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History of Gold Mining on Nome Creek

by Sarah McGowan

Gold mining on Nome Creek began in 1900. That year, E.A. Gulbrandsen located 20 acres of placer mining ground on the creek's right limit, just across from the mouth of Ophir Creek. It was officially known as the "Discovery" claim.

The industry established itself slowly in the area. While some panning was done, most initial work done on the creek was drift mining. Solitary miners or small crews would use the long cold winters to dig deep into the ground. In the early days, fires were built to melt the icy earth. Later, when transportation was less difficult, steam boilers were used. Layer by layer, the shaft was dug down to bedrock, with the surrounding permafrost serving as a natural support for the walls. Once the vertical shaft was complete (averaging 15 feet deep in most places on the creek), the miner would change directions, extending the shaft horizontally along the bedrock, where the gold, presumably, had accumulated. On occasion, this meant diverting the stream.

The creek possessed only coarse gold, so this backbreaking labor resulted in marginal gains. Still, attracted to the independence and solitude of life on the creek, and fueled by the hope of someday striking it rich, a small number of men mined in the area for several years.

Historic photo of dragline on Nome Creek
Dragline excavator on Nome Creek in the 1920s. (U.S. Bureau of Mines photo)
In the first decade of mining activity, the entire 22 miles of the stream and its tributaries supported no more than 30 miners (Fairbanks Daily News Miner [FDNM], 3 November 1910:3). But, in the autumn of 1910, the quiet of the area was suddenly disrupted. In May of that year, Jack Ross discovered gold on Ophir Creek. The strike was kept secret until July, when word finally leaked to the press (FDNM, 6 August 1910:4). Hyperbole and misinformation spread like wildfire. Rumors of "good value" on the creeks and hopeful remarks, printed in the papers, that the Beaver River area was "better than the Iditarod" fueled a rush. Men working in the Chatanika area abandoned their jobs to prospect in the Beaver River drainage. By the end of August, some 100 men had crossed the divide from Chatanika. All the ground in the Nome and Trail Creek basins was claimed as well as that on several other nearby creeks (Ellsworth & Parker 1911:165). Jack Ross was still the only man to have discovered gold.

The stampede continued into September, partly in response to an announcement by the Alaska Road Commission that plans were being made to build a road between Chandlar and Fairbanks via Beaver. A road into the district would significantly reduce the cost of transporting goods and supplies into the new camp. This reduction would increase the profit margins for miners allowing them to remain solvent while working on ground with lower potential. Soon, so many men from the Fairbanks area had come into the Beaver district that the miners circulated a petition to change the Beaver district recording office from Circle to Fairbanks (Fairbanks Daily Times [FDT], 10 September 1910:4).

Gradually, the miners came to realize that, while it was possible to make a living mining on Nome Creek, getting rich there was not in the cards for the independent miner. By March of 1912, only about 25 miners were left in the district (FDT 26 March 1912:3), and by 1920, the number was down to 15 (FDNM 16 December 1920:4).

 Nome Creek flows through 'The Maze,' an expanse of tailings piles left by a gold-mining dredge.
A section of Nome Creek
flows through the Maze, a labyrinth of dredge tailings. 
Despite the drop in population, new methods of mining were being introduced. The 1913 edition of Mineral Resources of Alaska mentions, for the first time, the use of a windlass and open cut mining on Nome Creek (Ellsworth and Davenport 1913:209-210). Still, the mining operations in the Beaver area remained small with limited potential for profit until 1925. That year, Sam Godfrey, a well known and successful miner from the Nome area, and five associates took leases on Nome Creek ground in preparation for establishing a dredging company. The president of the company was Ed Holbrook, the vice-president was James Barrack, and the secretary-treasurer was D.R. Gustafson. Ed Holbrook, Carl Anderson, James Barrack, D.R. Gustafson and August Bostrom were all on the board of directors. In 1926, at a cost of $300,000.00, the newly formed Nome Creek Dredging company built a dredge. It would become the first electrically operated dredge in Interior Alaska.

In preparation for its first full year of operation (1927), men were employed to cut and haul 1,500 cords of wood to fuel the steam boiler. The following season, the average daily production was 2,000 cubic yards of ground per day. This apparently fell short of expectations. In 1928, improvements were made in the engine and bucket capacity of the dredge. First, nine more buckets were added to the line. Then, defects discovered in the firebox of the boiler were corrected, increasing fuel efficiency. In 1929, production at Nome Creek increased to 3,000 yards per day. Meanwhile, the company contracted with George Black to saw and haul another 1,000 cords of wood.

With the building of the dredge came authorization from the Territorial Board to build a road connecting the Chatanika-Circle road to the Hog Back Range on the divide to Nome Creek. By 1929, the road was complete and significant progress had been made on the construction of an automobile road between Fairbanks and Circle.

With road access in place, the company made one final improvement to the dredge. In 1930 diesel engines were installed to replace the wood burners. For reasons not yet known, the following year the dredging company was reorganized under the name Beaver Dredging Company. Luck was not with the new company and in 1932 the dredge burned to the ground. The loss was estimated at $200,000, of which only $120,000 was covered by the company's insurance. Rebuilding the dredge was considered, but never pursued.

The creek remained quiet for the next seven years, with only small companies and individuals working the mining grounds. Then, in 1939 the owners of the Deadwood Mining company, headed by Andrew Olson, Tony Lindstrom, and Alex Palmgren, moved their dredge from Deadwood Creek (near Central) to Nome Creek. The company was then reorganized under the name Nome Creek Mining Company in 1940 (Smith et al. 1944:67). The dredge ran for two years before large, high wage military construction jobs lured local laborers away. With the subsequent outbreak of war and the occupation of the Aleutian Islands, mining equipment was being used for national defense projects. Finally, in 1942, gold mining was declared "unessential," and mining was almost entirely halted until the end of the war. The dredge on Nome Creek was never engaged again.

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Last updated: 01-15-2011