Golden Places
The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining
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Gates of the Arctic

Chronology: Gates of the Arctic

1885Lt. Henry Allen's explorations.
1886John Bremner, who had been with Allen, is the first Koyukuk prospector.
1887Bremner, Peter Johnson, Johnnie Folger and others work Tramway Bar; Bremner is killed by Indians.
1888Party of Fortymile miners avenges Bremner.
1894Gordon Bettles opens store at Arctic City.
1898Stampede to Koyukuk of some 1,000 prospectors.
1899Strike on Hammond River.
1899-1900Coldfoot founded.
1902Coldfoot post office opens.
1903Mining activity declines.
1907Strike on Nolan Creek revives Koyukuk interest.
1908200 men rush to Nolan Creek.
1907-1911Three miners take over more than a quarter of a million dollars from Nolan Creek.
1910Wiseman replaces Coldfoot as main service center.
1912Strike at Hammond Creek; Coldfoot post office moved to Nolan.
1915Peak year of second Koyukuk boom.
1931Population of Koyukuk region is 71.

Map 3. Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve. (click on image for a PDF version)

In several respects the mining history of the Gates of the Arctic National Park is singular. Much of the Koyukuk River and its tributaries which drain the southern side of the central Brooks Range falls within park boundaries. Although the region is isolated and distant from population centers, it was among the first interior areas to be prospected. In 1885 Lt. Henry T. Allen followed an overland trail north from the Yukon on the divide between the Melozitna and the Tozitna rivers, eventually going down the Kanuti River to the Koyukuk.

Allen made the Koyukuk portions of his long reconnaissance of the Copper River valley and the Yukon interior with Pvt. Fred Fickett. At Nulato, Allen hired Koyukon Indians as guides and bought five packdogs. When the party reached the Kanuti River they acquired two birch canoes for the ascent to the Koyukuk, then went upriver on the Koyukuk, reaching a point not far above the later site of Bettles. They were forced to return to the Yukon for want of food. Game and people were equally scarce in the Koyukuk country; they saw no Indian villages along the way. In all, Allen covered 1,500 miles, charting three major river systems for the first time. As historian Morgan Sherwood said, "it was an incredible achievement that deserves to be ranked with the great explorations of North America." [1]

Maj. Gen. Nelson A. Miles praised Allen's work, but the public did not perceive the importance of the expeditions. Ironically, Americans of the day read Schwatka's lively narrative of his Yukon River exploration with enthusiasm, even though Schwatka covered familiar ground the whole way.

John Bremner, who had been with Allen on his Copper and Tanana rivers explorations, was the first Koyukuk prospector in 1886-87. Bremner was a pioneer of tragic distinction as the only white prospector killed by the usually unaggressive interior Indians in the early mining years. His death provoked the interior's first vigilante action when 22 men, including Gordon C. Bettles, formed a posse in 1888, voyaged by the steamboat Explorer up the Koyukuk, found an Indian who admitted his guilt, and hung him. [2]

Gordon Bettles

Gordon C. Bettles, born in Quebec in 1859, was a trader-prospector who ranged widely in Alaska. When Bettles answered whatever stirred the winds of northern opportunity in his mind in 1886, he had accumulated diverse experiences in his 27 years. He had been typesetter on the Detroit Free Press; a miner in Colorado from 1882-1884; and a prospector and cowboy in Montana, Idaho, and Washington from 1884-1886, including stints driving a packtrain to Coeur d'Alene and mining at Libby Creek, Montana. Like many interior pioneers, Bettles first job in Alaska was at the great Treadwell mine in Douglas. After a short stint at the mine, Bettles crossed the Chilkoot for Fortymile in 1888. After one winter there, he prospected in the Kuskokwim Valley in 1888-89. In 1890 he was among the vigilante party that executed the Koyukuk Indian who killed John Bremner.

Like trader Jack McQuesten, Bettles was well liked by miners. He was generous with credit and as quick off the mark on news of a new gold strike as any full-time prospector. In addition, this "prince of fellows," as he was sometimes described in the press, was an acclaimed storyteller who shared his imagination with his fellows. The vicissitudes of storekeeping in short-lived camps did not make him gloomy. He carried his commercial burdens lightly throughout his half century in Alaska. As a youthful prospector, he blazed an inscription on a tree atop the Wolverine Mountain between Rampart and Livengood, "I claim all the land I can see from here." His gains, in some respects, equalled his wide-ranging claims: Bettles did not become a millionaire but enjoyed a rich life that enriched that of his acquaintances as well. [3]

In 1894 Bettles was on hand at Fort Adams to help the Rev. Jules L. Prevost put out the first edition of the Yukon Press, the interior's first newspaper. Later that year, from his post at Nuklukyet, 18 miles south of the mouth of the Tanana, Bettles roamed the Koyukuk country above the Arctic Circle extensively.

Bettles contributed an account of early Koyukuk mining in the first issue of the Yukon Press in 1894 (see Chapter 2). He knew Bremner and the other miners who outfitted at Tanana, in 1886 "loading up their sleighs with a few necessities of life, together with plenty of rabbit skin blankets for bedding." The miners had little knowledge of the country and were pleased to reach a point on the Koyukuk, some 400 miles upriver, after 150 miles of overland. The prospectors did not have dogs and were relieved to commence river voyaging: "After hanging their sleighs, and snow-shoes (what was left of them) up in a tree, and forming resolutions to never hitch themselves into the collar again as long as they live," they started prospecting. [4]

As the water was too high for prospecting they could not accomplish much. The season was advancing and their grub was running out, so they started downriver by boat. The water fell as they voyaged toward the Yukon. At a point about 250 miles from its mouth, 20 miles below the Coldfoot site, they stopped at a promising-looking gravel bar. Washing a pan of gravel produced a quantity of flakes, so they built a rocker and worked several days in earnest. Hunger soon forced them to continue downriver. At Tanana some of the men reprovisioned and returned to Tramway Bar, as they named it, for the rest of the summer.

The party returned the following spring. Again, high water confirmed their prospecting to riverbars, which they worked when water levels permitted. Prospectors, more leisurely in the early days, did not tear around the country but stayed in camp when the water was high. "Such were the habits of the pioneer miners of the Koyukuk," Bettles reflected, "consequently nothing of any value was unearthed until quite recently." [5]

Two miners found good signs on the upper river in 1892. A year later they returned with others and prospected smaller streams. Gold was found on Chapman and Davis creeks. Quartz Creek seemed good, too.

