The Gold Miners of the Frozen North: A Visit to Cape Nome

by Elizabeth Robins

Published in: Pall Mall Magazine Vol. 23 (January, 1901), pages 55-65. 
Pagination marked to conform to this printing and should be cited by original page.

Hypertext markup and editing: Joanne E. Gates.

Page 55

CAPE Nome is played out; the sands of the Arctic seas show gold no longer; and one of the strangest collections of human beings who ever gathered together in any wilderness are slowly pushing their way into the interior, still burning with the mad fever. Last spring a brother lay sick on those inhospitable shores, and I took passage to the notorious golden beach. After a long summer there I have taken flight. Before me now, the long journey up the Yukon River to Dawson City, and thence through the Inland Passage to the sea, and so home ten thousand miles to London town again.

What was life like at Cape Nome?

Let me put down a few impressions whilst they are still vivid and palpitating.

The charm of Nome is more easily felt than described--more easily denied than escaped. I have heard people anathematise the place, and then, when asked the date of their departure, look astonished, even aggrieved. Men who prevailed upon themselves to go away last autumn have been among the earliest and most eager of this year's arrivals. The people who shrink from the thought of spending the winter here are not among those who wintered here last year. Nome is absorbing, devouring. She exacts such tribute as no mistress ever dared before, and she loosens her hold only when the life is drained and done.

A man I came to know and like in that bewitched encampment is one of those spoken of with respect as "an old sour-dough," though he is not old at 

Page 56

all as a man's years are counted elsewhere. I saw him in his cabin in the town, and dined with him on a deal box in his tent "up the beach." He had mined in California, on the Lewis River, in the Yukon, the Klondyke, and all over the great North-West for nearly twenty years. He must have been a boy when he started out, and he was fifteen years in the wilds without a single break. Having waited those fifteen years, he goes home. "Home"! Any hovel by a placer diggings was more home to him, by that time, than any place on the "outside." Of course he came back to the North as fast as he could travel. To-day he is washing out gold nine miles up the Nome beach, and sorrowfully he admits that he "won't stay many years longer." Up and down the populous water front he looks with unquiet eyes. "Nome is a good camp, but--too many cheechakers," that is, "tenderfeet," new-comers.

These men who are driven on and on by advancing civilisation, one comes to think of as a vanishing race. The future is not theirs; soon they and their interests will be as "Yesterday's Seven Thousand Years."

I will now try to give you an idea of a day in camp on the beach at Nome. Down through the deep sand and thick, gritty atmosphere of the dusty streets at ten o'clock on a glorious June morning. No room on the "side walks" for pedestrians, for there do congregate the smokers and chafferers, buyers and sellers of "lays," and mere onlookers, all halted on the narrow wooden platform a foot or two above the struggling mass of miners, attorneys, cheechakers, and dog trains that fill the sandy roadway.

We stop on our way down the beach at the Alaska Commercial Company's store, and buy a pair of mucklucks or Esquimaux seal boots. They are water-tight, clumsy, evil-smelling, so large that hay is put inside to make a good bed for the foot, and so loose that leather thongs must be wrapped around instep and ankle sandal-wise to keep them on--cost eight shillings, whether low or coming to the knee. The great store, the Alaska Commercial Company, the Whiteleys of the North, is full of buyers. Men are standing in line with little paper checks, waiting for the privilege of paying their bills. Most of the men carry, instead of purses, long buckskin bags, holding gold dust. Behind a railed-off space, on a counter, are the big gold scales and a big man turning the crank that indicates how the balance swings. There is the blower, or pan shaped like a truncated wedge, turned up an inch on its three sides, and left with a dustpan edge on the narrow end. Each purchaser throws down his buckskin sack on the counter, and the big man pours out much or little of the yellow stuff into the blower, and then shakes it into the scale-pan, taking back a pinch if it weighs too much. And old Yukon miner had told me a few days ago some of the tricks of the gold-dust trade--how the blower's dustpan edge is sometimes turned up at one corner, just a trifle, thereby retaining a certain amount of the gold used in every transaction, unnoticed by the innocent abroad. "Another way," as the cookery-books say, is for the weigher to keep his nails long, and when, after pouring the gold from the blower into scale-pan, he obviously has too much, he pinches up the surplus in such a way as to press a certain amount under his long nails. Even here in this great Company's store, controlled by the most influential commercial power in Alaska,--even here there is Brussels carpet tacked all around the paying-in place. I watched the apparently careless way in which the weigher held up the sack and poured out the dust from a greater height than was at all necessary or reasonable. The carpet received a certain sprinkling, impossible for the loser to recover, but easily recovered by the owners of the carpet.

