Exploring Fort Selkirk, Yukon

Fort Selkirk is a remote ghost town, one of the oldest communities in the Yukon, and a gem of a historic site that few people will ever see. The only way to reach it is by boat, but each year on Parks Day, free boat shuttles are offered. Canada’s Parks Day is celebrated on the third Saturday of July each year – this year, it was on the 20th, and I reserved spots for myself, Cathy and my niece, Bobbie, several weeks early.

My last visit to Fort Selkirk was in August 1997, when my son Steven and I spent 11 days canoeing from Whitehorse to Dawson City. My journal about Fort Selkirk from that trip begins with:

Fort Selkirk – what can I say about this magic place in 2 or 3 paragraphs? … We spent 21 hours there, and took almost 100 photographs of the 34 buildings and 2 cemeteries – apart from the work crew and support people, the village was ours. On the previous day, dozens of people had arrived, stretching the capacity of the campground to the limit. While we were there, several people paddled by without stopping – while I don’t understand why they did it, they have my thanks!

You can read about that entire trip in my article, “Our Time Machine is a Canoe“.

The shuttle boats run from a launch site near the Pelly Farm, on the Pelly River near its confluence with the Yukon River. It’s a long haul from Whitehorse – we left the house at 07:30, and made a quick stop at Fox Lake to pick up Bobbie, who was camping there with friends. The mandatory stop at Braeburn Lodge was made to pick up a few of Steve’s massive cinnamon buns – you can’t head off into the wilderness without appropriate survival rations!