Writing in 1894, Bettles was not sure whether the Koyukuk would prove out "as there has not yet been sufficient work done." As he wrote there were 22 men on the Koyukuk. [6]

Prospectors of the 1880s did not find a bonanza, nor did other prospectors of the 1890s who only managed to gather a small amount of gold from a few easily worked sandbars. It took the Klondike stampede to create wider interest in the Koyukuk. Stampeders who failed to get in on the rich Yukon ground were keen to look at other areas of potential wealth, and the Koyukuk was reported to be one of them. Thus in 1898, the region drew 1,000 prospectors whose movement put some 50 steamboats on the river. Mining camps sprang up at various points, including Beaver on the Alatna River, and Arctic City, Bergman, Peavy, Union City, Seaforth, Soo City, and Jimtown on the Koyukuk. What became Bettles, 500 miles up the river, was the head of steamboat navigation. [7]

Like most stampedes, this one disappointed all but a few of the new arrivals. Winter came early, and men's optimism faded over the cold months. Many of them left when navigation opened in the spring, but others rushed in to fill their places.

Bettles had his eye on Koyukuk possibilities for several years, but it was 1894 before he opened a "beanshop"—as miners termed such stores—at Arctic City, 400 miles up the Koyukuk from the Yukon. Mining was not too lively, but in '98 strikes upriver induced Bettle to found Bergman, where he was in place for an expected stampede. He ordered enough supplies for a camp of 1,000 men for the '99 season; but as river floods threatened Bergman, he moved farther upriver to found Bettles.

Hopeful Men

Among those who reached the Koyukuk in '98 was Capt. Robert J. Young, who brought the sternwheeler Lavelle Young upriver. Lavelle Young, later used by trader E.T. Barnette for his Tanana River voyage in 1901 which led to the founding of Fairbanks, started from Astoria, Oregon, for the gold fields. Young was pleased to get as far upriver as Union City, 800 miles above the Yukon and farther than any other boat that season. With 50 tons of freight, he expected to make a small fortune trading with miners. That Young made it to the gold fields at all was somewhat remarkable. He had signed on at Astoria as second mate under Capt. George A. Pease, who took the boat a little ways up the Koyukuk, then decided to return to St. Michael. At St. Michael, Young took command after Pease and seven crew members found steamer transportation to the Outside and, fiercely determined, headed back up the Yukon to the Koyukuk.

Young's first letter to his wife from Union City cost him a $100 payment to a mail carrier, so he deserved to brag: "I think I have surprised them all and opened their eyes by bringing a boat of this size to this point. . . I believe there will be ten thousand people here before spring." From the short-lived settlement of Union City, Young pushed a little way up the north fork of the Koyukuk to Peavy, another short-lived camp. Over the winter the crewmen prospected, and with breakup tried their luck with dredge equipment that had been carried on Lavelle Young: "We would have been better off if we had left it in Portland," he wrote ruefully. Young took the steamboat down to St. Michael in summer 1898, grubstaked one of the crewmen eager to try prospecting on the Seward Peninsula, and left Alaska. [8]

Stampeders arrived in '98 on a fleet of steamboats, most of which had been shipped in parts to St. Michael and assembled there. An early freeze-up caught 68 steamers in the ice and discouraged many stampeders who expected to locate ground before winter set in. Some 550 men mushed downriver in disgust, while 350 wintered at Bettles. If the miners' purses had been as long as their hopes, trader Bettles would have prospered because he added the stores of stranded steamers to his stocks. But money was short and the new arrivals had not yet found gold, so most of Bettles' sales were on credit. [9]

Other '98 stampeders included C.F. Haselman, William Michaels, and other members of the Iowa-Alaska Expedition who reached the Koyukuk in '98 via the Chilkoot Pass and Dawson. The party had its difficulties, including the drowning of one man on Lake Bennett before launching two boats for the river voyage. Iowa, the larger of their two steamers—60 feet long with an 18-foot beam—was believed to be the biggest ever taken down the upper Yukon. Fully loaded, with 25,000 pounds of wood, 5,000 feet of lumber, 10 horses weighing 10,000 pounds, hay, sawmill machinery, sleds, and provisions, Iowa drew only thirty inches and ran the dreaded White Horse Rapids without "a scratch to the paint." Seven days later, including 36 hours stuck on a sand bar, the argonauts reached Dawson. Other Iowans there treated them hospitably, permitting the first break in their bacon and bean diet of many weeks. [10]

The Iowans, organized originally as a joint-stock company, inspected a claim owned by John Maloney and Jack Dalton on Bonanza that had not profited the owners over the winter's digging because of too much underground water. Elsewhere, they saw better claims. In one cabin, they handled $10,000 "in fine nuggets" and saw $60,000 more in fine gold. They heard much talk about the Koyukuk in Dawson and decided "to try and find the elephant ourselves." It was obvious at Dawson that all the potential mining sites in the Klondike were taken. Most of the miners who had wintered there had worked for major owners at $10 daily, while paying almost that much for living expenses. "It is a shame for people to rush in here the way they are," T.T. Barbour observed, "men here are doing everything they can to get out. You ought to hear their tales of woe; it is heart rending." The Iowans were glad they had other prospects in view: "We still think we will find the Eldorado. Everyone we see who has been on the Koyukuk River says it is good and we are sure to hit it." [11]

One of the charms of the Koyukuk country was in its remoteness. To inexperienced men it seemed reasonable to believe rumors that "Indians bring out lots of gold from the country, but so far it has been impossible for whites to go up there, as it is too far to row a boat, and no steamers have yet gone up." [12]

In starting up the Koyukuk the Iowans were heading into the unknown. No one they talked to at Nulato had ever heard about Jack Davis, who had been indirectly responsible for the formation of the company. Davis' letter announcing a fabulous gold discovery on the Koyukuk headwaters and inviting the formation of a stock company had inspired the whole venture. By the time the Iowans reached Lake Bennett, they knew that the letter had been a fraud and the company disbanded. Hope still lingered among some of the men that the letter was genuine, hence the queries at Nulato.

After pushing about 300 miles upriver on the Koyukuk, the party turned up a tributary, the Hogatza, for prospecting. Clear Creek, a tributary of the Hogatza, yielded 10 to 25 cents a pan. Excitement ran high at the discovery. The miners staked a group claim of 160 acres and formed a company, capitalizing at $250,000 with $80,000 of stock for public sale. Some of the party wintered over and reported optimistically on prospects, but expectations were not met and work stopped in summer 1899.

Other miners did not even enjoy the briefly held euphoria of the Iowa men. Among the many who left after one winter was J.N. Wyman, whose excellent photographs have been preserved. Wyman, one of a Galesburg, Illinois, party, left the party's camp for a two-month winter trip up the Allakaket River to prospect some copper quartz thought to contain gold. He did not travel far enough to reach the quartz prospect but did some fruitless digging on Young Creek before returning to camp. [13]

Over the rest of the 1898-99 winter, Wyman and other members of his party grew discouraged. No one had found any gold and there seemed little point in looking further. In mid-March, Wyman traveled to Bergman. The camp offered some entertainment worth photographing, a prize fight between boxers Ed Kelly and J.C. Cox, which was probably the first such event held north of the Arctic Circle.