From the store we waded on through the dust between rows of tents for a

Page 57

mile or more. Then we crossed down to the beach, and saw the treacherous sea, smiling to-day in the sunlight, scarcely ruffled, saw the eternal unloading of freight, the little booths set up to sell every sort of thing under heaven, saw men building boats, and here and there one rocking out the sand. By the way, this commonplace of life here, the rocker, is probably not as familiar to all as it has become to me. Briefly, it is a wooden box mounted on rockers.

Since our arrival here the tent population of the beach as well as of the tundra has enormously increased. Away the white dots extend up the beach and down, going farther and farther, and yet the limit of the settlement moves on daily, hourly. A little back from the beach, on the edge of the tundra, is a sod house wearing a rude sign on its front, "Washing and Mending received here. Water five cents a bucket." Just behind this is the New England Mining Camp: eight white tents disposed around an open camp fire; two upright planks and another across, and from this top one stout wires depending. The end of each wire is turned up into a hook, and on each hook a huge two-gallon coffee-pot, or a boiler, or a water-can, smoking and cooking away on a drift-wood fire. To the right the woodpile; and members of the camp (twenty-seven in all) coming in at intervals with great bundles of wood on their shoulders. In front of the wood fire is an iron stove in which rye bread is being baked; in front of the stove a great pile of boxes, cans and cases covered with tarpaulin,--three months' provisions for the twenty-seven people. These are all Tacoma-ites and friends, and the greetings take up some time. Each tent is visited, and it is pointed out that they all bear signs on the ridge pole. One is the "Hartford House," where the Connecticut people dwell; one the "Home for the Aged"; another, besides announcing its name, calls on Dante to give greeting--"Abandon hope, all ye who enter here"--but I never saw a cheerfuller company. There are men of various trades, a tolerably representative community. There are two young doctors from New York, a very capable electrician and engineer from Vermont, a professional photographer from San Francisco, a typewriter, book-keeper, stenographer, a sailor, and old miner, a motor-man from Roxbury, Mass., the fourth mate of the Tacoma, and an experienced baker from Milford, Mass., with his young wife. She is sitting on a box by her tent, darning stockings, brown as a berry and as fat as a partridge. She says she is ill, but no one believes her. The other women are, first, the wife of the head of the Company, a remarkable little New Englander, 

Page 58

with two sons, one fifteen and one thirteen. As a matter of fact she mothers the whole camp. The stenographer is an ex-actress, and the fourth lady is an English girl who has lived some years in California--a quiet, modest, brown-eyed creature, who was in Alaska before with the elders of the party, endured great hardships with them through the terrible winter, meeting starvation, and even scurvy, with courage and philosophy. She is as full of skill in making camp life comfortable and agreeable as she is of knowledge of the North, of Alaskan birds and beasts, flowers and berries, the curing of skins (she shows some salted and drying in the camp already)--knowledge of the Indian tongues and the queer ways generally of this queer quarter of the world. All the women wear skirts to the knees and gaiters. The English girl has a grey hood with a long cape to it over her brown hair, and a knot of flowers tucked in her holland blouse. She has burned her hands and arms cooking over the fierce camp fire, and is bandaged from elbow to knuckles. She cools and washes and works harder than anyone else, except the Head's wife, and goes off when all is done to get more of the sparse wild flowers of the tundra. Buttercups she finds there, and pale pink dewberry blossoms, forget-me-nots, and a star-like white flower that grows here and there in something like abundance.

