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American military storehouses

and the Alaska boundary dispute

by Alec McEwen

The Alaska-Canada Boundary Dispute

An Explorer's Guide to Stewart, BC


Dateline: May 22, 2021
Originally published in "North" magazine, April 1985

    One of the questions put to the Alaska Boundary Tribunal in 1903 concerned the true location of the Portland Canal, a glacial fiord about 60 kilometres long navigated and named by George Vancouver in 1793. After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the waterway separated Canadian from United States territory. In its controversial decision, a majority of the tribunal held that the canal, at its southern extremity, passed through Tongass Passage into Dixon Entrance, thereby allocating to each country two of the four islands to which they both laid claim. As a result, Canada received Pearse Island and Wales Island, while the very much smaller islands of Sitklan and Kanagunut were awarded to the United States.

    A consequence of this territorial settlement was the acquisition by Canada of military storehouses constructed by the United States in 1896 and said to be the first masonry buildings erected in Alaska. Only one of these storehouses is now entirely on United States soil; two are inside Canada, and the fourth straddles the international boundary.

    In August 1896, while the British and United States governments were still engaged in boundary negotiations, Captain David D. Gaillard of the U.S. Corps of Engineers was allotted $5,000 to carry out a survey of the Portland Canal. Because of the lateness of the season and the limited funds available, it was not practical to complete the work in one year. In anticipation of further funds, however, Gaillard was instructed to "make the necessary preliminary examination, and erect such quarters and storehouses as may be hereafter needed for the work of survey."

    Gaillard reached the head of the Portland Canal on Sept. 2, 1896. With him he brought a survey transitman, an assistant quartermaster, four masons, four carpenters, four cooks, four mason's assistants, eight laborers, and all such stores and materials as were required "for the four storehouses to be constructed on the Alaska side of Portland Canal."

    The first site, for Storehouse No. 4, was chosen at Eagle Point, northeast of the mouth of the Salmon River, where one quarter of the work party was put ashore in the pouring rain and left with sufficient materials to erect the building, which was completed within 17 days. It is built of rubble masonry laid with cement mortar, with foundation walls about 45 cm thick and side walls of about 30 cm. The outside dimensions are 3.5 metres by 5 metres with a height of 2.5 metres, and the building has one door and a window. Cedar shingles covered the roof, and a dressed stone at the southeast corner of the outer wall carries the inscription "U.S. PROPERTY. DO NOT INJURE." On Sept. 14, a storm flag was hoisted near the building, accompanied by a salute, three cheers and uncovered heads, and was kept flying until the party departed a week later.

    Three other storehouses of similar construction and size were built respectively at Halibut Bay, on the west side of Portland Canal; at Lizard Cove, Pearse Island; and at Manzanita Cove, Wales Island. These buildings carried the identical inscription and were given the same flag-raising ceremony and salute. Gaillard left Manzanita Cove on Sept. 28, having finished the four structures in 24 days. There is no evidence that he undertook any survey or other work apart from the construction of the storehouses, and upon the completion of this task he returned to Washington, exactly two months after he had set out. This appears to have been Gaillard's only association with the Alaska boundary. His subsequent career included the building of the most difficult part of the Panama Canal, where the Gaillard Cut is named in his honor.

    Five years passed before the Canadian authorities became aware of what Gaillard had done. In 1901, Interior Minister Clifford Sifton was informed that the buildings were shown on a recent United States chart.

    Reaction to this belated discovery was swift and vigorous, and in January 1902 a committee of the Canadian Privy Council advised Prime Minister Laurier that "it cannot avoid the reflection that the buildings recently erected on Wales and Pearse Islands ...may have been placed there with the design of fortifying the claim of the United States to those islands."

American military storehouses and the Alaska boundary dispute

    Following a request by Governor General Lord Minto, the British government submitted a formal inquiry to Washington as to the nature of the storehouses and the reason for their erection in territory that was still being contested.

    In Canada's view, "occupation effected under such circumstances would not in international law have any validity, but ...the matter should not be allowed to pass without protest." This drew an acknowledgement from Washington that the buildings were "on a part of the Pacific Coast, the ownership of which is in dispute between the United States and Canada."

    But presence of controversial stone buildings, though an irritant to Canadian sensitivity, was only part of the larger issue concerning the disputed boundary. Discovery of gold in the Klondike, and the desire of Canada to secure access to coastal ports in the Alaska Panhandle, compelled the need for a territorial agreement.

    The boundary question lay virtually dormant at the diplomatic level until January 1903 when the Herbert-Hay convention provided for the appointment of a tribunal consisting of "six impartial jurists of repute" to determine the true meaning and application of certain articles of the Anglo-Russian treaty of 1825, from which the present boundary derived. Accordingly, Canada was represented by Sir Louis Jettˇ, lieutenant-governor of Quˇbec, and by Allen B. Aylesworth, while the members for the United States were Elihu Root, secretary of war, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and George Turner. The sixth member was Baron Alverstone, Lord Chief Justice of England, who presided over the tribunal which sat in London from Sept. 3 to Oct. 20, 1903.

    In its case concerning the Portland Canal, the British government alluded to the building of the storehouses, which and remained unused and unoccupied since their construction. It submitted to the tribunal "that no transaction of this nature, accomplished at that juncture under those circumstances and with such obvious intent, could, even had it passed unnoticed, avail to strengthen the claim of the United States or to weaken that of Great Britain."