While at Bergman, Wyman heard about the rich strike on Myrtle Creek on the middle fork of the Koyukuk but was not impressed. He busied himself selling photos of the prize fight, then joined other Galesburg company men at their steamboat for the long voyage home. The men felt like failures and would not risk more time.

The reminiscences of Capt. J.D. Winchester rank among the most affecting of personal gold rush narratives, encompassing the frustration of not finding gold, near death from scurvy, and a sense of abandonment. Winchester and his party had a long voyage from Lynn, Massachusetts, to San Francisco via the Straits of Magellan in '98. From San Francisco he got a ship to St. Michael and eventually made it to Beaver City on Helpmejack Creek in October. With the freeze-up the local prospectors got busy organizing Beaver City and setting mining rules. Claims were limited to 500 square feet and staking by power of attorney was prohibited.

Winchester's winter proved disastrous. The start was gloomy enough after a search party brought in a missing prospector who had frozen to death on the trail: "This affair seemed to cast a gloom over the inhabitants of Beaver. The deceased was brought down the river and buried in an icy tomb one hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle." [14]

Winchester's companions made a trip to Arctic City in mid-November, and scurvy struck him down about a week after they left. His neighbors cut wood for his cabin stove, loaded it in the morning, then left him alone until the following morning. In such cheerless surroundings he managed to feed himself with bread soaked in condensed milk: "My legs were so bad that it was impossible to straighten them out, and I moved about on the stools. My teeth were loose and gums sore." [15]

Winchester did receive one visit from a doctor who diagnosed his illness as inflammatory rheumatism. He advised drinking citric acid as a scurvy preventative. Winchester was near death when his partner finally returned to Beaver. Another doctor easily observed the evidence of scurvy and prescribed raw potatoes. One of Winchester's partners made a quick trip to Arctic City for potatoes and returned in time to save his life. The experience exposed the attitude of miners to victims of scurvy: they had little sympathy because it was believed to be caused by personal uncleanliness and inactivity.

Winchester and his party waited impatiently for the opening of navigation, their thoughts fixed on escaping from the country that had been so cruel and unrewarding. They looked for scapegoats, someone to blame for inducing them up the Koyukuk. There were men on the lower river who were always booming the country to voyagers on the Yukon. "I wondered," said Winchester, "if some were not in the employ of the steamboat companies, who were carrying on a nefarious business by inducing men to leave their families, and mortgaging their little belongings to pay their passage up to Dawson." Winchester was not one of the stampeders who was likely to recall his experiences with any pleasure. When time to leave finally arrived, he was delighted: "After I left the old shack, I never turned back to take a last look, for there was nothing to see or remember about it but suffering." [16]

Historian William Brown has noted the disparity in the responses of Winchester and Herman Carpenter to their Koyukuk ventures. Carpenter had not been more successful than Winchester in discovering gold in spring '98. He wintered over and kept his health, perhaps because he had wintered over on the Yukon the year before and knew how to take care of himself. He also made some wages by freighting supplies to outlying camps, by dog team. He did not see himself as a failure. The problem, as he correctly surmised, was with the region's geology. All the Koyukuk offered were "grub-stake diggings . . . where a man can make a living from year to year, and scarcely anything more." With his money from freighting, Carpenter was prepared for the Nome rush and did well on the Seward Peninsula. [17]

Bill Fonda was another Koyukuk prospector who contributed to legend in a couple of ways. He not only entertained folks in Seattle as he grew older with stories of his "lost mine" of incalculable value but he also served as the model for Alonzo Lewis' bronze image of "the Prospector" which now graces Sitka. He liked to be called "Skagway Bill" because he claimed to have built the second cabin raised at Skagway in 1897.

Fonda's '98 venture upriver from St. Michael ended in a shipwreck and the separation of his party. Three members started downstream while he and two others continued upstream to Nulato. The downstreamers were never seen again, "murdered by Indians," according to Fonda, who believed that folks preferred a good story to dull truth.

The surviving trio awaited at Nulato until September 16 for the Koyukuk freeze-up, then sledded upriver, reaching Bergman after 33 days. After locating some bench claims, they went downriver to salvage their steamer, but all their work came to naught with breakup; the surging river carried the boat to destruction. Up the Koyukuk again, Fonda and a partner shoveled and sluiced for a month until he decided to quit. Fonda relinquished his share of the claim for $12,000, the product of their last eight hours of shoveling, then voyaged to Seattle. That Fonda would sell out at this point seems unlikely, but this was Fonda's story. At the assay office George Adams, later to become infamous for stealing gold from the mint, weighted Fonda's gold.

The next spring Fonda returned to the Koyukuk from Skagway. There he put down a shaft 70 feet before giving up. After working on a riverboat for a time, he went out to Seattle for the winter. In the spring he heard that two miners pushed his 70-foot hole to bedrock and took out $300,000.

For the rest of his life Fonda told a "lost mine" story. Whether it was true or not, he often said he planned to return to find a "rich mine" near the valuable one he had abandoned—but never got around to it. [18]

Probably no more than 100 miners remained in the Koyukuk after the summer of 1899, but those who remained developed the district. After the first major gold discovery on Myrtle Creek in spring 1899, prospectors investigated every stream and eventually found gold on Hammond River, Smith Creek, and elsewhere. The towns of Bettles and Wiseman (then called Coldfoot), places that had lost most of their residents, revived somewhat. Most of the gold was produced from the working of lower ground.

The discovery of the deep diggings of Nolan Creek in 1906 was the outstanding example. Earlier miners took some $50,000 from the upper stratum within 30 feet of the surface of the Wiseman tributary, but no effort was made to reach bedrock. In 1907-08 John and Gus Oleson and John Anderson reached bedrock at 120 feet, using a small boiler. Within three months they hauled out $105,000 from their 300-foot-wide strip and in three years made $250,000. It was the richest piece of ground ever mined in the Koyukuk, and other miners got busy and did well. Many of the miners worked lays (contracts) for owners like Captain Johnson and Nellie Cashman for percentages ranging from 50 to 75 percent. Once more, new arrivals hurriedly built cabins—expensive cabins, as neither timber nor cordwood could be found along the creek or hillsides. A new town, Wright City, was located 16 miles above Coldfoot at the mouth of Wiseman Creek.