The wife of the Head is bending over a great dish full of ham and bacon rinds, cutting and scraping away the fat. Later she showed me a pail full of lard that she had "tried" out. "We shall have plenty this year," she said, "but I do this partially in remembrance of the awful experience of the winter before last, when we stayed in." ("In" is always Alaska--"outside" the rest of the world.) "Food supply got so low that we had very little left but flour, till I found a can full of fat-scraps that I had set away for the dogs. I washed and scalded those

Page 59

scraps, and tried out the fat, and made a sort of flour gravy, that we could dip our bread in--and so we pulled through with only one case of scurvy." The English girl had told me something about this time--not of her own suffering, but of the dogs'. "The time came when I was given only half a granite cupful of flour a day, and I used to put that into some water, in an old oil-can, and cut up the worn-out mucklucks and odds and ends of leather (straps and things), and boil and boil them with that miserable little bit of flour to make soup for the dogs." A Malamute strays into camp while we are talking--a fine, well-built beast, with strong thick forelegs and an intelligent face. There's a shout of welcome--"Why, he's like our Ol� Bull!" and the stranger is welcomed and fed, though he is not Ol� Bull at all, for the sake of a dog that was dead and a fidelity that lived on.

Towards the sea the women had hung out a line of washing--towards the tundra a line of men were washing out gold. We spent half the morning among them. The inevitable Swede or Norwegian was the most frequent figure, reminding one of the Seattle man's description of the essentials to success in the gold fields of Alaska: "First, you must be a Swede; second, you mustn't know how to read or write; third, you must be dead broke." The New England Company had only one rocker in the line, but the canvas-covered shutter was sprinkled thickly with fine gold. This, in addition to what they had got out in the first clean-up, had not been considered sufficient to justify going on. The freight of the party, which had been seen on board the Tacoma by the Head, had afterwards been taken off the ship, and left behind in Seattle for the next steamer to bring. The result of this manoeuvre, executed, no doubt, at the instance of some one who was ready to pay for the unloading and the substitution of his own effects, was that the New England Mining Company had to camp in the first instance with what they had brought as personal baggage, supplemented by such additional necessaries as they could buy here at exorbitant rates. But the later steamer, Victoria, had brought in all except the rockers and pans. Consequently mining was not attempted just yet on the scale that they had planned, and the big expensive camp was eating its head off, I saw, however some panning of the red,

Page 60

garnetiferous "pay streak,"--dirt that showed a good prospect. The other men along the tundra edge seemed to be doing well enough to stay there. Of course there is a good deal of reticence, as a rule, as to the value of the "clean-up," for people are always hanging about to see if a good thing isn't going, that they may enter into another man's labours without money and without price. But I have had many a miner show me his returns and talk frankly enough about his prospects. The old-timer is called a "sour-dough," because the man who has been in this country some time better than to try to live on pancakes and "baking powder" biscuits--he makes honest bread, raised with yeast, and saves over a bit of the "sour dough" for his next baking. He is the experienced, level-headed fellow, and he is flattered when you call him "Old Sour-dough." He gets, perhaps, his best enjoyment out of the cheechaker miner, or the "scientific expert." These are scarcely less the butts of "sour-dough" wit than the raw clerk or tourist, who steps off the barge that lands him, and before he loosens hold of his "grip sack" stoops and picks up a handful of surface sand, examines it, and throws it down indignantly. "I don't see any gold--the whole thing's a fake." One of the current pieces of slang is to say of a new-comer, "He'll have cold feet in a day or two, meaning he will lose heart. Of two men sitting side by side out on the tundra, seeming to perch on the edge of the world, a miner looking up from the rocker says, "Case of cold feet off yonder: they're wondering which steamer they'll take back."