    The American counter case argued that the storehouses were merely built along a boundary that "had been unquestioned for sixty years."

    Britain went on to argue that the ceremonial cheering and flag raising was an act that indicated the taking possession of territory for the first time. But this was met with the objection that it "would have been unnatural and un-American not to cheer and salute with uncovered heads when the flag went up."

    To what extent the controversy surrounding the storehouses played any significant part in the tribunal's award is difficult to assess. Even the judicial affirmation that Pearse and Wales islands formed part of their country's territory did little to assuage the feelings of many Canadians that the decision was wrong and went against the national interest, not only by denying the claims to the Alaska coast but also by awarding to the United States the islands of Sitklan and Kanagunut which lay to seaward of, and were believed to pose a strategic threat to, their two larger neighbours. Yet even the Americans, though generally applauding the tribunal's ruling, felt that they also had lost two islands to which the United States had the better claim.

    Initial rancor and recrimination notwithstanding, the line between Canada and Alaska was now finally settled and, following its establishment on the ground pursuant to the tribunal's award, the location of this portion of the boundary no longer remains a subject of dispute.

American military storehouses and the Alaska boundary dispute

    And what of the stone buildings themselves, which had once stood at the centre of the argument?

    Storehouse No. 4 is on the eastern edge of the small community of Hyder, Alaska, and sits astride the boundary with a maximum encroachment of about seven feet on Canadian territory. The stone inscription declaring the structure to be U.S. property also lies inside Canada. Alone of the four buildings, this storehouse has been used from time to time, and it is reported to have served on different occasions as a cobbler's shop and a jail. The original cedar shingles are now replaced by a metal roof, but the building has long remained empty and until recently its interesting history had almost passed into obscurity.

American military storehouses and the Alaska boundary dispute

    During the course of an investigation to determine which of its old projects might be of historical interest in connection with the forthcoming American Bicentennial, the U.S. Corps of Engineers at Anchorage undertook inquiries to discover whether the four stone buildings were still in existence.

    As a result, Storehouse No. 4 at Hyder was selected as the site of a ceremony held on July 4, 1976, on which occasion a plaque commemorating Gaillard's expedition was officially presented. Click on the photo of that plaque to the right to greatly enlarge it. Among those attending the event were provincial and state officials, and a number of residents from Hyder and its neighboring Canadian community of Stewart, B.C.

    The history of the storehouse was told by Lt.-Col. Lyman Woodman of the U.S. to an audience many of whom were unfamiliar with its origin, and he also read the inscription on the attractive plaque which was later attached to the building.

    Intended restoration of the storehouse, which is now included in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, will comprise replacement of its door, window and cedar shingle roof, as they were originally constructed.

    As part of its field operations on the B.C./Alaska boundary in the summer of 1977, the Canadian Section of the International Boundary Commission decided to visit and inspect the other three storehouses. Captain Sven Johannson, of the ship North Star of Herschel Island, under charter to the Commission, was engaged to photograph and report on the condition of the buildings, the exact position of which was not at that time accurately shown in the available records.

    Johannson states in his report that Storehouse No. 3 was found on August 9, 1977 and is located on small prominent point on the west side of Halibut Bay, just above high water mark.

    The site is described as "now overgrown with big trees and is not visible from the beach. The stone walls are intact without any damage. All wood is completely rotted away leaving bare walls without roof, floor, door or window. The cornerstone with the inscription 'U.S. PROPERTY. DO NOT INJURE' is not damaged. Several hardened contents of cement barrels with the wooden staves rotted away are scattered in front of the storehouse. Forty feet south of the building is clearly the location of the 15-metre cedar flagstaff. Remaining is a 60-centimetre stump with a complete ring of rocks around the stump." This storehouse, it will be recalled, is the only one of the four buildings that lies entirely in American territory.

    Storehouse No. 2 was reached on August 10 and is situated on Lizard Point, (10 feet) from the edge of a sandy beach. This building lies approximately mid-way along the southeastern side of Pearse Island, the largest of the four islands whose ownership was in dispute before 1903.

    The most southerly storehouse, No. 1, was also inspected on August 10. It is on the southern shore of Manzanita Cove, on a narrow pensinsula between the cove and Portland Inlet to the south.

    Johannson reports that the building "is visible from the water, the overgrowth being less than at Storehouses 2 and 3, perhaps because of the exposed location, and consisted mainly of crabapple trees and underbrush. The stone walls are in excellent undamaged condition." This storehouse is situated almost at the eastern extremity of Wales Island and appears to be within the limits of Ksadagamks Indian Reserve No. 43. At one time, the island was a source of some confusion during the boundary negotiations, when it was apparently mistaken for Prince of Wales Island, an undisputed part of Alaska. In fact, the two names have nothing in common, the Canadian island having been named in commemoration of William Wales, a celebrated teacher of mathematics who undertook important astronomical observations at Hudson Bay in the 18th century.

    The construction of storehouses in a then-remote part of the continent is a brief but fascinating incident in the struggle for territorial ownership at the turn of the century. Whatever may be the real motives that underlay the installation of these small but substantial stone structures in 1896, the storehouses themselves stand as a reminder that the Alaska boundary question was settled seven years later without force of arms, despite the impassioned and widespread opinion in Canada at the time that external pressures prevented an impartial territorial award. Nearly 90 years after their erection in an inhospitable northern climate, the four buildings display a remarkable endurance.