Freight rates at the time were $100 a ton from Seattle to Bettles. From Bettles upriver scows drawn by horses or pole boats were used. Scows handled 6 to 9 tons, but passage was slow for want of a tow rail. The scow and the horses were poled from one side of the river to the other as boatmen searched for adequate footing for the animals along the bank. Fifteen miles daily was considered a good run, and costs ran from eight cents a pound to Coldfoot to 10 cents to Wright City. Poling boats handled 1,000-1,500 pounds, requiring three to five hardworking men at the poles. [19]

Pole boat transport had been the means used by some men to reach the country and others for their various prospecting ventures. T.W. Moore described the travails of getting a boat upriver. He and his partner had the aid of a sail mounted on their small, heavily laden boat, but had to depend upon their own muscles on the tow ropes for most of their progress:

We labored all the way against a swollen stream and a very hard rain further up had raised the river higher. . . . The river had risen over a foot during the night and the cut off was booming. The sand bars were nearly all covered and we found the next four days it took us to go that 30 miles, days of torture. We had to cross the river repeatedly, as it was out of the question to buck the swift current. In doing this, we would ruin up along the sand bar until we came to the high bank, we would take a spurt and run as far as we could up into the swift current and then letting her play off at an angle of 45 degrees, would shoot across for the other side. The hardest kind of pulling at these times would barely hold us even and we would usually strike the bar on the other side some yards below the point we had left on the other side. [20]

Volney Richmond, later to be the head of the Northern Commercial Company, established the company's store at Bettles in 1901. Northern Commercial Company bought out Pickart, Bettles, and Pickart in 1899. Bettles was booming in 1901, and Richmond kept busy at the store. In 1902 he established a small branch store at Coldfoot, 75 miles upriver, putting R.D. Menzies in charge. The following year Richmond packed the season's gold yield as company rules prescribed—in mooseskin sacks of 100 to 500 ounces, then stowed in boxes of one-inch lumber, put together with screws. To each box a 50-foot rope with a float was attached—a precaution for locating the treasure in case of shipwreck. Richmond's shipment of $250,000 was a record for a Koyukuk, and his reward was a raise in salary to $300 a month. [21]

The comparative isolation and lack of amenities on the Koyukuk in 1901 can be gaged by a count of roadhouses. W.J. Peters of the USGS, who started mushing from Whitehorse, noted 53 roadhouses along the 369-mile trail to Dawson; from Dawson to Eagle, 106 miles, only four roadhouses; from Eagle to Fort Yukon, 240 miles, 12 road-houses; and from Fort Yukon to Bettles, 330 miles, no cabins of any kind.

The remoteness of the Koyukuk district became particularly aggravating in legal disputes. Unscrupulous claim jumpers had an advantage because the bedrock was shallow on many creeks, allowing a miner in possession to exhaust a claim of all gold in a few weeks or months. U.S. Commissioner D.A. McKenzie complained that a jumper skimmed one of his claims of up to $10,000 in gold, then skipped to Nome before the title matter could be brought to district court. Court matters in the sparsely populated district did not justify a district court session there so cases were heard at Rampart before the Tanana strike made Fairbanks the interiors court headquarters. To reach Rampart, parties and witnesses had to travel 800 miles, and there was no way a miner could be compensated for valuable lost time.

The Midas Fraud

Miners remained skittish of rumors of gold strikes throughout the gold era. Though no other fake stampede compares with the number of dupes who rushed in to Kotzebue Sound in 1898 (see discussion later in this chapter), there was a notorious one to the Koyukuk in 1903. It was not an instance of response to a vague rumor of gold but one of a carefully cast fraud.

The perpetrators were George W. Duncan and Charles R. Griggs, who were known in Nome and had arrived in the Koyukuk region in January 1903 to start a little breeze of agitation. They looked as if they had been traveling for a long time with considerable hardship yet were obviously bursting with good news that they did not wish to indulge in any detail. Soon everyone in town heard that the prospectors had tried to record claims at the court clerk's office. Clerk George V. Borchsenius refused to record their claims because the men refused to divulge the location of their ground. Duncan grew indignant and insolent: "What a hell of a note that after a year or more of hardships in prospecting a new country, and after having traveled 600-800 miles to the clerk's office, we're told we can't record."

A day or two later the prospectors appeared at the clerk's office again, this time in company with an attorney. Once more the clerk explained the situation, but the men seemed determined to guard their secret at all costs. Soon Duncan and Griggs went to the clerk again with another attorney. The miners agreed to identify their location within a radius of 100 miles. Still this was not good enough because the location might have been in either one or another of two or three different designated recording districts. Again an impasse resulted. Unless we know the district of your "sacred creek," Borchsenius told them, you may not record claims.

Later the prospectors came back with District Judge Alfred S. Moore. Duncan's anxiety impressed the clerk: "It would not be easy to forget," he recalled later, "the appeals Duncan made for something to be done to save them the property which cost them so dearly." Judge Moore was impressed too and broke the deadlock by creating a new district that embraced the prospectors' 64 locations on Midas Creek, a tributary of the Koyukuk River. "There was no suppression of anything in forming the new district," and swiftly all Nome knew that wonderful riches could be found on Midas Creek. No one knew where Midas Creek was, but there were those who meant to find it and locate claims near those of Duncan and Griggs. The lucky prospectors may have been reluctant to tell the location of their finds until legal requirements made it necessary, but they had been willing to show impressively large nuggets around town. [22]

A few Nome men grew hot enough to try a winter trip into the distant Koyukuk country in hope of finding Midas Creek and beating others who would wait for the spring breakup. Duncan and Griggs felt too secure to concern themselves with such folly. They announced that they were going Outside for the winter, presumably over the long trail up the Yukon River to Whitehorse and down to Skagway since Bering Sea navigation long had since closed for the season. Before they returned in June on one of the first ships of the season, the unfortunate prospectors who had tried to find Midas during the winter without guidance had returned to report their failure.

On their arrival at Nome, Duncan and Griggs announced the formation of the Treasure and Midas Creeks Gold Mining Association of Alaska, organized and incorporated in Oregon. Company assets included four claims of 20 acres each. Investors could buy 174 to 240 shares to become stockholders. Each share represented twenty square feet of ground, the same ground that had yielded $449.50 in gold per cubic yard to the original discoverers.

Some people in Nome remained skeptical. The Nome Nugget even published a lampoon purporting to be an interview with a company man, Mr. Othmer, who "could never think of Midas without associating it with the figure of $300,000,000." Mr. Othmer assured newspaper readers that such an amount of money was enough to free Ireland or to convert the United States to socialism, but it was not clear that he would divert his profits to either cause. [23]

The company prepared to send a party of investors into the field, but others who did not buy stock left earlier, seeking Midas about 200 miles above the mouth of the Koyukuk. According to persistent rumor, the golden creek could be found at that point. Other prospectors waited until Duncan and Griggs left Nome on a small motor boat, Louise, then tried to follow Louise or Research, another boat which carried company stockholders, in boats of their own. The stampede was on, and soon there were no boats worthy of taking to sea to be found in Nome or its vicinity.

