Alaska – The Camp of the Spoilers

NOME’S only past lies in its golden sands. When these began to run, Time then began for Nome. The sands are still golden but are running now more slowly, since the jolts of big strikes have ceased to joggle the glass. Nome, too, with all its many associated mining districts on Seward Peninsula, is passing through the dredging and hydraulicking phase which all great gold camps reach, when only big and well-organized companies can handle, at little profit per yard but in enormous yardage, vast quantities of that low-pay ground from which the early comers skimmed the highest values and then departed. Our own Nome contacts were made in 1918 and 1924, when the entire summers were spent going and coming on and about the Seward Peninsula.

This is the one great section of Alaska that is not easy of approach. It lies 6,000 miles from New York, with six hours difference in time. It is almost within sight of Asia, and is the most westerly ” white man’s town of all the continent. It is nine days by ocean steamer from Seattle, and in 1918 it took us fifteen days (counting necessary trans-shipping delay at St. Michael) to reach Nome in July from Fairbanks. Now the same trip is made by plane any day in the year, with but one stop en route for re-fuel; and non-stop through flights have been made in four and a half hours. What used to mean a dreaded, entire summer’s delayful inspection trip for mining engineers, road commission men, geologists, bishops, school superintendents, governors, politicians, and all the scores of commercial people who had to make the Nome trip regularly each sea-son, can now be accomplished in comfort and ease, over the week-end. No section of Alaska has more cause to bless the coming of our airplanes than has far-lying winter-frozen Seward Peninsula.

Nome is the only one of all Alaska’s ports which is frozen in winter, however. The others—those splendid, armada-enclosing, sapphire bays of the South Coast or the many busy fishing and mining ports of Southeastern Alaska—are all upon open sea-water of the North Pacific, kept warm and navigable the year round by friendly auspices of Kuro Shiwo, which spends its heat there. But Nome lies well north on Bering Sea, on a roadstead and harborless, so that freight and passengers must be lightered in; and Bering Sea is a shallow, bowl-shaped basin here, underlain by a long out-jutting of the continental shelf. It freezes readily and early in the fall, when northeast gales drive heavy ice floes down through Bering Straits and the sea is soon covered with a mass of broken ice, cutting off communication with the outside world by water-lane until the following summer. The ice may open late in May but sometimes it does not break until the very last of June. I have pictures of several vessels trying in vain to land at Nome on June 25, but caught in the ice still many miles out at sea.

It’s here one realizes best just what the Japan Cur-rent means in terms of warmth and transportation, at this one of all our ports which lacks its friendly influence. For, as you will see by looking at the map, the long line of the Aleutian Islands, far to the south of Seward Peninsula, effectually deflects the warm waters of that stream, though they are poured out toward it, and like a fine mesh keeps them from modifying the temperature of upper Bering Sea, to any real extent. In the late spring a strong current sets in which breaks and pushes the immense fields of ice up swiftly through narrow Bering Straits into the Arctic, and so sweeps the sea clean for the summer. In October the Arctic ice pack moves down again and the port of Nome is closed to navigation for eight or nine months. In the past, because of the hard winters and because there was not much work which could be done then, many Nomeites left in early October for the States and returned again in the summer. They had a saying in Nome, ” Even God leaves on the last boat!” Old-timers say, ” Before we had the planes, there were but two seasons in Nome—July and hard winter.”

But Nome people enjoy their climate and are loyal to it, just as we of interior Alaska enjoy ours and are enthusiastic about it. Nome has greatly suffered from fiction writers, and her people say, “We ought to let it be known that we really live like any other people in the United States, strange as it may seem, and that we are not burrowing into snow-houses and living off blubber or performing any of the antics that some gullible people imagine to be our regular practices.” Though all about is heart of Eskimo country, Nome is itself a very white man’s town; and I myself have never had more royal good times than with the hospitable Lindebergs and Lomens and many other ” first families ” there. Nome has the most truly Nordic past of any Alaskan settlement, I believe, for gold was first discovered here in payable quantities late in 1898, when Jafet Lindeberg (whom Stefansson has called ” the most romantic pioneer and leading mine operator of western Alaska “) with Erik Lindbloom and John Brynte son, uncovered a rich pay-streak on Anvil Creek, about three miles from the present townsite of Nome. Lindeberg’s father owned copper mines in Norway, and the young man had lived in Siberia, so he knew the mining game well. These three formed the Pioneer Mining Company, and staked claims on Anvil and the other creeks. Thousands of disappointed Klondikers, returning down the Yukon for the States, stopped off instead at Nome; and at one time the town held more than 20,000 people and 70 vessels rode at anchor off shore, waiting to unload impatient passengers and tons of mining outfit and grub-freight. A tent city had sprung up, where all men did was dig and wash and pan and make great fortunes over night, it seemed.

