Nome Gold Rush: Economics over Adventure

Gold Seekers Breaking Camp, near Dyea, 1898. Alaska State Library.

Many of us may have romantic visions of the gold rush- exciting adventure and striking it rich in the scenic beauty of Alaska. Reality wasn’t even close. It was extremely expensive and difficult to travel that far north. Most of the gold that could be mined by individuals or small groups of miners was all claimed quickly leaving many prospectors with nothing to show for their efforts except for a few stories. Of the 100,000 stampeders, about 30,000 made it to the Klondike and only 4,000 found gold. By the time Frank and Nell meet a few of these guys in Skagway, the only gold left was buried deep in the wilderness and required a (well financed) heavy mining operation to reach. From what Frank writes, it seems like those who didn’t make a fortune were disappointed but looking back didn’t have any regrets. I was surprised they weren’t angrier, I would have been! For a fun (though not 100% accurate) depiction of the Nome gold rush, I recommend the TV movie “Goldrush: A Real Life Alaskan Adventure” (1998)

After writing a little but more about Skagway and the towns nearby, Frank and Nell turn around and begin to head home, three and a half months after their vacation began, on a steamer bound for southern waters.

Camp Nome is 1400 miles from Dawson City by the Yukon  river, and 2700 miles from Seattle. I met and conversed with a man returned from Nome who tole me that in 1899, -$3,000,000.00 was the entire output of gold for for this district. He says the beach gold is fine, and is found in a strip 100 to 150 yards widebeach gold is fine, and is found in a strip 100 to 150 yards wide and running parallel with the shore for 8 or 10 miles. All of this is staked. Back of this strip and extending to the foothills, is the “tundra” some three miles wide. This “tundra” is a black pear land covered with moss and grass. Gold is found eight or ten feet below the surface: also in many of the gulches and river beds of the back district. All of this gold is placer gold washed down from the quartz veins and ledges of the mountains in the back country. Very little of the mountainous region of Alaska has been prospected as yet, and no doubt there are many rich pay streaks to be found, some time in the future.

New gold camp, Nome, 1900. Alaska State Library.

I asked this man why he did not go into the mountains back of Nome and prospect. He said it was too cold up there for him, besides he was out of supplies and wanted to see some friends in California once more.

The water for drinking, also the climate of Nome district is very bad All known gold regions of Alaska in this district and vicinity are staked. There is a chance for a company with large capital and improved machinery to buy up some claims and make money.

But to return to Skagway and its mountains on the top of which are numerous lakes, and one large one, fed by melting glacier, supplies Skagway with an abundance of the purest water. The pressure is so great the water can be thrown farther than any fire engine can force it.

This is a good fire protection and Skagways needs one for the rainfall is light, and the winds blow very hard at times especially in the winter.

The winters are very long here and the mercury goes down some degrees below zero. Along in the last of December there are only two hours of daylight and the electric lights are on all day to use if one likes. Of course during the summer the reverse is the case, and from the top of one of the hills nearby the sun can be seen at midnight during the month of June. We were there during the months of July and August and the days were growing shorter. For some time we puzzled as to the proper hours for sleep. I was told by an egg dealer, that when his chickens first came up from the States, they laid two and three eggs a day, and when his cow was new in the country, she was deceived by the long hours of daylight and allowed herself to be milked four times a day, but this only lasted a month or two.

Photographed at midnight, arrival of Seattle No. 1 at Dawson City, N.W.T. 1898. Alaska State Library.

Hay is worth $35.00 a ton in Skagway, and sweet milk 15 cents a quart. Tomatoes, home grown are worth 25 cents a pound, and fruit generally is high.

About five miles from here is Dyea, at the entrance to Chilcoot Pass. This is a dead town as all the business now goes through Skagway on the White Pass R.R. Formerly Dyea had an elevated wire tramway over the Chilcoot Pass, but that was brought up by the W.P.R.R. which now has the monopoly of all the business to Dawson.

Across the Taiya River from the ghost town, Dyea, 1904. University of Alaska, Fairbanks Archives.

The Express rate is fourteen cents per pound, Skagway to Dawson. Freight on hay costs $85.00 per ton from Seattle in 500 ton lots. One thing more while we are in Skagway,- sleeping Moses, of the Face Mountain is what its name signifies. The outline of the face is perfect, and we have some photos of it. While staying in Skagway we have had some very pleasant times and made some pleasant acquaintances who seemed to think we ought to stay a month or so longer, but we bade them all good bye, and late in the afternoon of Monday August 13th, take passage on the “Queen” for Seattle, by way of the Muir Glacier and Sitka.

I wonder how much this field of hay near Pedro was worth? c. 1896-1913. University of Alaska, Fairbanks Archives.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.



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