When company stockholders, a group of 50 men including the commissioner for the new district, F.T. Meritt, reached St. Michael, they were disappointed when Duncan and Griggs did not rendezvous with them as planned. They cursed their lost leaders for delaying them and wondered if they had been deserted. The party finally pushed on up the Yukon to the mouth of the Koyukuk, then turned up the Koyukuk. Their map showed the Midas as a tributary of the Hogikakat River, and they intended to search for the claims despite their deepening suspicion of treachery.

Back in Nome, folks heard some news of Duncan and Griggs, the "Midas Prophets." Reportedly they had landed 40 miles up the Koyukuk River. It disturbed those who still believed in them to hear that the prospectors carried only $80 worth of food, enough to get them to a ship for Outside but hardly enough for men planning to settle in for a season of mining. Soon opinion in Nome crystallized: Duncan and Griggs were great rogues who by this time were outside with their fraudulently acquired gains from shareholders. Men who did not invest because they had lacked means assured others who passed up the opportunity that they had known all the time that the promoters were fakes.

It turned out that Duncan and Griggs had voyaged to the Koyukuk to confuse their pursuers. Once there, they found the riverboat they had concealed on their original journey and drifted back down to the Yukon. From concealment on the bank they watched Research enter the Koyukuk, then they turned down the Yukon for St. Michael and transport Outside.

Other rumors kept Nome gossips happy for weeks. Someone said the Midas fakes had turned up in Fort Yukon, boasting of their $50,000 swindle. Estimates of their take varied, but $50,000 was the amount heard most frequently. Of this, $30,000 was said to have been raised outside; the rest came from Nome investors.

Midas argonauts on Research and others following in their wake had a hard time after leaving the boat to tramp the rough, swampy ground. Game was scarce; mosquitoes and gnats wanted to eat them alive; they had to kill some of their horses for food. In September they abandoned the search begun in July and returned to Nome, plotting revenge.

The district attorney ordered a grand-jury investigation that produced some information. Apparently the Midas Prophets bought the $1,500 worth of gold nuggets and dust they showed in Nome from a miner in Bettles. They had done a little digging at the mouth of Koyukuk River without finding anything. From the outset the whole scheme had been a deliberate swindle.

Finally, in October, Nome's newspapers carried the headline everyone was hoping for: "DUNCAN AND GRIGGS PICKED UP IN PORTLAND." The grand jury issued indictments immediately, and Deputy Marshal Al Cody left for Portland with arrest warrants. Navigation closed before Cody could return, but Griggs was lodged safely in the Portland jail. Meanwhile, Duncan disappeared. [24]

Cody returned Griggs for trial in July 1905 after wasting the winter looking for Duncan. Griggs remained tight-lipped on the matter of where the money had gone. People hoped that Duncan had cheated Griggs and that either someone else would rob Duncan or that he might be found. Griggs was convicted of fraud and got five years. Duncan was never found.


It is a wonder that more disputes were not settled by direct action because of the law's delays and inadequacies. A few instances of violence are recorded, such as when Francis Ledger killed Dan McCarthy in May 1904. Ledger, busy rocking on a bench under a lay agreement, was warned by three other miners that their rights superseded his. When they ordered Ledger off the claim, he walked to Coldfoot, checked the recorder's book, and found no indication of the claimants' title. It appeared to be a plot to prevent Ledger from doing the required assessment work. "If that is their game," Ledger wrote Herman Bohrer, the owner who granted him his lay, "I'll fool them . . . I'm going to work . . . all the same, and if they try to bother me, somebody will get hurt."

Ledger was not so combative that he wanted to accomplish more than the assessment work under such threatening circumstances. "After September 1, I won't have anything to do with this bench for you or anyone else unless you send me a deed or quit claim of your rights." But the jumpers did not intend to allow Ledger a summer's work. They tried to force Ledger off the claim, and Ledger shot two of them. McCarthy died from his wounds, and Ledger got 25 years for manslaughter. [25]


Development of the Koyukuk was delayed by more sensational strikes in other regions—Nome in 1899 and Fairbanks in 1903. Commissioner D.A. McKenzie and others who hung on at Coldfoot viewed such divisions sourly: "The people have all gone wild over the 'Munchausen' stories told about the Tanana and are going over to that camp in flocks. Times are very quiet here." Unfortunately, for the Koyukuk, the Tanana news was not an exaggeration. [26]

In 1903 McKenzie got an opportunity to describe his district to a congressional committee visiting Rampart. McKenzie's Koyukuk district extended from the Yukon to the Arctic Ocean and from the Chandalar to the Colville rivers. Its population was only about 1,000 souls, half of it white and concentrated around Coldfoot. McKenzie had much to say about the good prospects in his region and the need for changes in the mining laws to prevent speculation. The commissioner also caught the interest of the senators by describing Alaska as "a country without homes," one that "is not fit to govern itself." He believed that miners should not be burdened with the taxes needed to support local government because it would discourage mining. The miners did not intend to stay in Alaska anyway, McKenzie argued, "we all intend to get out of there as soon as we can get a stake." [27]

For the most part McKenzie's views on the matters he discussed with the senators seemed to reflect those generally held by Koyukuk miners. His calls for a wagon road from the Yukon and the creation of another judicial division to bring the district court closer to Coldfoot expressed local sentiment. He stressed that miners were

at the present time receiving no protection from the United States in the way of protection to their property. This is account of the great distance to the courts. It would cost a man to come to this district court here [a third division session at Rampart] and bring his witnesses in a case some $6,000 or $7,000. People there have been driven off of their property and compelled to give it up to rascals, simply because the courts were beyond their reach. We should be given a reasonable government or let to run things ourselves. [28]

McKenzie described the Koyukuk and Kobuk Indians of his district in favorable terms. They were Christians who avoided whiskey and tobacco and were kind to whites. But the Indians had not fared well since mining developed: "The miners have come into that country, and, being brighter and smarter than the Indians and understanding hunting better than they, have virtually taken the game right out from the Indians, and those poor devils are left there every year almost starving." Something should be done, McKenzie argued: "We bought them from the Russians and we assumed the obligation of taking care of them." Someone should look to their feeding and education. [29]

The government's provisions for authority in remote districts were certainly inadequate. If Commissioner McKenzie had to travel from Coldfoot to Bettles to fulfill any of his functions as recorder, justice of peace, probate judge, coroner, or notary public, he had to close his office during his absence. Since the government did not provide for a paid assistant, a miner who had traveled up to 150 miles to record a claim was out of luck until the commissioner returned. As the only official competent to advise on mining law, the commissioner was in demand: "For instance," as McKenzie once wrote to a U.S. Senator, a miner working far from Coldfoot "wants to know if it is lawful to stake a claim by power of attorney, and if the corners must be at right angles or otherwise, if he would be allowed to stake two claims on the same creek, and if it is necessary to record his annual assessment." [30]

McKenzie was not the only commissioner to complain about the woes of office, but certainly such a huge district, "larger in area than the state of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware," as McKenzie put it, exposed the limitations of the system. McKenzie served for a year before a deputy marshal was assigned to the district. Having a deputy helped McKenzie but neither officer had authority nor funds for dealing with commonplace problems. What should be done about a miner "with a broken leg or frozen feet needing help," or a native woman, "with the offspring of a white man," who has been deserted and is destitute.

