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Northwest and the Arctic Travel Guide

Riches of the Past

The region's golden years began in 1898, when three prospectors—known as the Lucky Swedes—struck rich deposits on Anvil Creek, about 4 miles from what became Nome. Their discovery was followed by the formation of the Cape Nome Mining District. The following summer even more gold was found on the beaches of Nome, a place where no one ever would have expected to find gold—placer gold is usually lying on bedrock, but here thousands of winter melts had washed it down to the sea.

Word spread quickly to the south, right about the same time everybody was discovering all the good spots for gold in the Klondike were staked. When the Bering Sea ice parted the next spring, ships from Puget Sound (in the Seattle area) arrived in Nome with eager stampeders, and miners who struck out in the Klondike arrived via the Yukon River to try again in Nome. An estimated 15,000 people landed in Nome between June and October 1900, bringing the area's population to more than 20,000. Dozens of gold dredges were hauled into the region to extract the metal from Seward Peninsula sands and gravels; more than 40 are still standing, though no longer operating (if you explore them, be sure to call out regularly, as warning to any bears that might have taken shelter inside). Among the gold-rush luminaries were Wyatt Earp, the old gunfighter from the O.K. Corral, who mined the gold of Nome the easy way: by opening a posh saloon and serving drinks to thirsty diggers. Also in Nome were Tex Rickard, the boxing promoter, who operated another Nome saloon (money made there later helped him build the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden, and helped him found the New York Rangers hockey team); and Rex Beach, whose first novel, The Spoilers, was based on the true story of government officials stealing gold from the hardworking miners (it was a best seller, letting even people warm and cozy down south experience the stampede).

The city of Nome was incorporated in 1901, which means it is now Alaska's oldest first-class city, with the oldest continuously operating school district. But the community's heyday lasted less than a decade; by the early 1920s the bulk of the region's gold had been mined, and only 820 or so people continued to live in Nome.

Although the city's boom times ended long ago, gold mining has continued to the present; depending on the economy, the size of the mines (and the number of offshore minidredges) fluctuates. Visitors are welcome to try their own luck; you can pick up a gold pan at one of Nome's stores and sift through the beach sands along a 2-mile stretch of shoreline east of Nome. Visitors can also contact the Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau for information on tours that feature gold panning.

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