The Old Guard in Alaska – 1904-1906

Postcard view of Fort William H. Seward, Alaska, circa 1904.

Modern view (2015) of Fort William H. Seward site, present-day Haines, Alaska. Photo by National Historic Landmarks Programs.

On September 30, 1904, the Headquarters, Field and Staff elements of the 3d Infantry Regiment left Camp Skagway, Alaska and arrived at nearby Fort William H. Seward, AK. Soldiers of the Old Guard became the first garrison troops at newly-completed Fort William H. Seward, current day site of Haines, AK.

The discovery of gold along the Alaska/Canada border brought thousands looking to find their fortunes. To help the Alaska territory cope with the sudden population boom, the U.S. Army built forts, roads and telegraph lines. The Army maintained 1,500 miles of telegraph lines connecting Juneau, Valdez and Sitka, with the Old Guard running lines all the way to Nome. One additional mission was to restrict commercial over-harvesting of the caribou population native to the region.

The Regiment left San Francisco aboard the US Army Transport “Buford” on July 1, 1904 and sailed to Skagway, arriving July 7. Camp Skagway served as home base until September 1904, when Fort William H. Seward was completed and ready for garrison troops. The Regiment often worked broken up by companies and detachments. In addition to Fort William H. Seward and Camp Skagway, the men of the Old Guard were posted to Forts Liscum, Davis, Egbert, Gibbon, and St. Michael.

In a description of the work involved in constructing sixty miles of telegraph lines reaching Fort Gibbon:
“A thirty-foot right of way was cleared, poles cut and set and line strung. Camp equipment was carried most of the way on a barge and after the use of the barge was prevented by ice in the river, camp was moved on sleds, drawn by some mules and some by the men. Conditions of the weather were most severe during the last six weeks. Work progressed for days while the temperature was more than 50 degrees below zero. Frost bites were of common occurrence and received but little attention. Four men suffered frozen feet or hands but none so severely that the members were lost. This expedition was one of one of great hardship and peril and its successful completion reflects great credit on the whole detachment.”

The Old Guard returned to Washington State in 1906, where men saw their families for the first time since deploying to Alaska.

Many of the buildings used and lived in by the Old Guard still stand, and are in use. The modern-day photo shows one of the barracks buildings as it looks today. Fort William H. Seward was it used by the Army until 1945. It was named a National Historic Landmark in 1978. To see more present-day photos of Haines, go to:

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