In such cases, McKenzie complained, "the commissioner is again asked to put his hand in his pocket." Unlike some commissioners, McKenzie had some money in his pocket, but after a couple of years he resigned because the office cost him too much money. Commissioners were authorized a salary of $3,000—but could only receive such portion of their salary as had been paid into court as fees. This meant that commissioners located in smaller camps only made their full salary when there was a boom. The system worked best when the commissioner was an attorney able to earn some fees from his practice to supplement wages from the government. [31]

Though miners were justified in protesting against claim jumping, the inadequacies of the laws, or the poor administration of law, their own hands were not always clean. Miners' zeal in staking claims for themselves and others caused many of the problems they complained of. A party of Seward Peninsula prospectors once staked 181 claims covering 45 miles along a particular creek. Among those for whom they located were court officials, including the court clerk and his wife and the U.S. commissioner and his wife.

With such practices in mind, John Rustgard told congressmen in 1903 that "it has been the custom in Alaska, within the last four years, for prospecting parties . . . to stake a claim for the judge, then one for the clerk of the court, and then continue to stake for friends, and sometimes other members of the judicial family." [32] Congressmen were more than politely interested in Rustgard's statement about judges receiving locations as presents: "Why is that done?" one asked. "I presume," replied Rustgard facetiously, "it is to show their love and respect for the judician of the country. I would not say." [33]

Pattern of Development

After 1903 the peak population of some 300 miners declined sharply. Many of the shallow diggings were worked out, and the lure of the Fairbanks stampede was hard to ignore. As it was soon determined, the Tanana district, of which Fairbanks was the center, held gold deposits far more extensive than those in the Koyukuk.

There was some excitement over gold discovered on the John River in 1905, but hopes faded quickly. No real revival of mining occurred until 1907. John Anderson and his partner made the initial strike on Nolan Creek in 1907. They chose to sink a hole to bedrock at a spot where other miners earlier had started to dig, then gave up. Their hunch paid off with $7.00 in gold from the first bucket of bedrock gravel washed. [34]

The old channels of the Nolan were mined with drifting technology. Miners drove shafts to bedrock as deep as 300 feet, then tunneled from the shaft's bottom to follow the paystreak. Necessary equipment included a boiler to provide steam for thawing and powering the hoist; the gin pole which stood above the shaft with its bucket and cables; steam pipes and hoses for thawing; and wheelbarrows or ore cars for handling gravel from its removal point to the shaft.

While drift mining had been familiar in the early days of Upper Yukon and Tanana Valley mining, it gave way in those wealthy districts to more advanced technology. In the Koyukuk, however, the comparatively scarce yield did not justify investment in hydraulic and other types of equipment. Thus the very visible sign of active winter mining, an ever rising pile of dirt and gravel near the mouth of the shaft, continued to be a landscape feature for many years. Today most miners use hydraulic and mechanical equipment, but there are still drift mines on Nolan Creek and at Wild Lake. [35]

The pockets of gold on Nolan Creek were soon exhausted, but new discoveries on Hammond Creek kept the scene lively until World War I. With high employment opportunities during the war, miners left for other jobs.

In the mid-1920s the Koyukuk was still described as "prosperous." Although population of the region was small, there were only 135 miners but all did reasonably well. Construction of the Alaska Railroad benefited the miners a little because freight transhipped from Nenana reached the Koyukuk a month earlier in the spring and shipments continued a month longer in the fall.

Transportation costs still remained a problem, however, and in 1925 miners petitioned the Alaska Road Commission for a road between Bettles and Wiseman. Bettles was head of navigation on the Koyukuk for steamboats; towboat charges from Bettles to Wiseman ran high. Sam Dubin, a trader with three stores on the river, had to pay eight cents (summer) or 10 cents (winter) per pound for this short distance. With a tractor pulling loads along a road freight costs could be reduced considerably. [36]

The mining history of the Gates of the Arctic includes some memorable characters, like Gordon Bettles, Sam Marsh, Frank Yasuda, and Bill Fonda, and has also been memorialized in literature by gifted writers like Hudson Stuck and Robert Marshall. The Rev. Hudson Stuck, writing in 1916 of his mission inspection voyages in the little gasoline boat, Pelican, characterized the 500-mile voyage from the mouth to the Allakaket mission: "For nearly half the distance the journey is of the utmost monotony. The current is slack, the channel is serpentine, the banks are densely wooded with scrubby trees amongst which willow predominates."

Tributaries of the Koyukuk were small streams and the population had always been sparse: "The chief impression which the region will leave upon the visitor is its loneliness. More than once I have journeyed three hundred miles up this river without seeing a living soul, native or white." Along the banks "at rare intervals" Stuck saw a few dilapidated moss-covered cabins, "here and there a little group of overgrown graves; the rest is the wilderness untouched." [37]

By the time of Stuck's visits, the excitement caused by the revival of mining in 1907-1909 had declined as the richest claims of Nolan Creek and Hammond River were worked out. Steamboat service was reduced to some four sailings during the summer and, with the drift of miners away from the region during World War I, the area became quieter still.

News from the Koyukuk, where Wright City had been renamed Nolan, was still good in 1910. All that is needed for tremendous production, argued a writer in the Alaska-Yukon Magazine, was equipment for dredging. The writer thought miners were shortsighted in leaving after gaining $50,000-60,000, citing the success of Oscar Johnson, Tom Ewards, and Charles Peterson. The three partners worked a lay from John Anderson for 40 percent of the proceeds, taking out $210,000 from a 300-foot claim. "There are now on the Koyukuk about 160 people," the journalist reported. "Most of them will go out this fall with enough to go into business on or to live comfortably on the rest of their lives. It is a strange condition of affairs, and seems almost incredible . . . People do so well here that the region is depopulated instead of growing up." [38] While the magazine writer's boosting of the Koyukuk can be understood, it should be noted that only a handful of miners made big money.