It is difficult to believe that people are starving while you are in the New England camp. I had dinner on a big packing-case with one of the doctors, the captain of a base-ball team and athlete, and the mess-boy of the day,--that is to say, the mess-boy sat with us when our wants allowed him to attend to his own. We had a variety of good things in great abundance, served piping "hot and hot" from camp fire and "Klondyke stove." We ate and drank out of granite ware (grey enamelled tin), and we wound up the meal with stewed fruit, chocolate and coffee. The camp is strictly teetotal. After dinner they say that I must see the new sailing boat that the Head has bought, and we go down to the beach with the men who are carrying down provisions and a small camp outfit. The claims of the New England Mining Company are scattered: some are in the Fox River District, some are near Bonanza, some on Eldorado; and although all the party cannot leave Nome till the rest of the freight is received, the Head starts shifting camp to-day. A detachment of four men are sent on to Point Safety, to establish a little outpost, and the moving will be done in laps, one party going in advance, the next detachment following and falling heir to the camp. The Fizzy is loaded, pushed off, sails hoisted, hats waved and snap-shots taken of the first move in the long game inaugurated on the sands of Nome.

Going back to the camp, we find the dish-washing and tidying up well advanced. A tinkle of bells, and we turn to see a herd of cows straying over the tundra. I remember that I heard that sound last in Switzerland under very different conditions. The children of the neighbouring sod house rush out in frantic excitement, to see the strange beasts. Alaskans, these little people, have never been out of the Far North, and a cow is to them a more fearful sort of "wild-fowl" than your bear, wolf, or walrus. They stand there spell-bound, watching the cows' slow movements with suspicious eyes, and clinging together for safety and comfort. A horse is tethered near by, and the English girl is giving him sugar. The Head sits down by the camp fire and talks of his plans, lamenting quietly the terrible loss of time involved in the wrongful detention of his freight. He is interrupted by some one shouting "The Skookum has come in"--a huge barge towed by an ocean tug

Page 61

from Seattle, reported lost, with her 1,500,000 feet of lumber, 300 horses, 300 cows, 300 sheep, and a vast amount of other freight. There has been heavy betting on the chances of her living through a passage of the Behring Sea, but here she is after fifty-two days, and great is the whistling, tooting, and noise of welcome. Having assisted at this reception, we return to the campfire. One of the young doctors is a novel-reader and a dear lover of Thackeray. We fall to discussing "The Newcomes" and "Vanity Fair." Once during the conversation I had a flashing sense of the strangeness of the situation. From that bow-windowed house in Young Street (were they born there?) Becky Sharp and Clive Newcome had travelled farther than most of the inhabitants of quiet old Kensington Square. Here they were on the shore of Behring Sea, with people who are facing the harsh realities of the toughest kind of pioneer life. A strange place for those dream-children that a few years ago had no existence outside the brain of a single Englishman, and that to-day are talked of as men talk of the living--not in drawing-rooms alone, but in the keen and pungent atmosphere of a camp fire on the rim of the Arctic Circle. Standing around that same camp fire, scattered here and there among the groups are the new gold-pans, as near the heat as may be, so that any of the grease left on them to prevent rust in transport may be expelled, for grease will float and lose the gold. We take up one of the pans by-and-by, and go where the patient beach-combers are still at it without any visible evidence of having had a thought of dinner. They cannot be afraid of losing such a rich prospect, for there is no longer any rush for the Nome sands; they are pretty well rocked out for more than twelve miles up the coast and a

Page 62

good many down. Only expensive machinery is of much avail now to catch the fine and the flake gold that primitive processes lose. One of the miners obligingly brings up his pan and points out a few "colours," but the specks of gold are faint and infrequent and the magnetic sand is what is chiefly in evidence. "Not two cents in the pan!" and the man wanders off to find something better.

