Fort Yukon, which can be reached by air from Fairbanks, was described by famous columnist Ernie Pyle as being “a half mile from the ends of the earth.” Its story is a page out of Alaska’s history.
John Bell, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Co., reached the Yukon by way of the Porcupine River in 1846. A year later, Alexander Murray, another Hudson’s Bay man, started a new post about three miles upstream from the mouth of the Porcupine, well beyond the Arctic Circle.
The post was far inside Russian America. It was the most far-flung of their great chain of posts that stretched across the continent. It was so isolated that when the commander shipped a cargo of furs to London, reports were not received until seven years later.
In order to withstand Russian attack, Murray built the fort especially strong. As he wrote in his journal:
“We live on good terms with the Natives and fear nothing except to see two boatloads of Russians heave around the point.”
The Hudson’s Bay people held down their lonely outpost for 22 years. They were finally forced to move out, not by the Russians, but by the Americans after the United States purchased the vast land.
When Capt. Charles Raymond of the U.S. Army and his men jumped ashore from the first steamboat to ascend the Yukon that far, they were met by all of Fort Yukon’s inhabitants and treated with great hospitality.
On Aug. 9, 1869, the Union Jack came down and the Stars and Stripes were hoisted over the first English-speaking settlement on the river. The Canadians withdrew peaceably up the Porcupine River to a spot they thought was in Canada. However, they had to make two more moves before they finally got out of America.
The original post is gone – engulfed by the voracious Yukon River that is constantly gnawing away at the river’s banks.
However, the present Northern Commercial store is its direct descendent. Fur remained a medium of exchange, just as it was in the Hudson’s Bay days, for Fort Yukon always has been considered the “fur mother lode” of the North.Trappers from outlying settlements on the Porcupine, Chandalar, Big and Little Black and the Christian rivers brought their furs to the outpost. And although the decline in fur prices cut down on trappers’ income, there still may be strings of glossy pelts hanging cheek by jowl with modern electric stoves and washing machines in “The Store.”