Years of Decline

The peak year of the second Koyukuk boom was 1915 with gold production at $290,000 and a population of 300. The area was known as a "nugget" district, and Alaska's second largest. A 338.8-ounce piece was mined from a drift mine on the Hammond River in 1914. Production and population subsequently declined. By 1931 only 71 people inhabited the area. Visitors to the region in the 1930s gained the sense of a very particular kind of life even if conditions were not booming. In 1934 Elizabeth Hayes Goddard made a summer cruise on the Koyukuk on Pelican with a missionary party. At Hughes, trader George Light was the only resident. There were only a few miners working, including Al West, an old bachelor, who explained why he and his partner remained in the Koyukuk: "If we lived out there, someone would be telling us what to do all the time. Here, there is no one to boss us." [39]

Koyukuk Population and Production 1898-1931 [40]

YearPermanent White
Gold Production
in Thousands of
Number of


It was on this same cruise, near Tanana, where Mrs. Goddard learned a "splendid lesson in . . . Indian etiquette." She had asked an Indian man why he wore a heavy bead chain, "what is it for?" The Indian's wife intervened: "What you ask that for? We don't ask why your man wear necktie on his work."

Robert Marshall, who lived at Wiseman in the early 1930s, published Arctic Village in 1933. His account of the people and the land of the Koyukuk is among the finest books ever written about Alaska. Marshall was keenly interested in the Koyukuk's early mining history, and few of the historians tracing his steps can forbear use of his population statistics because he included a record of resident prostitutes. "The history of the upper Koyukuk since 1898," he wrote, "may be told succinctly in the three parallel columns of the following table." The white population, gold production, and the prostitutes all reached approximately simultaneous peaks in two different periods. The first occurred from 1900 to 1903 when successive stampedes were on to numerous creeks and nearly $800,000 in "sunburned" gold was recovered from the shallow gravels of their valleys. The second was from 1908 through 1916 when the deeply buried bedrock on Nolan Creek and Hammond River was being mined.

In conversations he recorded with old-timers Marshall caught the spirit of early days. Carl Frank, one '98'er still living in the Koyukuk, described a monumental drinking spree that ended tragically:

We work all summer long. In the fall we come down from Twelvemile Creek, no gold after all. But we were going to get good clothes and go down to see town at Bettles. We got down to our cache and we couldn't find it. It had been a very dry summer, and the swamp had dried up, and the whole country was on fire, and our cache had all burned up. We couldn't find anything but a few burned blue dishes. That was all right, we couldn't help it. We go down to Bettles, as flat broke as could be. Then the South Fork fellows come down. They have pretty good blowout. We drink that squareface gin. I didn't know that stuff. It look like water but it did not taste like water. They drag several fellows home on sleighs. By and by my partner fall on floor, off counter. The fellows say, Let him lay there, he'll sleep good there. But just when I leave, Pat Judge, he say, Come, Carl, let's bring your partner home. So we took him home, he's nice and loose and limber, and I think he will be fine in the morning. Then he was sleeping to beat the deuce. After an hour I came away, he was still sleeping good. Sunday morning I look out of my cabin. The sun was shining so nicely on the new snow, and I stretch my arms over my head, and think this a great world. All at once I see Pat Judge run like the dickens. I run out, and shout, What's the matter? He say: Tom Dowd is dead. We bury him them. Israel make a speech. He mean it good, but it sound pretty funny. He says: We're living here in a cold country, and if we take a drink we mean it well. It wasn't your business, God, to get sore at poor old Tom. Then we all start to sing a song, Nearer, my God, to Thee, or what was it they sing." [41]

Marshall's observations included much about the economy of the region. The active miners did not need too much money because much of their food came from the land. And some of them earned cash from trapping as a supplement to their gains in gold mining. Subsistence costs were low, but the same could not be said for mining costs. Harry Leonard, a Wiseman miner, described conditions of the region in 1937 in details that echoed those of earlier years. The handful of miners were working hard against the usual obstacles. Tramway Bar, the area first mined on the Koyukuk, had attracted several men interested in working the shallow ground with a dragline or dredge. Many areas looked good for low-grade placer mining, but working them would be impossible without a road to the Yukon: "Freight rates are too high for development with a dredge." Leonard gave some prices on staples at Wiseman: bananas, 65 cents a pound; eggs, 75 cents a dozen; flour, $17 per 100 pounds; sugar, $20 per 100 pounds; shovels, no. 2. $3.25 each; 4-foot lengths of wood, $16 per cord. Air freight from Fairbanks in less than plane-load lots was 12 cents per pound. Mail service was poor. Parcel post deliveries were only made during the summer when the river was open.

Leonard lived alone on Gold Creek, 12 miles above Wiseman, where he drift-mined in the winter and opencut in the summer. The upper Koyukuk was still the "hungry country" it had always been reported to be. There were few rabbits, grouse, or caribou. [42]

Irving M. Reed, an engineer with the territory's Department of Mines, reported comprehensively on the region in 1937. The total population of the upper Koyukuk, white and native, was only 110. Coldfoot was abandoned and Bettles was almost deserted, leaving Wiseman as the only real settlement. He found small, mining operations in the Wiseman subregion and saw some hope of eventual large-scale mining on Myrtle and Slate creeks. Neither the creeks of Wild or John rivers appeared likely prospects and little was known of the Alatna. In the Bettles subregion, the South Fork had "possibilities" for dredging and dragline operations.

"Under the present economic set-up," Reed wrote, "the upper Koyukuk region as a whole is gradually reverting to wilderness. At present, many of the miners are not able, with their crude methods of mining, to make a living from the depleted gold deposits left, and rely on work from the better-off miners and the Road Commission, to carry them over each winter." If no near strikes were made and no improvements were made in transportation, Reed expected mining to end in most of the Wiseman subregion within four or five years. [43]

It seemed shameful to Reed that one of the oldest mining districts in Alaska holding a great reserve of lower-grade mining ground should be undeveloped, "that the government has neglected the Koyukuk in its roadbuilding program is a great pity." Reed recommended a road following the old trail from the Yukon to Coldfoot, a distance of 175 miles with low passes, few engineering problems, and only the South Fork river to cross. A branch from this road could follow Boulder Creek and Cripple Creek to the Chandalar. [44]

There is no mystery about the decline of mining in the Koyukuk. As described by William Brown, the region soon lost its vitality after its several fleeting booms. "With the exhaustion of easy surface placers and development of a few good drift mines," Brown noted,

the country attracted and held only a few long-term miners—both serious drift miners and the kind of pick-and-pan miners for whom gold was more a means to enjoy the country than to make a fortune. The term miners included claim owners, laymen, and laborers. As owners of the few rich claims made decent fortunes, they left the country, leaving their claims in the hands of laymen, who in turn might make good money and leave, opening the way for laborers to become laymen . . . and so on. Occasional new discoveries and new recruits kept the system open and balanced. The pace was deliberate, with periods of stability, because drift mines took time to develop, and rich pockets were few and elusive. A good part of the population, perhaps half of it, did little if any mining, performing instead the services that miners could not take time for: getting and hauling supplies and wood, running roadhouses and saloons, hunting, gardening, teaching school, and filling the few government posts. [45] Increasingly, as the years passed by, gold mining became a kind of medium for a way of life. It shifted from being the end of human endeavor to becoming a means, joined with others like hunting and trapping. An occasional modest fortune taken from some deep-hole pocket on Nolan or Hammond kept gold in force as the ostensible reason for it all. But the community of people meant more to most of those people than the driblets of gold that allowed them to stay on as members of the community. That this evolution was happening already before World War I has been documented (I seem to leave my heart here when I go out). That it gained strength after the war, on through the Thirties, was documented powerfully by Robert Marshall—actually by the friends he made, whose lives and words told him and us, why they stayed." [46]

Kotzebue Sound and Kobuk River

In 1897 the Kobuk River region was only known through the exploration of George Stoney's U.S. Navy expedition in 1884. But in the wild excitement of the Klondike frenzy, some individuals determined that the distant arctic river was rich in gold.

