Prospector turns Alaska history into gold

Prospector turns words into gold
One prospector who headed north at the turn-of-the-last century later successfully turned Alaska history into gold. As a young man, famous American novelist Rex Beach struck out from Illinois in 1897 in search of his fortune in the gold-filled Klondike. Along with others who had some money and time, he chose to travel the all-water route.

Hopeful prospectors like Beach hopped onboard steamships leaving Seattle and other West Coast ports bound for St. Michael, where they connected with flat-bottom sternwheelers for the 1,500-mile trip up the Yukon River to Dawson.

However, many travelers discovered that the Yukon River boats on which they’d booked passage did not exist and found themselves stranded at St. Michael. Others jumped on boats that started up river too late in the season and got caught in the river’s ice. They were forced to spend the winter in Rampart or Circle City.

Beach, who’d been studying law in Chicago when gold fever hit him, was one of those who got as far as Rampart. He eventually made his way north and spent a few years in Nome, where the discovery of the precious yellow metal on Anvil Creek had brought thousands of miners.

Almost overnight an isolated stretch of tundra fronting the beach was transformed into a rip-roaring, tent-and-log cabin city of 20,000 prospectors, gamblers, claim jumpers, saloonkeepers and prostitutes.

The Nome that greeted Beach was no different than many early day gold camps. There were almost as many con men trying to separate the gold from the miners as there were miners digging for gold.

Among the rackets and racketeers was Judge Arthur H. Noyes of North Dakota, appointed to administer a newly formed judicial district created to settle the hundreds of claim disputes that plagued Nome. Noyes immediately put all contested claims into a receivership and then proceeded to exploit the claims and freeze out the miners.

It took two appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco and two U.S. marshals to restore order and jail Noyes and his henchmen.

Beach locked this and other Far North experiences into his memory bank, and after returning “Outside,” put pen to paper after he heard that money could be made by telling gold-rush stories.

“Back in Chicago, I was selling firebrick, lime and cement when I met a Yukon acquaintance who told me he had sold a story of one of his mining experiences for $10,” Beach later recounted. “There was an empty desk where we were standing. I snagged a chair and wrote.”

One of his most famous novels, “The Spoilers,” tells the tale of the conniving Nome judge. The 1906 novel, which features two Yukon adventurers who duke it out over a gold claim, a beautiful saloon girl and a crooked gold commissioner, has been put to film five times – in 1914, 1923, 1930, 1942 and 1955. His story helped set the public’s mind about both Alaska and the Yukon.

By Laurel Bill

Alaska history