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Home  >  Digital Archives  >  Government  >  Military
Fort Gibbon and the Village of Tanana
By Jason Wenger Page 1 of 2   Next ยป

Even before the Klondike gold strike, Alaska's Interior was crawling with miners and traders who were drawn by gold and the opportunity to get rich by finding it or taking it out of the pockets of the miners. Some men and women demonstrated foresight and wisdom by trading with Athabascans and Western competitors. The desire for order and fair trade was evident through the local miners' meetings, which set the rule of Western law in these small societies. However, by 1897 accounts of lawlessness and even murder among ungoverned miners reached an already concerned U.S. government in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Secretary of War ordered Captain P.H. Ray and a company of men to investigate the Interior. Captain Ray concluded that the unattended mining towns were in dire need of organization and government. At his recommendation, the government built six forts at the most popular mining sites and widely used trade routes. Ray wanted to build three forts on the Yukon River, placed at critical junctions in the transportation system. They were Fort Egbert (near the Canada border), Fort Gibbon (near Tanana at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana Rivers), and Fort St. Michael (on the Bering Sea, at the mouth of the Yukon River). The three forts would connect the east, central, and westernmost segments of the Yukon River, which cut the territory nearly in half.

Among the three, Fort Gibbon was centrally located near the Athabascan village of Tanana, called "Nuchalawoyya" by the Native people, meaning "where the two great rivers meet." The location was ideal. It had long been a major trade location for the Koyukon and Tanana peoples, and from this location in the heart of the Interior, the U.S. military oversaw the shipping and trading of supplies and brought civil order to the miners.

Though Fort Gibbon thrived as a crucial hub and trading post for miners in the early 20th century, the necessity of the fort was short-lived. As early as 1906, both successful and penniless miners were leaving the Yukon. However, the fort remained important in what may have been the largest communications project in the history of Alaska: the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System.

By June 1903, under the direction of Lt. William Mitchell, crews completed construction of the first telegraph line to span Alaska's Interior, from Valdez to Fort Egbert on the Yukon River. More lines along the Yukon River linked Forts Egbert, Gibbon, and St. Michael. Finally, a submarine cable from Seattle to Valdez was completed. For the first time, military intelligence officials could transmit telegraphed messages strictly through American soil and international waters.

The Gold Rush died out, and wireless radio connections soon made the use of the telegraph nearly obsolete. Fort Gibbon was abandoned in 1923, with the brief exception of its use as a temporary air base refueling stop during World War II. The U.S. government decided it was no longer necessary to man the one-time hub. In May 1936, WAMCATS was redesignated the Alaska Communications System (ACS).

According to the 2000 federal census, about 300 people -- most of them Athabascans -- were living in Tanana. Remnants of the once-bustling Fort Gibbon are no longer visible; however, its history remains an important chapter in Alaska development and in the country's military history.
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Gallery of Images
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Fort Gibbon's buildings
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Telegraph tower at Fort Gibbon
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Fort Gibbon waterfront
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Chief William of Tanana
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Village of Tanana
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