We turned off the North Klondike Highway at about 10:50. To get to the Pelly River road, you go through a residential part of Pelly Crossing. The route is rather confusing, but there were signs to keep us on the right road.
Pelly Crossing, Yukon
The Pelly River is very impressive, and the broad glacier-carved valley it flows through is lovely.
Pelly River valley, Yukon
Sally Robinson at Historic Sites had told me that it was an hour from the highway to the boat launch, and that there was a sign at the half-way point to confirm that you’re on the right road :)
Pelly River Road, Yukon
There’s nothing fancy about the road – here, it crosses Caribou Creek.
Bridge on the Pelly River Road, Yukon
Our first look at historic Pelly Farm (a.k.a. Pelly River Ranch Farm since 1954 when the Bradley family bought it). The sign on the tree says “You Made It”, with a wonderful caricature of a grazing cow.
Pelly Farm, Yukon
We reached the boat launch right at noon. There were more vehicles there than I had expected. I don’t know how many people had been allowed to register, but heard that there was a long waiting list of people who wanted to go.
Pelly River, Yukon
Both shuttle boats left as we arrived, and we had a 35-minute wait for one of them to return.
Pelly River, Yukon
A couple of excellent publications about Fort Selkirk were available, so we did some reading while waiting for the boat. These publications are available online for free as pdfs: Fort Selkirk (walking tour); and A Look Back in Time: The Archaeology of Fort Selkirk.
Booklets about Fort Selkirk, Yukon
At 12:40 we got a glimpse of Pelly Farm. Tours were being offered and we hoped to be able to take one in the afternoon.
Pelly Farm, Yukon
I was surprised to see an enormous amount of recent erosion damage along the Pelly.
Pelly River, Yukon
Unless you were really paying attention, you wouldn’t notice entering the main Yukon River flow, as it has very much the same size and character as the Pelly. A few minutes after entering the Yukon River, though, we got our first look at Fort Selkirk, at 12:53 pm. I hoped that everyone else was as excited by the sight as I was.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
A Historic Sites interpreter gave us a brief orientation to the site, offered booklets to anyone who didn’t have them yet, and then we were off on our exploration.
Interpreter at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
There were still a few campers in the large campsite, but most if not all canoeists had already resumed their trip to Dawson City. The interpreter had told us that most of the 1,200 to 1,500 annual visitors to Fort Selkirk arrive by canoe.
Camping at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
When the Yukon River was the primary highway in the Yukon, Fort Selkirk was a busy place. This photo was shot by Whitehorse professional photographer Ephraim J. Hamacher in 1903. When the North Klondike Highway opened in 1950, though, traffic on the river died, and Fort Selkirk was abandoned soon after.
Steamboats at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Charlie Stone, the government telegraph operator, began building this house for his mother in 1935, but she died before it was completed. This was the most modern house in Fort Selkirk, and the only one with indoor plumbing.
Charlie Stone House, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
This small and simple cabin appears to have been built in the early 1920s, possibly by Neville Armstrong, a gold miner at Russell Creek on the Macmillan River and a big game outfitter.
Neville Armstrong cabin, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
This is the interior of the cabin above.
Neville Armstrong cabin, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
St. Andrews Anglican Church was built in 1931 of materials from the Yukon Field Force barracks. The building is the most elaborate one at Fort Selkirk, and the only one which was designed by an architect. The last resident minister, Kathleen Cowaret, moved to Minto in 1953.
St. Andrews Anglican Church, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
The interior of St. Andrews.
St. Andrews Anglican Church, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
In 1978, a new charity called Katimavik sent a crew of 17-20-year-old volunteers from all across Canada to Fort Selkirk to clean up the site and do some basic stabilization and restoration work. Some of the notes written by those Katimivik members have been preserved. The Yukon government started work on the site 6 years later.
St. Andrews Anglican Church, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Riverbank erosion has always been a problem for many communities, and it continues at Fort Selkirk. A large section of the bank in front of the school collapsed this year, and the building is now being moved further back from the river.
Riverbank erosion at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
The interior of the schoolhouse. Built in 1892, probably by the Reverend Thomas Henry Canham, it’s the oldest known standing structure in the Yukon. It served as both a school and a place of worship until the church was built in 1931.
1892 schoolhouse, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Looking back at the Anglican rectory and church from the schoolhouse. The rectory was built in 1893, also by the Reverend Canham, using squared, dovetailed logs. The front room also served as a winter school house, to save heating an extra building.
Anglican rectory and church, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Upstairs in the rectory, newspapers glued to the walls as an extra layer of insulation in 1904 can be read.
Anglican rectory, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
A 7-man crew from the Selkirk First Nation in Pelly Crossing has been working on the site for several summers – the Selkirk First Nation co-manages the site with the Yukon government. Their most visible project this year is rebuilding the Taylor & Drury store’s stable.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
One of my favourite buildings is the Coward Cabin. It was built in 1898 as the Yukon Field Force officer’s residence and is one of only 3 remaining Yukon Field Force buildings. Alex Coward moved the building from the Field Force complex in the 1920s – he was a well-known jack-of-all-trades who could build, move and repair anything. He lived in the cabin with his wife Kathleen Cowaret (Martin), the long-time Anglican lay missionary. Mr. Coward added this kitchen to the east side and a porch on the back.
Coward cabin, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
The complex roof of the Coward home.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
One of Mr. Coward’s tools. My guess is that this was part of a foot-powered tool-sharpening wheel.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Joe Roberts may have built this cabin around 1916, the date found on newspapers that were used as chinking between the logs. It was getting to be quite unstable, and vertical beams were bolted to each wall to keep it standing.
Joe Roberts cabin, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
The interior of the Roberts cabin. One of the things about Fort Selkirk that is the most captivating to me is that it doesn’t feel like a “historic site” in the museum sense – although there are many interpretive signs, you’re free to wander, and very few things are in glass cases.
Joe Roberts cabin, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
A broad view of the central part of Fort Selkirk, looking downriver.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Tommy McGinty built this tiny cabin in 10 days during the summer of 1939, at a time when he spent much of his winters trapping in the bush. A respected Selkirk First Nation Elder, he was a great source of stories, songs and lore about the traditional way of life.
Tommy McGinty cabin, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
This cabin and the upper part of the cache date to about 1930. The lower part of the cache was added about 10 years later. The Fort Selkirk booklet uses the names Luke Roberts and Robert Luke as their builder – it’s not clear whether that’s 2 people or 1 typo. :)
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
One of the artifacts in the cabin above.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Big Jonathon Campbell’s home is a reconstruction, as the original had been torn down following his death. It’s used as one of the 2 main interpretive centres.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
That brings us to the part of Fort Selkirk that was home to the Yukon Field Force in 1898-1899. Authorized on March 21, 1898 to support the North West Mounted Police in the Yukon, it was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Dixon Byron Evans of the Royal Canadian Dragoons, and consisted of 5 Staff, 16 Royal Canadian Dragoons, 49 men of the Royal Canadian Artillery and 133 men of the Royal Regiment of Canadian Infantry armed with Lee-Enfield .303 rifles, two Maxim guns and two bronze seven-pounder cannons.
Yukon Field Force - Fort Selkirk, Yukon
The simple monument was erected by Canadian Forces members and cadets in 1972, on what had been the parade square.
Yukon Field Force monument, Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Legend has it that these holes in the basalt wall across the river from the Yukon Field Force site were created by cannon fire practices.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
There are 2 cemeteries at Fort Selkirk. In the one for non-Natives, the Yukon Field Force has their own section, with the graves of the 3 members who died while in service here: J. Corcoran, G. Hansen and H. Walters.
Yukon Field Force cemetery at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
Other graves here are in various states of decay.
Grave in the cemetery at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
This collapsed cabin was built in the mid-1930s by Johnny Anderson following his marriage.
Johnny Anderson cabin at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
I’ll bet there are some interesting stories connected to this truck.
Old truck at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
A scenic hill is the location of the St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church. Built along the waterfront in 1898, this was the second Catholic Church in the Yukon – the log building uses French style piece-en-piece construction, which is unusual in the territory. It was moved to this site in 1942 by Father Bobillier.
St. Francis Xavier Roman Catholic Church at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
The First Nations cemetery is very colourful but with a couple of exceptions the graves have no names or dates on them.
First Nations cemetery at Fort Selkirk, Yukon
We picked a poor time to leave Fort Selkirk, as many others had the same idea. With only 2 shuttle boats, it took over an hour and a half to get on one. It had been a wonderful day, though, and the quiet bank of the Yukon River wasn’t a bad place to sit. At 5:20, this was our good-bye view.
Fort Selkirk, Yukon
We had had great weather all day – some hot sun, some clouds, a nice breeze to keep the bugs away. As we neared Pelly Farm, though, we could see ugly weather ahead. About 10 minutes from the boat launch, a storm hit us that brought icy rain down in buckets. Combined with the wind caused by the boat’s speed, it was miserable!
Fort Selkirk, Yukon


