Set on the Yukon River 8 miles from the Canadian border, Eagle was founded as a mining town but owes its survival to its role as a transportation and communications hub. The U.S. Army established a post here in order to have a presence on the border, and the U.S. government established a customs office here as well. Finally linked to the road system in 1954, Eagle is a community with about one hundred buildings, nearly half dating from the first decade of the town's life. It is one of the more accessible places in Alaska to see and understand the frontier life through the architectural record.
Of the thousands of hopefuls who poured into Canada's Klondike Region in 1897–1898, many moved down the Yukon or up the Fortymile River when they found the grounds already staked. Eagle was founded in 1898 as a gold-rush boomtown, near claims on American and Mission creeks. Initially, it had a population of 1,700, but within a year it had dropped to 400, and Eagle's role shifted to serving as an American trading post on the Yukon River for the Fortymile region to the south. Winding 1,300 miles through the heart of Alaska and on into the Yukon Territory of Canada, the Yukon River gave access to the Klondike gold-rush town of Dawson. Over a hundred steamboats a year plied the upper Yukon River in summer, most of them stopping at the transfer point of Eagle. Laid out in a grid plan, the town soon had large commercial buildings on the river and small, one-story log cabins on lots behind. When it incorporated in 1900, Eagle's population had declined to 300.
In 1899 the U.S. Army located a company of men at the post known as Fort Egbert. Besides keeping the peace among the gold stampeders and establishing a U.S. presence on the border, the army also extended the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS) to Eagle and built the Valdez-Eagle trail, known as the Trans-Alaska Military Road. In 1900 Eagle was named the seat of the Third Judicial District Court, and Judge James Wickersham arrived to build a courthouse and home. In 1903 a customs station opened in Eagle.
Eagle's importance faded quickly, however. The army built the Valdez-Fairbanks trail in 1902–1906. In 1903, Wickersham moved his court to Fairbanks. By 1911 Fort Egbert had been mostly abandoned by the army, and by the 1920s steamboat traffic had fallen to only a few regular runs. In 1939, only 26 people voted in a local election in Eagle, and today fewer than 200 people live there.
Eagle began as a log cabin town, but the presence of a sawmill by 1900 changed its appearance. Many of the older buildings—mostly log, many covered with novelty siding salvaged from the fort—survive.
A few miles upriver from Eagle is Eagle Village, the home of the Han Athapaskans native to the area. Little about their architecture is distinctly Athapaskan; it consists mostly of log buildings similar to those in Eagle. The linear layout of the houses, however, their orientation to the river, and the existence of outbuildings such as smokehouses, which are illustrative of subsistence lifestyles, are characteristic of Native villages.
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