At supper, among other things, we have hot cakes cooked open on the fire, and it does not seem possible to make enough. After the evening meal, good-bye to the New England camp, and off with the Head and his wife up the beach, to see the thousand sights. Between morning and evening all is changed. Where at 10 a.m. was a great pile of packing-cases, by eight at night is a monster heap of mattresses. You may have taken some stable-looking stack of heavy machinery for a landmark at noon, and by night the waves are breaking where you had seen the wheels and shafts and iron boilers. I look out of my window every morning and see new cabins, new tents--a new face on the tundra world. I tried to go to the New England mining camp without a guide two days later, and could hardly find it, so crowded and built up was every available space--so many of the former signs and places gone, so many new ones come. In a clear space on the tundra, a few yards above the mining camp, was a single tent that had not been there before. As I was idly wondering how long it would retain its pleasant air of aloofness, how soon it would be swallowed up in the rising tide of tents, I lifted my eyes and saw a yellow flag flying over it. "What that's for?" "Smallpox." So that tent will probably retain its privacy after all.

Now let me describe a well-remembered journey on a glorious July morning with one I will call the "Little Father," a moral power amongst the wild men, to the famous Anvil Creek.

We bumped along over the tundra, the loose, narrow boards on the running gear jolting and shifting, though the resiliency of the tough bog made most of the way easy enough. Perched up on the duck hose, one looks back abroad over the tundra, stretching to the horizon line, level as the ocean. Behind were Anvil Mountain and the hills to the north-west. A jacksnipe circles over us, and a meadow lark sings loud. The tundra is full of flowers out here, and over by the hills as I turn and look forward I see the long wavering lines shimmering over the ground in the distance, like heat vibrating; but some say it is not heat, and that the same phenomenon is to be seen in winter above the snow and ice.

Anvil Mountain stands up more boldly on this side, her scattered snow-drifts melting and shrinking away. The little ponds that are dotted about the valley fringed with dwarf willow, blink at you in the sunshine like bright friendly eyes in the brown face of the tundra. From this side you see that Anvil Rock is rightly named, and calls for but little exercise of the imagination. "There," says the Little Father, pointing off to a nearly dried-up river-bed, along which tents and cabins are sparsely set in straggling groups--"there is the cause of all this commotion. The reason why there are sixty ships anchored out yonder where no harbour is, all those thousands of crazy creatures on the beach at Nome, all those tens of thousands of tons of freight, useless machinery and truck of all sorts, and more fools gathered together than the world has ever seen in one place before--all because of that little creek down there." For it is out of Anvil that most of the gold has come. There it lay, nearly dry, crawling sluggishly towards the Snake River and the sea; and here it was that the Finn, Lindblom, brought here as a penniless deserter from a whaling vessel, Bryntesson and Lindeberg, staked Discovery Claim (after Hultberg and found gold there) in September, 1898. These men still own this enormously rich property, besides

Page 63

hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece, which they have taken out of the creek, and are co-directors in the Pioneer Mining Company and other profitable ventures to boot.

On we go up the creek. In the bed a great white serpent is lying. Thousands of feet of the duck, or heavy drilling-hose, lie in the shrunken bed of Anvil Creek, and when the water first rushes in and fills it out, it turns and squirms and seems to crawl down towards its parent, the Snake River. I would not have believed that mere drilling would hold water so well, but it is preferred here to rubber or anything else.

Farther up the creek we go, the Little Father being greeted right and left by the scattered population. A good deal of sluicing is going on, despite the scarcity of water, and every now and then we pass groups of men, with hot faces streaming in the sun, picking at the frozen ground. The foreman of one of the richest properties, busy among his men shovelling "pay dirt" into the sluice box, knocks off work to show us about. He tells us that the little patch of wet, thawing soil that four men are casting up into the sluice, is worth "two bits" (a shilling) to every little shovelful. Had they been using the broad old-fashioned shovel, they would never have been able to lift and cast it, even if its handle were made light and twice as long, so as to reach up to the sluice. These men are all on the regular wages--?2 a day--but they were taking out of that unpromising-looking muck ?1,000 a day.