Comments

Exploring Fort Selkirk, Yukon — 17 Comments

  1. Murray as always fantastic photos and stories. The Pelly was in very high flood this year so no surprises about the erosion.

  2. Thanks for the insight into a region, time and community I had no knowledge of.

    What would be the closest modern town,village or settlement to the Fort in miles?

    And just curious why it always happened so quickly, that river commerce was abandoned altogether after a road system was developed, not only at Fort Selkirk, but most other frontier settlements also. Cost to travel or travel time?

    Hope you are having an enjoyable summer, it will be gone before you know it.

  3. Hi Bruce,

    The village of Pelly Crossing is the closest – it was 52 km by road and then 20 minutes by fast boat to reach Fort Selkirk.

    When it comes to travel, time=cost. In the same way as the river towns (Fort Selkirk was by far the largest of several communities that died), when the South Klondike Highway was built, the WP&YR railway was soon shut down, unable to compete.

    Sssssh about summer soon being gone – I’m firmly in denial about that, and having a ball :)

  4. My family lived at Fort Selkirk. I have heard there is still “The Swinehart farm”. Did you see anything there about the Swineharts? I have photos taken about 1910 in Ft Selkirk, I think. The family later moved to Dawson. Guy Swinehart was telegraph operator and his father published a newspaper…maybe.
    Thanks so much for these photos….

  5. Hi Susan. I didn’t see anything about the Swineharts, and a bit of research shows that the farm was 2-3 miles downriver from Fort Selkirk. The image resolution of that area on Google Earth is very coarse, but I don’t see any indication of cultivated fields, so it seems to be fairly well hidden. Heritage Branch comments about the “site” of the farm is an indication that there’s nothing, or not much, left. A 1903 newspaper article I found in Google is sure interesting: “W. M. Swinehart, formerly publisher of the Juneau Mining Record, is making a fortune operating at Fort Selkirk the most extensive farm In British Yukon or Alaska”

  6. Very interesting. I’ll have to read that again…I get to excited the first time through to see what’s next so I just skim over it. :)

  7. So delighted to have stumbled upon your blog via Travel Yukon’s Facebook post. I kept a blog when I first came to the Yukon 18 months ago, it has lapsed since I ceased having so many novel “adventures”; yours reminds me of it. I was very disappointed to miss the trip to Fort Selkirk but your words and fantastic images have brought it to life! Hopefully I will make the trip next summer.

  8. Viva Canada Parks Day. What an interesting historical site. Thank you for visiting and sharing your photos and knowledge.

  9. In regard to Susan Coltrin’s question about the Swinehart farm, it was located about 2 miles due west of Fort Selkirk (therefore not on the Yukon River, unless there was also another location I’m not aware of). I have a few other bits of information I can provide to Ms. Coltrin if e-mail addresses can be exchanged through this blog. I have not visited the site of the farm, but am quite familiar with the lower Pelly River area near Fort Selkirk.

    • Thanks very much for posting, Gord – I’ve passed your message and contact information on to Susan, and I’m sure that you’ll be hearing from her.

  10. Murray,
    Great coverage on Ft Selkirk….. well done !………. I was the last clerk with the HBC in Fort Selkirk …… flew in with Bud Harbottle March 1951. Assisted in closing down the post , then repeated the process in Stewart River post.
    Left the Bay and worked with Whitehorse fire dept for five years, with chief Fred Blaker. ……. Left the Yukon 1956………..returned this year July 7th ( my 81st birthday)………sadly, most of my old Yukon friends have passed on … however I still have great memories of the people and times we spent in the Yukon.
    Murray, again thanks for your splendid photography ( also great work on the Victoria segment, now you know why we moved here !!)

    Cheers,
    Derek .
    ps. I used the old model t truck in Selkirk to move loads down to the river bank.