Meanwhile paystreak gold had been discovered upon the beach by ” Toughnut ” Jack Clunin, who set up crude mining equipment there and was taking out as much as 50 ounces of fine gold dust a day. But The Beach was No-Man’s-Land, and there was no law or tradition to govern its staking. So a great miners’ meeting was held and the decision made that each man working on the beach should be entitled to ” foot-possession ” of as much ground as he could reach with his shovel, from the edge of the hole in which he was working. Tex Rickard’s saloon, the famous ” Northern,” was in those days a tent structure with a board floor; and it was here the miners met and thrashed matters out, for the popular hangout was “Tex’s Place.” The first court in Nome was held in August, 1899, in a lean-to back of this well-known resort.

But there was constant trouble, even riot, due to conflicting claims of beach and bench stakers; the military intervened and, yielding to the importunities of certain factions, put hundreds of beach workers under arrest; and officials sent to Nome to establish civil order added instead to the commotion and confusion by conspiring to loot the camp’s golden prospects—a scheme which may sound like fiction, to-day, but it took six months, then, to make a trip to Washington and return, and a lot of mischief can happen in six months. But one man slipped through the ” legal ” cordon and made his way back to the States, and by his energy and courage forced an investigation. In passing down a decision, whereby many Federal officials incriminated in these doings were sent to prison, a Judge of the Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco characterized the acts of these ” spoilers ” as ” one of the most villainous and outrageous conspiracies in the history of jurisprudence.”

” The Spoilers ” gives an unforgetable picture of the early days of Nome, and I recommend it to any who have not already enjoyed those graphic pages of Nome’s beginnings. Many of my Nome friends are the real people whose adventures and early lives Rex Beach, who knew them well, put into this amazing tale of those high-wide-and-handsome (as well as crooked-dealing) days; and we ourselves once made a trip north from Nome with Sliscovitch, that stocky Slav who was the roadhouse keeper of Rex Beach’s story, ” The Thaw at Slisco’s.”

That was a curious journey, full of many queeriosities, not the least of which was our pup-mobile transportation! Back in the early days a narrow-gauge railroad was built out through the tundras to tap mining fields in the Kougarok district; but it had water competition and did not carry much freight, fuel was high and scarce, and by 1911 the taxes on it were greater than the gross earnings, so it ceased to operate. But the tracks and little bridges were still there and remain, and tracks are better going than tundra. So, when miners operating in that section beyond Nome wish to travel, they hitch their dog teams to a little flange-wheeled toy car not much bigger than a boy’s express wagon, hop on board, shout ” Mush ” to the huskies; and are off. It’s splendid going and one bowls along at a fine rate—unless the dogs spy a rabbit in the brush and take off after it, suddenly spilling you! Thick patches of blue forget-me-nots, Alaska’s suggestive Territorial flower, make dots upon the richly-colored tundra as we pass, and salmonberry scrub, fireweed of magenta, and purple iris, all blob the hillside.

The dogs get very wise on the pup-mobile trail. As we were rolling along and had just reached the top of a long easy grade, I was amazed when the dogs came to a sudden stop, whirled about, and began climbing into the little open car—right up into our laps, almost. One big husky settled himself comfortably by crawling between my legs, pushing me aside to suit himself and resting his nose upon my heavy boot; and then with a grunt he fell instantly to sleep. Others sat up and looked about, with wide grins and dripping red tongues, as if to say: ” Well, boys, here we are. What are we waiting for? ”

Sliscovitch laughed aloud at my startled face, got out and gave the car a little push, then jumped back on again as we rolled off with gathering swiftness down the curly, hair-pin, tundra-heaved, flimsy tracks, bounding and bouncing. He yelled: ” The dogs know this is where they coast! It’s a long grade!” He had to yell, for two or three of the team began to yelp and howl, with exquisite pleasure at the ride, apparently, and kept it up the whole way down; while we grabbed leather and held on for dear life, as we tobogganed around curves and shot out over narrow teetering bridges built over gulches. It was a wild ride, if ever there was one. As the car slowed gradually, rocked, and finally came to a standstill at the bottom, the dogs without a word of command untangled themselves from our feet, straightened into their harness after a snap or snarl or two of adjustment, lined up in the tugs, got into the collar, and we were off again. We had twenty-five miles of this dog-auto ride, each way, and I think it was the most exotic, unreal travel I ever indulged in. I felt like a comic-strip performer!

When we came to Slisco’s creek he unhooked the dogs, tied up their dangling traces, tipped the car off the track, and we started off across country for his claim—the dogs following, after he had put little pack-sacks of provisions on the backs of some of the smallest.

