Tourist literature and blogs from other travelers encouraged us to make the fifty mile drive to Eagle from Chicken. Scary warnings about narrow, twisting road with soft shoulders lead us to leave the motor home in Chicken and make the drive by car. It was a spectacular road winding up one mountain and down another, following streams at times. Fall colors are in full force. The ground cover and shrubs provide vivid reds and oranges in contrast to the yellow aspens and deep green spruce. You would think we took a lot of photos along the way. You would be wrong. It didn’t rain much, but leaden skies did not provide the vivid blue contrast we love in fall foliage photos. Oh. well. The drive took about three hours without a lot of stops. On a nice day we would have been on the road to Eagle for twice as long.
Eagle is a town that is hanging on by its toenails. In the early 1900’s it was a wild west gold rush town of 2,000 residents, known for lawless behavior. The first federal judge was stationed here to bring justice to a territory that encompasses about a third of what is the state of Alaska today. Very few miscreants were found guilty in his court room. It wasn’t his fault. They were tried by a jury of their peers and there were few law abiding folks in Eagle. Judge Wickersham finally gave up and moved his court to Fairbanks.
Eagle was supposed to be on the newly built Alaska railroad, but by the time it got this far north, the gold miners had moved further west and the railroad did, too. Because it is on the Yukon River and a pleasant boat ride away from Dawson City, it stayed in the gold miner travel loop for many years and sometimes six boats a day made the trip between the two cities. These paddle wheel steamers required a cord of wood per mile and kept many loggers in business. In more modern times the boats carried cruise ship passengers who had come north by railroad from Skagway to Whitehorse and then came to Eagle by boat. The cruisers shopped in Eagle, buying handicraft items that the locals produced during the long dark winter. Many took walking tours of Eagle, just as we did today. They boarded buses and continued their tours to Fairbanks. Then Mother Nature intervened.
The spring thaw and ice break up on the rivers is a big deal all over Alaska. It signals the end to the long, long, dark winter and the arrival of spring. A perfect storm of conditions during the spring thaw of 2009 almost wiped Eagle off the map entirely. Snowfall had been heavier than usual and the Yukon River was frozen deeper than usual. Then a string of 70º days coupled with spring rain broke everything loose. The ice chunks were so big, they jammed the curves in the river and the ice chunks, some as big as cars, floated two blocks into town, knocking buildings off their foundations. Some were found 75 feet away from their original locations. Those buildings that weren’t damaged by ice chunks were flooded. There was no loss of life, but this historic town was devastated. Then in 2010 the road we drove today was washed out by unusually heavy rains. No more boat visits from Whitehorse and Dawson. No more buses out of town.
Since then much of the town has been rebuilt, but the loss of tourism has brought down their revenue 80%. When we visited the National Park Visitor Center and watched the video of the ice break up, we were the only ones there. When we took the walking tour of the historic buildings in the town and nearby Fort Egbert, we were the only ones there. We left wondering if the next tourists who happen by will be touring a ghost town. Life can be very hard in Alaska.