Sunday, August 3, 2014

Ups and downs of Circle City, the "Paris of the North"



Old Circle City cabin in the spring of 2014

Circle is a small, predominantly Athabascan community at the end of the Steese Highway 160 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Located on the Yukon River’s south bank, it began life in 1894 as the supply center for the Circle Mining District 50 miles to the southeast, and as a winter haven for miners frozen out of their diggings.

The cabin in the drawing, dating from Circle’s early days, is located near the town cemetery. It is constructed of squared spruce logs with dove-tailed corners (a traditional Scandinavian technique) and has a galvanized metal roof. It was owned by Circle homesteader, Henry Appel, who willed the building to the Pioneers of Alaska when he died.

According to Melody Webb’s book, Yukon, the last frontier, gold was discovered along Birch Creek (in what is now called the Circle Mining District) in 1892, but mining didn't begin until the next year. In the spring of 1893 the discoverers, Sergei Cherosky and Pitka Pavaloff, returned to their claims after obtaining grubstakes from Leroy “Jack” McQuesten, an agent for the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC).  They were trailed by miners following rumors of a new strike.

The region’s creeks proved rich, but during the district’s early years miners didn’t overwinter on their claims. The winter of 1893-94 most lived at a site called “Fish Camp,” upriver from Circle’s present location.

Flooding the next spring forced the camp’s move downstream to a high riverbank on the edge of the Yukon Flats. A townsite was laid out and named Circle City. (Founders erroneously believed they were north of the Arctic Circle when they were actually about 50 miles to the south.)

Strung out along the riverbank, Circle quickly developed into a settlement of 300-400 log cabins. It also boasted several stores (including McQuesten’s ACC store), a hospital, Episcopal church, school, opera house (described by some as essentially a two-story dance hall), numerous dance halls and saloons, and even a newspaper. It claimed to be the largest log cabin city in the world.

Some residents called it the “Paris of the North.” James Wickersham, in his book, Old Yukon, wrote that in Circle’s heyday “its inhabitants were a cosmopolitan lot. Bearded and roughly dressed miners from the creeks, gamblers, actresses, prospectors, preachers, merchants, prostitutes, dog-mushers, hunters, dance-hall fairies, and dogs–a frontier gathering from every land, drawn together by the lure of a mining camp stampede.” Athabascan Indians also lived there and mingled with Circle’s other residents.

A few writers were less enthusiastic. Josiah Spurr, who visited Circle in the summer of 1896 with a U.S. Geological Survey expedition, described it as simply, “a settlement of log huts dignified by the name of Circle City.”

According to Spurr’s account, Circle’s population was about 700 people, but only during winter. In summer the population shrank to a few hundred as miners returned to their claims. In any event, Circle’s glory days ended in the fall of 1896 when word of the Klondike gold strike filtered down the Yukon River. Most miners abandoned their claims to join the stampede to Dawson City. By the spring of 1897 not more than 50 people, mostly women and children, remained in Circle.

The town recovered when disgruntled miners, unhappy with Canadian regulations and the lack of stakeable ground, began returning in the fall of 1898. By 1899 Circle’s population had rebounded to its pre-Klondike numbers, but the 1900 Nome gold rush once again emptied the town of most miners. Later stampedes lured others away.

The miners who stayed gradually adopted new mining techniques and fewer sought winter refuge in Circle. The town never again approached the population it had during its pre-1900 glory days. It survived as a regional supply center until completion of the Steese Highway in 1928 allowed miners to ship supplies out of Fairbanks.

Most of the town’s old buildings have been destroyed by fire, been torn down (with building materials either re-used or burned as fuel), or lost to the river. The only survivors from Circle’s early days are a few cabins scattered around town and the Washington Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System wireless radio station. Circle now has just two small stores and most residents live a subsistence lifestyle. 


Sources:

  • Conversation with Earla Hutchinson, co-owner of HC Company Store in Circle
  • Gold Placers of the Circle District, Alaska—Past, Present, and Future. Warren Yeend. U.S. Geological Survey. 1991
  • Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials. James Wickersham. Washington Law Book Company. 1938
  • Yukon Frontiers—Historic Resource Study of the Proposed Yukon-Charley National River. Melody Webb Grauman. National Park Service. 1977
  • Yukon, the last frontier. Melody Webb. University of Nebraska. 1985
  • Through the Yukon Gold Diggings. Josiah Edward Spurr. Eastern Publishing. 1900


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