it became the sole trading company in Eagle, owning a handful of storefronts and warehouses.

Preservation plans for the Fort Egbert and Eagle Historic District indicate that by 1915 the NC Co. had centralized its store operations to a building it had acquired along the riverfront.  Although the company still owned the B Street building, it was used for a time as a restaurant.
           
The NC Co. closed its Eagle operations in the 1950s and the B Street building sat vacant for years.  It was acquired by the city in 1968 and later purchased by Steve Nelson, an Eagle resident. Another Eagle resident, John Borg, told me that Mr. Nelson has stabilized the building by putting in a new concrete foundation.  Although it is currently only used for storage, it remains an important part of Eagle’s history and a rare example of early Interior Alaska commercial buildings.

Sources:

  • Conversation with John Borg, Eagle resident and Historic Eagle tour guide  
  • Flag over the North, the story of the Northern Commercial Company.  L. D. Kitchener. Superior Publishing. 1954 
  •  Fort Egbert and Eagle, a Preservation Plan. National Trust for Historic Preservation, for the Bureau of Land Management. 1976
  • Yukon, the Last Frontier. Melody Webb. University of New Mexico Press. 1985
 

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