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North to Alaska – The Rush is On

My passion for prospecting and my enduring love for the wilderness of Alaska were born on the beaches of Nome in 1993. I couldn’t stop whistling, North To Alaska! It was my good fortune to spend seven adventure packed weeks that summer on the crew of a gold camp 15 miles west of Nome. I have returned twice on the same crew, my latest expedition in 2007.

Nome’s weather is dominated by the Bering Sea and can change rapidly. In the summer, highs average in the mid-50s, with lows in the low to mid-40s. The coldest three months are December through February, when the highs average about 13 degrees and the lows average a little below zero.

The beaches are often still covered in ice pack and snow in May. June offers the best combination of clear skies and warm temperatures. As the summer progresses, more rain can be expected. Severe storms are common and the window of opportunity for working the beach sands diminishes as September approaches.

Nome is located on the southern Seward Peninsula coast of Norton Sound in the Bering Sea, approximately 540 air miles northeast of Anchorage. There are no roads connecting Nome to any major city in Alaska. A robust 4,000 folks now inhabit what was once one of the most populous cities in Alaska. Half of the population are Native American Eskimo. Incorporated in 1901, Nome lies within the region of the Bering Straits Native Corporation. The Sitnasuak Village Corporation has its land holdings in and around the city of Nome.

There Is No Place Like Nome

If the prospectors of 1899 had followed Johnny Horton’s lyrical directions to the gold in the movie North to Alaska, they would have found themselves in the frigid, salty waters of the Bering Sea. In the song, Horton places the golden bonanza beneath that old white mountain, just a little southeast of Nome. That would place the mountain in the ocean. But in the actual story, that is where the gold is, in the water.

History shows that the majority of the Nome gold recovered to date has been gleaned from the beaches of Nome, rather than the creeks and rivers. Thousands of gold seekers tromped over this golden treasure in their quest inland, never realizing that they were grinding beneath their boots the elusive mineral they so avidly sought.

The majority of the credit for the Nome gold rush goes to the triad of John Brynteson, Erik Lindblom and Jafet Lindeberg, who became infamous as those “Three Lucky Swedes,” although Lindeberg was actually from Norway.

In the summer of 1898 John Brynteson was a member of an exploration party from Council City prospecting the Seward Peninsula. Foul weather forced their ship to seek refuge in the mouth of the Snake River, 13 miles west of Cape Nome. The men passed the time waiting for the storms to abate by prospecting the drainages within a four or five mile radius of the ship. They found some color in their gold pans, but not enough to excite them. J. Brynteson, however, had faith and he formed a partnership with the two other Scandinavians, Lindblom and Lindeberg. The men continued to prospect and they eventually worked their way to Anvil Creek where they discovered an impressive amount of coarse gold. After restocking their meager supplies at Golovin, a small trading post 100 miles east, they immediately returned to Anvil Creek, formed the Cape Nome Mining District, and between the three of them, staked out 43 claims. By power of attorney, they also immediately filed on 47 additional claims for backers, relatives and friends.

When word of this leaked out, as it always does, a feverish migration of prospectors descended on the Nome area, unaware that The Lucky Swedes had yet to find anything near a true gold strike. The chaos and confusion that ensued involved rampant claim-jumping, cross filings, lawyers, litigation and myriads of claims filed, by power of attorney, for persons who, in most cases, probably did not even exist. The stampede to Nome by thousands of prospectors from the outside world resulted in disappointment and discouragement for most and death for many.

The lawful resolution of litigations and claim boundaries was impeded by District Judge Arthur H. Noyes, who later turned out to be a flagrant crook who took part in a scheme to use the law to take over the richest gold claims.

In this treeless land, lawlessness prevailed as gangs roamed the streets, setting fires to cover robbery and looting. Troops from Fort St. Michael across Norton Sound were summoned to maintain order.

In those early weeks of the gold rush, the three Lucky Swedes must have felt anything but lucky. The blame for the whole fiasco began to settle squarely on their shoulders. Rumors spread like wildfire, the Lucky Swedes had already filed on all the productive prospects. In reality, little gold had yet been found by anyone. The Swedes’ filings were especially anger-provoking to some of the other prospectors because federal law prohibited foreigners from filing claims unless they could show valid intent to become citizens, the Scandinavians had not.

Finally, in a miners meeting where tempers flared and destinies were forever changed, the Cape Nome Mining District was declared null and void, an illegal enterprise and all their claims were revoked.

The decision was in itself illegal. The miners may have taken the law into their own hands had not a handful of soldiers stepped into the fracas and forcefully disbanded them with fixed bayonnets.

That was a lucky break for the Swedes. They got another break. A few days later they were literally forgotten when one of the soldiers stationed at Nome went to haul water from near the mouth of the Snake River and found gold in the beach sand. It was almost impossible to believe the magnitude of the discovery. Within a matter of days, gold was located stretched along the water line for over 40 miles both east and west of Nome. This time the rush really was on.

Late in the season, winter was settling in and the coast was icebound, but gold seekers began descending on the tent town in the spring of 1899. The gold rush spurred permanent, non-indigenous settlement of the booming city with the population exceeding 40,000 by 1900. According to the US Census of 1900, one third of all whites recorded in Alaska were living in Nome. During the peak of the Nome gold rush, hundreds of tents stretched out along twenty miles of the beach west of town.

Nome was a worthy strike. In the summer of 1899 alone, 2,000 miners, both men and women, worked the sand to extract in excess of two million dollars worth of gold from the beaches gravels before freeze up.

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