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Kolmakovsky Redoubt at the Museum of the North

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Posted: Saturday, October 27, 2012 11:17 pm

FAIRBANKS — Last year the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North put the finishing touches on a re-built Russian blockhouse near the woods behind the museum. The eight-sided blockhouse was built in 1841 by the Russian-American Company at its Kolmakovsky Redoubt (fort) on the Kuskokwim River Delta near Aniak, and is one of the oldest Russian-era structures in Alaska.

The 17-foot diameter redoubt is constructed of squared timbers. According to a Museum of the North report, the fort’s builders determined how thick the redoubt’s walls had to be by firing a musket point-blank into a log. They measured the musket ball’s penetration and then doubled that, coming up with a wall thickness of about seven inches.

After Russia sold Alaska to the United States, the Kolmakovsky trading post was taken over by the Alaska Commercial Company, which acquired all of the Russian-American Company’s assets. The blockhouse was eventually donated to the University of Alaska, and in 1929, was taken apart and shipped to Fairbanks, where it sat in storage for more than 50 years. In 1982 it was re-constructed behind the university museum, but even with preservation work done on it over the years, time and weather took their toll. 

A grant from the federal “Save America’s Treasures” program allowed the Museum of the North, beginning in 2010, to install a concrete pad for the blockhouse to rest on, replace some damaged logs, stabilize the walls, and replace the sod roof.

It’s a fascinating structure made of spruce logs with interlocking dovetail notches. A defensive structure, it has no windows — only three small musket slots. The front door (the only door) is small, probably deliberately so that anyone entering would have to stoop, making themselves easy targets. There is now a metal grate covering the doorway, but originally the redoubt had a wooden door. Imagine how dark the interior must have been with the only daylight being filtered through the gun slots on the sides and back of the redoubt. (As an aside, the Russians found the Natives in the area friendly and the redoubt was never used for its intended purpose. Instead it was used, among other things, as a fish cache and later a gold rush era jail.)

The sod roof also is interesting. According to an Oct. 2, 2011, News-Miner article, most Russian blockhouses had plank roofs, and the Kolmakovsky Redoubt is apparently the only one ever found with a sod roof. I thought it was ingenious how the exposed top edges of the roof timbers have been protected by birch bark strips.

Although the Kolmakovsky Redoubt is from the Kuskokwim River drainage, that doesn’t mean the Russian-American Company did not have a presence along the Yukon River. In 1837 the first Russian trading post in Interior Alaska was built at Ikogmiut (now called Russian Mission). Two years later the Russian explorer Malakov built a trading post at Nulato, near the confluence of the Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers.

Nulato was the Russian-American Company’s farthest inland permanent trading post, but Russians did come much closer to Fairbanks on a seasonal basis. At the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, across the Yukon from the present city of Tanana, was a seasonal trading site called Nuklukayet. This was neutral ground where Yukon, Koyukuk, and Tanana River Athabascans would come in the spring to trade.

Beginning in 1861, Russian traders began attending these trade fairs. Again, after the Russian-American Company departed Alaska, the Alaska Commercial Company moved in, establishing a trading post in the area. Missionaries and the U.S. Army followed, and the town of Tanana was born.

Ray Bonnell is a freelance artist and writer and longtime Fairbanks resident. See more of his artwork at www.pingostudio.us.

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