The Golden Sands of Nome

The Golden Sands of Nome

In 1898, gold was discovered on Anvil Creek in the mountains near the present-day city of Nome by the “Three Lucky Swedes”, Jafet Lindeberg, Erik Lindblom, and John Brynteson.

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”.

landing at nome beach

Stampeders ferried from ships to Nome beach in Alaska, 1900-1901. Image from the University of Arizona.

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.

Nome 1900

Nome, Alaska 1900. Image from Library of Congress.

Nome by hot air balloon 1907 Wikipedia

Nome, Alaska by hot air balloon in 1907. Image publisher W. D. Harney, from Wikipedia.

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.

bering-sea-gold-nome-gold-rush Discovery

Gold prospectors in Nome, Alaska. Image from Discovery.

Woman using rocker in mining operation on Nome beach, Alaska, ca. 1900.

Woman using rocker in mining operation on Nome beach, Alaska, ca. 1900. Image from University of Washington.

Woman and young boy using rocker to mine for gold on a Nome beach, Alaska, ca. 1900.

Woman and young boy using rocker to mine for gold on a Nome beach, Alaska, ca. 1900. Image from University of Washington.

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.

Nome prospectors

Nome, Alaska prospectors. Image from nevada-outback-gems.com.

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.

Nome Alaska Town July 1 1900

Nome, Alaska on July 1, 1900. Image from University of Washington.

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.

Dog Team Hauling Water Nome Alaska 1900

Dog team hauling cart with cask of water on the beach at Nome, Alaska, ca. 1900. Image from University of Washington.

The Pupmobile AK 1908 in operation resize

The Pupmobile in Alaska, 1908. The railway was constructed to transport miners and equipment from the town of Nome out to the gold-bearing creeks in the area. Image from Retronaut.

Dog Team Nome Alaska 1900 large

Dog team in Nome, Alaska, abt. 1900. Image from Musee-McCord Museum.

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.

Iditarod dogs by Birch Leaf Photography

Iditarod dogs. Image by Birch Leaf Photography.

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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  • Lynda

    Great post… So happy you post again …

  • indemind

    Thanks Chuck….. Awesome Photos….

  • 808forpalin

    What a treat this is. Thank you, Chuck! As a side note, I’m so proud to see a border collie as part of that illustrious Pupmobile. I’ve always wondered if that white tippy tale helps them to make the cut for these squads. Easy to spot at night, I can attest. A not-so-PC friend told me that’s how men in Ireland find their way home from the pub.

  • MaMcGriz

    My kinda post, Chuck! Thanks!

    Sometimes I pull up the Nome Live Cam and just watch. It’s a bit like sitting out on the porch on the main drag, watching the world go by….only warmer and dryer. lol

    And speaking of porches, we’re sure glad you’re posting again.

    Ya wuz missed.

  • PaMom4Palin

    This is soooo cool! Makes me want to sing “North to Alaska”!! 🙂

  • chzn2bfree

    Wow!! Wow-wow, Mr. Heath, what a fascinating education (!!! ) with lots of insightful nuggets, so to speak. Few questions, if I may (when you get a chance):

    What is the best and/or the most travelled venue to Nome?
    How much iron pyrite is expected to be found when panning?
    What is the best (modern?) method for distinguishing fool’s gold ?
    What is the average purity of flakes and nuggets?

    • chuckjr

      Chzn, thanks for the note. Hope this helps you:

      -The best times to visit Nome are either in the winter at the conclusion of the Iditarod (they call the town, “The Mardi Gras of the North” at that time), or mid-summer. If you’re into the race, go in the winter. If you’re into history and mining, hit it in the summer. -Your second question: You won’t find a lot of pyrite in the Nome area but you will find a lot of heavy black sand that’s hard to separate from gold. I’ll tell you how to do it in the book I’m writing now. -Your third question: pyrite fractures when you strike it (or bite it), gold doesn’t. Gold is also much heavier. Fourth question: Purity varies in every creek. It generally ranges between 85-93%. Hope that helps!

      • chzn2bfree

        Thank you very much, Mr. Heath !!
        Looking forward to your book’s publication !

        The purity of the gold continues to remind (& awe) me of it’s creation ~5773 years ago. The gold being the same, non-transformed element as the day it was created by His Word….and we get to hold a moment of Genesis Ch. 1, in our hands where time has no effect.

    • MaMcGriz

      I’m loving these questions you’ve asked here…it makes me think you’re looking to make a trip up there…I hope!