The next group of men presented a very different aspect: coatless, one of them hatless, with grimy hands and sunburnt faces, they ran up the bank to meet the Little Father. "We told you we would have to pick up that water," and they pointed to the dam they have made with the aid of a little timber and a lot

Page 64

of sods. The man without the hat looks at his watch--"Twelve-thirty: come down and have dinner"; but we say we will wander about and wait for him near his tent. As he goes off to the Road House to dine, the Little Father and I do some "prospecting" on our own account,--paying visits and watching the sluicing. Then we sit on an improvised carpenter's bench, near the tent, talking till our host appears. He takes us inside to admire his quarters. Here is a man worth ?12,000 or so, if not much more, about thirty, able-bodied, free of family cares, who shares with another man a tent 10 feet by 12 feet, guiltless of table or of chairs, having two beds covered with furs made up on the bare boards. To the left of the entrance is a rusty stove; beyond is a deal box furnished with a shelf and curtained with two hem-stitched handkerchiefs, fastened porti�re fashion in front; on top a pair of gold scales. Some old cans in the corner, some old coats on a nail, some old boots on the ridge pole--that is his home. The man who shares this noble habitation is now in the hospital: the usual story--cold, exposure, pneumonia, and the probable end--the little graveyard down on the Point. After the manner of tents in summer, this one is stifling hot, and we do not stay long under cover. Going out to the pay streak, down in the bed of the creek, our host washes a pan of dirt for me and shows me the colours; throws out the glittering dust as though it were mere dross, and gives me a panful of wash for myself. But the earth and gravel and magnetic iron make a heavy load to shift back and forth in the ice-cold water, and the stooping posture is fatiguing. So I let our host do most of the work after all, and my part is to look at the colours as they appear, and in the end to scrape up the gold on to a piece of paper and dry it for a souvenir.

It is not far from three o'clock by this, and we have to go back. On "No. 3 Below" there is a big gang of men working. This is the claim of the big Point Belmont Scot and his partner George. George is there among the men, and so is

Page 65

his brother, our driver of the morning. It seems they had expected us back to dinner, and, late as it is, George orders us a meal in the big provision tent. George and his partner have worked together for years in the Klondyke, and up near Circle City, and now on Anvil Creek. They never keep any books or business statements of their relation to each other. One year one of them goes out and the next the other goes, leaving the "whole outfit" in the hands of the "pardner" whose turn it is to stay behind. The traveller comes back, asks no questions, sees no estimate of clean-ups or of general accounts, simply takes what is set aside as his share. George tells of how once he had to leave a mining camp near the Yukon before his partner's return, and how he buried the greater part of their common treasure. He confessed that it bothered him a good deal, thinking that maybe he would die before he could get back, and yet not daring to tell anybody else where it was hid. He had the nightmare of remembering how one of their friends in the same predicament had hid a whole year's returns in nuggets and dust, and then couldn't for the life on him remember where he put it. He was a young fellow when he "cached (hid) the sack," and they say he is still walking up and down that creek with wrinkled face and white hair, wondering what the devil he did with it. But George found his all right when he got back. He and his partner bought a place with it in California that cost them ?6,000, a ranch that once belonged to a brother of President Garfield; and George's face lit up when he spoke of it as "home." Working in the frozen bed of Anvil Creek has brought George not only a fortune, but lung trouble. I heard one of the men saying next day that he was in bed again, and his partner shook his head. Was he wondering if they would either of them ever see again that fair California home?

We drove back to Nome without even a bale of duck hose to sit on, without even loose boards for a bottom to our waggon. We sat--as they say here "plumb" on the running gear: two great wheels in front and a driver between them; a waste of connecting red pole, and two great wheels a long way behind, with the Little Father and me between them delicately balanced, our feet on the long red pole. Whenever I was nearly shaken or bumped into bog or river, I clung on to the Little Father's big boot top to save my precious life. Riding so, I reappeared in Nome, with a nugget in one pocket, a can full of rubies and gold in the other, and many a queer, new picture to hang on memory's wall. 

First available on line: 25 February 1999