” Why do the littlest dogs get the packs? ” I asked. ” Can’t the big ones carry them better? ” He grinned and said, ” Wait. You’ll see.”

Soon we came to a very swift stream which poured down from a hill. This we must cross, and I was just preparing to wade in when I was picked up by the middle, thrown on Slisco’s shoulder like a sack of flour, and off we started. He handled the hundred and seventy-five pounds of me as though I were a baby. As he set me down on the opposite bank, I protested.

” You shouldn’t have done that. I’m tall, I have high boots, I can wade. It’s kind of you, but please let me cross the next, myself.”

He grinned again, a row of clean white teeth like a hound’s, and pointed a long finger at the stream. The dogs were coming through, and while the little ones with packs were making it quite easily, the bigger dogs were struggling to keep foothold and were being pushed downstream so fast they could hardly make it through. ” Look!” he said. ” You ask why little dogs take packs. You see now? Little dogs need packs to hold their feet down in the fast water. I am a little dog. You are my pack. You make a good weight on this little doggie’s back and hold his feet down so the water does not push him.”

It was so funny, looking at that burly frame, that we all three burst into delighted laughter, and, in spite of protests, I continued to be ” packed ” until we reached the little cabin at the gulch top.

Nome is a comfortable and hospitable town of many frame houses, law-abiding and cosy after its rough, tent-city, hard youth of graft and vice and robbery. Electric lights, a theatre, a good water supply from Moonlight Springs, help make for good living here the year round; and any one who eats at Mrs. Neibling’s place wants to return. Nome friends who were great friends of Amundsen (as well as Stefansson) wrote an amusing account of the return of the Norge’s crew to Nome, after the great trans polar flight. It seems that on the voyage from Spitzbergen to Alaska, Amundsen kept telling Ells-worth about the wonderful Spanish omelets to be had in Nome, but Ellsworth said he’d never seen an omelet that compared with good old ham and eggs!

The Camp of the Spoilers 155 When they finally arrived in Nome, after the forced landing at Teller, they found Mrs. Neibling’s cafe closed for the winter; but after much dickering on Amundsen’s part, Mrs. Neibling was persuaded to reopen it. The four friends appeared for breakfast, Amundsen, Wisting, and Omdahl ordering Spanish omelet, while Ellsworth stuck to his favorite ham and eggs—until Amundsen placed an omelet directly under his nose and the flavor so fascinated him that ever after he has ordered two Spanish omelets each day. He also falls heavily for reindeer steaks!”

On one trip north from Nome we touched the Arctic ice pack, a sight most memorable. It moves several miles an hour, with tide and wind, and is an awful force to find bearing down on one—a moving field of ice, miles wide, crashing and crunching against the loose floes as wind and current push it irresistibly down out of The North—crumbling in towering cracks as pressure ridges form and break or rear in sixty-foot walls above the waterline, to make our schooner seem the fragile toy-like play-thing of a child. The off-shore lane of ” thaw water” (formed by the warmer land streams and the shallow beach) seems precariously narrow between the margin and the ice, and may close any moment in those late summer days, even for our little boat of less than four-foot draft and centerboard. The barrier-ice is riding down to crush through past the tiny Diomedes and close the Straits and Nome and Bering Sea once more to all passage except by fair-ways of the air. The loose float ice shifts and moves, but any moment may congeal and hold. The great pack has all the force of a glacier, but instead of moving two or three feet a day, it is moving two or three miles an hour. Look at a piece of ice floating in a goblet and you will get a notion of how great that ice mass is below the sea, if sixty feet of it project above! It carries frightful weight of ballast in the hold. The ice blink from the great polar fields reflects against the low sky, and it’s time to be starting home again, to the safety of the Great River and our Inner Lands.

But here at Cape Prince of Wales is the western-most thrust of America (nearly four hundred miles further west than Honolulu), and from its great headland one may climb and look with a strong glass over into Asia, just across. These Straits are almost never wholly free from ice, and when in spring and fall the ice pack pushes through this narrow hole in the continental wall, the din of its crash can be heard for miles.

And yet, from earliest times, the Eskimo in-habitants of the Diomedes have been the middle men between Asia and America. Across, these stepping stones of humped-up granite, piloting their tiny boats, perhaps came long ago the very first human beings ever to set foot on American soil. Who knows?

Nome answers—Nome by this Asia-facing sea, warden of the northern marches. Nome looks across to this inscrutable Asia, and the very name of Nome is answer to the query, “Whence came the first American? ”

” Ka-no-me,” said the Eskimos, when white men asked what place this was: ” I do not know.”

And so the place was called: Ka-no-me, Nome, ” I do not know.”