News of their discovery sparked a gold rush, and a year later, 10,000 people made their way to Nome… mostly by steamship from ports in Seattle and San Francisco. By 1910, the population approached 20,000, making it by far the largest city in Alaska.
There’s debate as to how Nome was named. Some say it was named by Jafet Lindeberg after a place called Nome Valley in Norway. The version that I’ve always heard is more interesting. A British cartographer was mapping the coast of Alaska many years ago. When his ship reached Nome, which at that time was just a tiny Inupiat hunting and fishing camp, he didn’t know what it was called. On his map he wrote “? Name” at the spot where Nome is now located. His writing must’ve been pretty bad because when the map was returned to England to be made into a final copy, whoever read it thought the question mark was a ‘C’ and the word ‘Name’ was Nome. He took that to mean “C. Nome” or “Cape Nome”.
The majority of Nome’s early occupants lived in tents along a vast beach on the shores of the Norton Sound on the Bering Sea. This was not a wise choice. Nome experiences severe winter storms and at various times any structure constructed along the beach was washed away.
The gold-bearing creeks in the mountains behind Nome were quickly claimed up, so thousands of people that had risked everything to get there were faced with a major dilemma: try to find work on one of the established claims, keep prospecting in the hopes of finding a new source of gold, or pack up and head home. Ironically, the hoards of people camped along the beach were standing right on top of the precious yellow metal.
One day, a down-on-his-luck miner, probably out of boredom, decided to pan some of the sand along the beach. After washing the sand away, he was shocked to see a good quantity of flour gold on the bottom of his pan! This set up another “Beach Gold Rush”. There was good-paying amounts of gold all along the miles of beach.
All kinds of contraptions were built to try and recover the gold from the sand, but the most effective way to get it was to slowly shovel the sand into a wide, slightly-sloped sluice box with gently flowing water running over it to wash the sand away. If a person was persistent and knew where to dig, it was possible to recover a couple of ounces of gold dust a day from the beach.
As for knowing where to dig, a miner didn’t just randomly heap material into his sluice box. Instead, they looked for red and black streaks in the sand. The red color came from garnets and the black was magnetite. These are both heavier materials than sand, and where you’d find concentrates of these colors, you’d find gold.
The same thing holds true today. I first went to Nome in the mid-1990s to dredge the ocean floor. The first summer I was there, storms raged most of the time and made it impossible to get out and dredge. I was stuck in my tent along the beach waiting for the weather to get better when out of boredom (and desperation) I started to mine the beach sands. It’s very monotonous work but it did pay. No nuggets were found, but I consistently had gold in my box.
I met families of beach miners in Nome that have been shoveling sand for as many as forty years. For some, it’s their sole source of income.
As you can imagine, Nome was at first a lawless town. One of the biggest problems it faced was claim jumping, i.e. men illegally laying claim to someone else’s established diggings. Even some unscrupulous lawmen and politicians got involved in the practice. In 1906, a book by Rex Beach titled, “The Spoilers” described it and became a best seller. It was later made into a stage play, and eventually five movies, including John Wayne’s “The Spoilers” (1942) and “North to Alaska” (1960).
My kids and I have watched “North to Alaska” a few times and we pick out inaccuracies in it, like all the trees in the background (there’s very few trees in Nome!).
Wyatt Earp settled in Nome for a while. I’d always been told that he ran a saloon in town, but that is debated too.
In 1925, a diphtheria epidemic hit Alaska and devastated many native villages. When it hit Nome, the serum needed to stop it wasn’t available. An emergency order was placed and a plan was made to fly it in from Anchorage. Unfortunately, a huge blizzard started and the flight was impossible. Without the serum, thousands would surely die.
A decision was made to ship the serum via dog team relay, à la Pony Express style.
Leonard Seppala gained fame for running the longest leg of the relay and Gunnar Kaasen mushed the last leg with his lead dog Balto, leading the way. The serum arrived in the nick of time and the people of Nome were saved. In his honor, a statue of Balto was constructed and today it stands in New York City’s Central Park. I often wonder if the people back there have any idea what the real story is behind the statue. In the 1970s, Joe Reddington, Sr. started a little dog sled race to commemorate the serum run. That race is of course, the world famous Iditarod, the 1,049 mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
Today, the population of Nome stands at 3,600. Over 3.6 million ounces of gold have been extracted from the area and it’s still being found today. I love visiting the place because it drips with history.
If you ever get the chance to visit, you’ll see the world’s largest gold pan, musk oxen close to town, Anvil Mountain, huge abandoned bucketline dredges and more.
I will write a more detailed description of my time in Nome in my next book.
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