Fort Selkirk, part 2: a treasure bypassed by time

Fort Selkirk is the most perfect historic site in the Yukon. Located at the junction of the Pelly and Yukon River, and inaccessible by automobile, it remains an historical gem, passed over by time.

Fort Selkirk is the most perfect historic site in the Yukon. Located at the junction of the Pelly and Yukon River, and inaccessible by automobile, it remains an historical gem, passed over by time. As a consequence, some of the oldest buildings in the Yukon have survived there.

After the Hudson Bay Company post at Fort Selkirk was destroyed by a coastal Chilkat raiding party in 1852, it wasn’t chronicled by white men until it was visited by a U.S. Army expedition, headed by Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka, in 1883. All that remained were three stone chimneys, two of which were visible at a great distance.

The same stone chimneys were still standing in 1887 when the site was visited by a Canadian government party led by geologist George M. Dawson and surveyor William Ogilvie.

By the time Schwatka returned in 1891 on another expedition to the White River country, the chimneys had been reduced to piles of rubble. Arthur Harper, in partnership with Joe Ladue, had constructed a log trading post here two years earlier, but at the time of Schwatka’s visit, Harper was absent, having gone down river to St. Michael’s, at the mouth of the Yukon River, with a load of furs.

Fort Selkirk, a permanent place in the homeland of the Northern Tutchone, was frequently bypassed by European visitors. American geologist Israel Russell passed it in 1889. Gentleman explorer Warburton Pike did the same in 1891, as did many prospectors who stopped briefly to pick up supplies at Harper’s trading post and then continued to other destinations.

Harper’s post has long since vanished, but in 1892, the year after Schwatka’s second visit, Reverend Thomas H. Canham came to Fort Selkirk and established a mission. This typical log building, which was used as a school, still stands today, and is one of the oldest surviving structures in the Yukon.

The following year, Canham hired George W. Carmack to cut and hew timbers with which to build the mission. This structure, made of carefully squared timbers, still shows the early evidence of the use of the broad axe on its weathered exterior. The corners are neatly tied together with dovetail notching. Canham was replaced by Benjamin Totty in 1895, but the mission was not occupied in 1897 due to lack of supplies.

The shortage of supplies that plagued Robert Campbell continued to be a problem for Harper and others right up to the gold rush. In 1897, J.J. McArthur, who accompanied Jack Dalton on a long cattle drive from the coast, noted that there was no flour or bacon left at the trading post – only some slabs of dried beef nailed to the side of the trading post up under the eaves.

Sam Dunham, who also passed by in September of 1897, noted that trader H.H. Pitts, who was operating Harper’s post, had a vegetable garden with cabbages and potatoes, but was pleading with passers-by for a little flour or sugar. Pitts kept a register of those stopping at his post. Dunham noted there were 1876 names in it by September, 1897, but hundreds more headed for the Klondike floated by without even stopping.

Jack Dalton brought a herd of cattle overland to Selkirk that summer, followed closely by two or three other herds, but the trail was too demanding. In following years, the cattle were herded to other points upstream and then rafted down the Yukon. One large herd was slaughtered near the mouth of the Pelly River, upstream from Selkirk.

In 1898 Selkirk was felt to be the most logical terminus for an overland road or railroad from the coast, and was considered to be the prime candidate for the territorial seat of government because of its central location. But that opportunity also passed it by. The North West Mounted Police established a small detachment here, one of many set up along the Yukon River. It lasted until 1911, and was re-established as a permanent detachment with one officer from 1932 to 1949.

Inspector Moodie of the Mounted Police was sent out from Edmonton in hopes of establishing an all-Canadian overland route to the Klondike. Herds of cattle were also dispatched that way in hopes of reaching the Klondike. Only a couple of mules and a worn-out pony ever reached Fort Selkirk by this route, and Moodie arrived after an arduous 14 month journey.

The railroad to the Yukon was constructed over the White Pass from Skagway and not from Pyramid Harbor to Selkirk, as many had planned. So the community on the banks of the Yukon did not turn into the transportation hub that was once envisioned. Nevertheless, the Canadian government sent a force of 204 soldiers, known as the Yukon Field Force, to Fort Selkirk, where they established a garrison for a year and a half. Eleven buildings, including barracks, mess halls and stores, were constructed around a quadrangle at the south end of the settlement. Three of the original Field Force buildings survive today.

The St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic church was constructed as a place of worship in piece sur piece, the style of log construction familiar in eastern Canada and to the many northern posts of the Hudson Bay Company. It is characterized by square-hewn timbers laid in horizontal rows that are tenoned into square-hewn, vertical corner and intermediate posts. After a short period of occupation, the church was not used on a regular basis until it was moved to its current location in 1942 and occupied by Father Marcel Bobillier.

The population of Fort Selkirk swelled briefly during the gold rush, but rapidly diminished again. For a while it sustained a number of hotels and retail stores. Trader Pitts continued in business until he passed away at Selkirk in 1913. Schofield and Zimmerlee took over the establishment operated by Pitts and were bought out in turn by the Hudson Bay Company, who returned to Selkirk in 1938, after an absence of nearly a century.

Others established commercial outlets there, including Anton Klimesch, who operated the Dominion Hotel, bar and general store. In the late teen years, or the early 1920s, Klimesch was bought out by Taylor and Drury, who operated the store until sometime in the 1940s.

A telegraph office was established here in 1899. It operated for several decades until replaced by more advanced technology. The government road, built between Dawson City and Whitehorse, bypassed Fort Selkirk by several miles, on the opposite side of the Yukon River, but the riverbank community was a regular stopping point for the riverboats that plied the Yukon for a half century.

When a road from Whitehorse to Mayo was completed in 1950, the stores, the church and the mounted police were moved away, and the population of Fort Selkirk evaporated. Bypassed by development, secure in its isolation, Fort Selkirk was spared the demolition associated with progress, which is why it survives as such a remarkable historical document today.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His latest book, Dalton’s Gold Rush Trail, is available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Team Yukon skip Laura Eby, left, directs her team as Team Northern Ontario skip Krysta Burns looks on at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary on Feb. 22. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Team Yukon reports positive experience at Scotties

Team Yukon played their final game at the national championship in Calgary on Thursday afternoon

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read