In 1881, Francis Mercier, a French Canadian trader, established a trading post at the site of Eagle to compete with Fort Yukon and Fort Reliance, two Hudson’s Bay Company posts along this eastern stretch of the Yukon River. It was a shrewd choice of location. Just inside the U.S. border, stampeders fed up with Canada’s heavy-handed laws and taxes organized a supply town here in spring 1898, naming it Eagle for the profusion of the majestic birds in the area.
Also, sitting at the southernmost point on the Yukon River in eastern Alaska, Eagle occupied a strategic spot for transportation, communication, and supply routes to the Interior from tidewater at Valdez. Within six months, three large trading companies had developed Eagle into a major Yukon port.
In 1899, the Army began building Fort Egbert next to the town site. In 1900, Judge James Wickersham arrived to install the Interior’s first federal court, with jurisdiction over half the state. And by 1902, the WAMCATS telegraph line was completed between Eagle and Valdez, inaugurating the first “all-American” communication system to the Lower 48.
The biggest event in Eagle’s history happened in 1905, when a Norwegian Arctic explorer appeared out of the icy fog and somehow communicated to the townspeople (he spoke no English) who he was and what he’d done. The man was Roald Amundsen, and he had just navigated the Northwest Passage, the first time in more than 350 years of attempts, and had crossed over 500 miles of uncharted country by dogsled in the deepest Arctic winter from his ice-locked ship off the north coast of Alaska to announce his feat to the world. The message, going out over the telegraph line, was the news story of the decade.
By then, however, Eagle’s star had faded. The stampeders had moved on to Nome and Fairbanks, followed by Judge Wickersham and his court. The importance of Fort Egbert declined until it was abandoned in 1911. WAMCATS was replaced, seven years after it was installed, by wireless communication. Eagle’s population continually dwindled to a low of 13 in 1959. Fortunately, the remoteness of the town made it almost impossible to haul out the antiques that had accumulated over the decades, so they stayed in Eagle, where they remain today.
In May 2009 the Yukon River backed up behind an ice dam, causing massive flooding in Eagle. Thirteen homes were destroyed in Eagle itself, and Eagle Village, the Native Alaskan town, was severely damaged, forcing residents to rebuild in a new location upriver. With help from many volunteers, locals rebuilt many of Eagle’s homes, finishing before the snow came in the fall. Fortunately, most of the town’s historic buildings were spared.
© Don Pitcher from Moon Alaska, 10th Edition