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 msgates@northwestel.net.

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