Nome’s Caucasian claim to Alaska’s history goes back more than 100 years after three greenhorn Scandinavians stumbled across gold in Cape Nome in 1898. Swedish tailor Eric Lindblom, 41, who worked his way north as a deck hand on a whaling ship, Norwegian Jafet Lindberg, 24, who got free passage by pretending to be an experienced reindeer herder, and Swedish coal miner John Brynteson, 27, all ended up in Nome because the promising land in the Klondike already had been claimed.
Their discovery led to America’s last big placer gold rush and yielded $3.5 million in gold by 1900. During the next two decades, it brought in another $80 million. The Nome stampede gave amateurs a chance to make fortunes, as well as provided a second chance to prospectors who’d failed elsewhere.
Following the Scandinavians’ find, thousands of people left Dawson and headed to Nome. The town filled with shady characters and hardened criminals who didn’t pay much attention to American mining laws. By July 1899, almost every potentially valuable claim had been jumped at least twice and some had multiple claimants.
Confusion and unrest reigned among the community’s 3,000 residents. Until a soldier, assigned to a small detachment sent up from St. Michael to guard the settlement, and an old prospector from Idaho found gold in the sands of Nome’s beaches.
Known as the “Poor Man’s Gold Rush,” the discovery of gold on Nome’s beaches meant that anyone could work the public property without staking or recording claims. The area’s population swelled to around 20,000 by 1900, and according to an article in the Nome News, the post office hired 23 clerks to handle 546,000 letters between June and August.
Veteran prospector E. C. Trelawney-Ansell later reported:
“Nome was different, it was a place where the creeks and the town itself filled with thousands of cheechakos who had never known the hardship of the trail and few if any other hardships. Worse still, the camp and surrounding country was filled with gamblers, cutthroats and murderers of the worst kind.”
With more than 60 saloons, dozens of criminals, a few hundred prostitutes and dishonest officials, including an embezzling postmaster, a tax assessor who went to prison for illicit financial dealings and a federal judge who made crooked rulings, it’s not surprising that robberies, murder and mayhem flourished in Nome.
The Poor Man’s Gold Rush played itself out by the end of 1900, and after a fierce storm destroyed the business district and the beach mining operations, thousands left on steamships heading south. Some stayed behind and continued on with placer mining, but by 1910, Nome’s population had dropped back to around 2,000.