History of the Fort
| ||View of Fort Egbert around 1907 with Eagle Bluff and the Yukon River in the background. Photo courtesy of the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center. |
The Army established Fort Egbert to provide law and order, protect commerce, care for impoverished miners, build roads and trails, and develop better communication with the nation. Construction began in 1899. In July about one hundred enlisted men and a detachment of the Hospital Corps arrived in Eagle and began erecting barracks, officer quarters, and other facilities. Both soldiers and civilians faced adjustments to frontier living, with its limited and expensive supplies, cold, isolation, and loneliness. Many of the first buildings, hastily constructed before winter, later needed major improvements.
The following year Fort Egbert received a new mission: to construct the first telegraph line in Alaska. The Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) was the first electronic communication system to connect the military posts and settlements in Alaska to the rest of the country. The line was to extend from Nome in the west to Fairbanks in the Interior and on to Fort Egbert in the east, with another line extending from Fort Egbert to Fort Liscum, near Valdez.
|Fort Egbert soldiers stand next to a cannon on a gun carriage. Today a replica cannon stands at the entrance to the fort. Photo courtesy of University of Alaska Fairbanks archives.|| |
Underwater cables from Valdez to southeast Alaska and on to Seattle would complete the connection to the rest of the country.
Soldiers finished the first segment of the system, from Fort Egbert into Canada, in October 1900. The other segments followed, with the 420-mile Eagle-Valdez line proving one of the most challenging. At the time of its completion in 1904, the system included 1,396 miles of land lines and 2,128 miles of undersea cable.
From the very beginning the Alaskan environment caused problems with the telegraph lines. Forest fires burned hundreds of miles of poles, snow and ice storms broke lines, and on at least one occasion, a caribou got its antlers tangled in the wire.
| ||Insulators and wires still remain at a few remote locations along the WAMCATS line.|
Poor reliability and high repair costs led the Signal Corps to experiment with “wireless telegraphy” (what we now call radio). After initial success with several pioneer radio stations, the Signal Corps in 1908 began construction of a network of radio stations across Alaska to act as a “backup” for the land lines. The new stations proved so reliable and inexpensive to maintain that in 1909 large sections of land line were abandoned in favor of radio.
By 1911, with infantry troops no longer needed to maintain telegraph lines, the Army withdrew most of its personnel from the fort. A small Signal Corps detachment remained in Eagle to operate the radio station until 1925.