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North to Alaska

Nome, Alaska
Nome, Alaska, 1900 (US Public Domain)

When vast amounts of gold were discovered in Yukon Territory in 1896 and once word got out about it to the rest of the world a year later, the shocking result was the largest human stampede in recent memory. Over 100,000 people set out to strike it rich in the freezing cold Canadian north a stone’s throw from the Arctic Circle. Of the 100,000 who had originally set out on this back-breaking journey, 30,000 got there, and only 4,000 had actually struck any significant amounts of gold. Dawson became the epicenter of what history now knows as the Klondike Gold Rush. A tent town comprised of a mere 500 sturdy miners in 1896, Dawson evolved into a modern city of 30,000 within two short years.  

From 1896 to the end of the 19th Century, almost $30 million in gold ($700 million today) had been removed from the area. However, by 1899 the rush had ground to a halt. Prices across the board were dropping steadily that summer. Prospectors from nearby creeks were now seeking work in Dawson after their claims had turned up empty.  But there was no work to be found: too many people, not enough jobs. Everyone waited for something…anything…

Then, out of the blue, rumors raced up the Yukon River from the west--news of a gold strike on the Bering Sea, a destination much easier to arrive at than the grueling trek over the Rocky Mountains to the Klondike. Within a few days, the rumors were confirmed. Yes, gold had been discovered on the beaches at Nome, Alaska, a town so far north that it was well above the tree line. In one week, 8,000 people fled Dawson to seek their fortune elsewhere. One gold rush ended and another started. Thousands more people left for Alaska from mainland Canada and United States in the coming weeks and months. Nome was the place to be, and the Klondike was old news.

Ending 1899, Nome encompassed 10,000 people (populated heavily by the incoming Klondike sourdough prospectors) who lived in tents opposite their claims adjacent to the turbulent, freezing cold  Bering Sea. And it was true that the gold nuggets were found right there in the beach sands--for 30 miles up and down the flat coastline. Thousands more gold seekers came in 1900 aboard steamships that had departed San Francisco and Seattle.

Nome, Alaska
Nome, Alaska, 1903 (US Public Domain)

Incorporated as a city on April 9, 1901, Nome became the largest city in Alaska. It was typical of most get-rich-quick boomtowns. It was a cesspool of sewage pouring daily into the Bering Sea and nearby creeks, resulting in bad drinking water. Houses and other wood structures, including those of businesses, quickly started replacing the tents. Soon, Nome had a perpetual clamor from saws and hammers, combined with grunts and moans from the wind-beaten workers. Methods of mining changed, too: Sluices, rockers, hoses and pumps took over from the simple panning by hand procedures. Due to the penetrating cold, damp weather and the permafrost only a few feet below the surface, most miners worked only from June to late-September then headed south to more pleasant temperatures.

Going ashore from ships at Nome during the early gold rush days was a problem because there was no harbor. Smaller boats had to take the passengers to the beach, for a price, of course--when the Bering Sea was finally free of coastal ice for the season. When it wasn’t, which was most of the time throughout the year, passengers made their way to shore by dogsleds. By 1901, a loading crane was constructed, four years later a proper wharf, finally replaced in 1907 by a tramway. Reaching a population of 20,000 in 1905, Nome had newspapers, various stores and shops, electric lights, churches and schools, along with plenty of brothels, gambling houses, and saloons to satisfy many patrons with “booze, broads, and cards.” By 1909 the rush was over and the population slid to a mere 2,600 brave individuals, with large companies running the show.

Nome’s most famous citizen--during the warmer months each year for four years at the turn of the century--was Western gunslinger Wyatt Earp, who had made his reputation during the Gunfight at the OK Corral twenty years earlier in Tombstone, Arizona. Earp had the good sense not to attempt his hand at mining. No, sir. Instead, he fleeced the miners by operating The Dexter Saloon which he co-owned and advertised as “The Only Second Class Saloon in Alaska.” According to the exterior signs on his place of business, he featured “Eastern Beer Only.” He also had “girls” upstairs for those men lacking some love life that far north.

The routes to Nome, Alaska
The routes to Nome, Alaska from Seattle, Washington (US Public Domain)

Tex Richard--the future boxing promoter, besides the first owner of hockey’s New York Rangers in the Roaring Twenties--was Earp’s only real competition in town. One of those who came down the Yukon River from Dawson, Rickard ran the Northern Saloon. Despite rivals, Rickard and Earp became friends for life. It’s estimated that when Earp left Nome for good, he had with him $80,000 (about $2 million today). Prior to Earp packing it all up and heading south, gold was discovered in the Alaskan interior near Fairbanks in 1902, bringing about another stampede. Too bad William Seward was not around to witness it all.

Up to the time of the Nome and Fairbanks gold stampedes, Alaska had been American property for only a few decades. In 1864, William H. Seward, US Secretary of State to President Abraham Lincoln, had heard rumors that Russia--in deep financial trouble--wanted to sell their Russian America, a massive piece of land about one-fifth the size of the continental United States. Seward--then Secretary of State to Andrew Johnson, following Lincoln’s assassination--approached the Senate in early 1867 with a purchase proposal that ended up passing by only one vote on April 9.

For $7.2 million in gold, approximately two cents per acre, Alaska became part of the United States. Then the mockery kicked in, something that Seward had to live with the rest of his life until his death in 1872. Alaska soon became “Seward’s Folly,” “Uncle Sam’s Icebox,” “The Land of the Midnight Sun,” and “Seward’s Icebox.” Alaskan settlement was slow, at first. By 1890, the largest towns were Sitka and Juneau, 1,000 people each. The entire state had only 30,000 people, with 22,000 of those natives, 4,000 white, and the rest of mixed heritage.

But Americans weren’t laughing when gold was discovered in Alaska at the end of the century, along with oil and natural gas years later. Due to the influx of settlers, Alaska became a territory in 1912, then a state in 1959, initiated by a wild gold rush on a stretch of beach beside the Bering Sea in 1899. 


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