Apparently, the rush to Kotzebue Sound and the Kobuk was triggered by fraudulent reports by Captain Barney Cogan. Cogan had taken a prospector south on his ship voyage from Kotzebue Sound in fall 1897 and advised people in San Francisco that the Kobuk was a rich stream. Though it was true that the prospector had found a little coarse gold, there had been no discovery significant enough to cause a stampede. But Cogan's exaggerations served well enough, particularly his story of the miner digging out $15,000 in two hours.

Cogan's stories were broadcast by others who wished to profit from a stampede, particularly shipping companies. In spring '98, Cogan's whaling bark, Alaska, carried 40 hopeful prospectors. Alaska was part of a great fleet of ships that embarked that season for little-known Kotzebue Sound. More than 1,000 prospectors combed the Cosmos Hills and other areas for precious metals.

One seaman aboard Alaska saw through Cogan's misrepresentations concerning the Kobuk. Eric Lindbloom, eager to find gold, jumped ship at Port Clarence on Seward Peninsula. There he met a couple of other prospectors and joined forces. Soon they made the original discovery at Anvil Creek that led to the Nome stampede.

The argonauts to Kotzebue Sound included Thomas R. Stewart of Albany, New York, who believed the wonderful newspaper reports of a great strike. His newspaper indicated that the region's natives had been staked by local government officials to prospect and were doing well. It was also reported that two Oregon prospectors landed in Portland with $15,000 taken from the Kobuk. So, clearly, it seemed the gold was there and, surprisingly, the rich country was even much more hospitable than the Klondike. For one thing it was flat and the "Gold Fields [were] only four days' boating from ship's landing; only one day's towing; absolutely no obstacles to the immediate working of mines." [47]

After a two-month voyage from San Francisco, Stewart and other passengers on Catherine Sudden, a 400-ton, three-masted barkentine that had been hastily put into passenger service, were landed at Cape Blossom. A startled missionary told the travelers that no gold had been discovered in the vicinity. Most of the stampeders resolved to take their chances despite such unpleasant tidings.

Stewart and his party, although entirely without practical experience, ascended the Kobuk River and established a winter camp. The winter proved to be grim. Several scurvy-ridden men died; others were lost on the trail or were suicides. Finally, Stewart noted signs of spring: "We stood and stared, blank-eyed across the ice of the Kobuk River. It was the one hope—the road back." [48]

Stewart was one of the fortunate Kobuk stampeders. He was among the few who wintered over a second time. When news of the rush to Nome reached him, he took passage on a ship making the 200-mile voyage south to the boom town and, eventually, staked some rich claims.

During the gold era there were many false stampedes inspired by rumors of rich strikes or deliberate frauds, but none involved so many people or caused as much grief as that to Kotzebue Sound. Joseph Grinnell's narrative of his experiences is the best of several accounts. He was excited by the prospects as his ship approached Kotzebue Sound and felt fortunate to be among "men who are flying northward like geese in the springtime." [49]

Like Stewart, Grinnell and his party found their way up the Kobuk to make a winter camp. By February, few individuals retained any hopes for success. "There is unrest everywhere," Grinnell wrote, "all admit that they have been duped . . . chagrin is the rule . . . men left families to live as best they might, in vain hope, in narrowed circumstances at home, selling or mortgaging all they possessed to outfit themselves." Grinnell knew about some 25 men lost to scurvy, drowning, or freezing, but the accurate count was actually from 50 to 100, and others of the 200-300 sick men rescued in 1899 suffered ill effects afterwards. "It is worse than war, for there is no pension," Grinnell noted.

Grinnell, himself, did not lose by the experience because of his youthful exuberance and dedication to ornithology. Gold hunting had not occupied him as seriously as observations of wildlife, specimen collection, and keeping a diary that became one of the classics of northern narrative literature as he honed the skills that were eventually to make him a world-famous zoologist. [50]

Grinnell observed that many stampeders could not recover from their original expectation that finding gold would be easy. After a little fruitless panning, most kept to the camp, not caring to do any more work, as if they were conserving energy for the day someone made a big strike: "It seems that people expected to find mines all ready to work, and, since none are visible, sit down and give it up." [51]

Some men showed energy and imagination. A keen German, soon known as the Flying Dutchman, acquired a pair of ice skates and started a mail service. For one dollar he carried letters from the various small camps on the river—Riley, Kate Sudden, Stoney, Jesse Lou, and Nugget—to Kotzebue Sound for eventually shipment Outside.

Grinnell's company prospected on the Kobuk and along the upper Koyukuk but found no gold in either area. All winter the miners debated their prospects, pondering on what course of action to take. Some suggested that the company would be held together for another year. Others considered that staying on made no sense.

Sensational news did reach the winter-bound miners in mid-April. A marvelous gold discovery had been made—not on the Kobuk or Koyukuk—but at Nome. This news decided the future for Grinnell's company. With breakup, they took their small steamer downriver to Kotzebue Sound and on to Nome. At Nome they were in time to get in on the beach sands mining that provided some easy dollars. A claim Grinnell made on a creek was jumped by some of the tough customers who infested Nome, and he was glad to end his mining career by sailing south in October.

Another diarist, M.H. Hartnett, a member of a party organized in Seattle, helped tow boats up the Kobuk River en route for the Ambler region where discoveries were reported. When news came that the Ambler "is a fake" the men coursed downriver to Kotzebue Sound with the idea of ascending the Selawik River, then decided to winter on the Kobuk instead. By mid-August, Hartnett revealed his discouragement: "Three months since leaving Seattle . . . wish we were there again for prospect of putting winter here and accomplishing nothing is not very bright." In November the party considered sending two members to investigate reports of strikes in the Koyukuk region, then decided to prospect local streams in the spring. To pass the time during the winter, literary-minded fellows of the "gulch camp" formed a reading and discussion club, starting with Henry George's Progress and Poverty. [52]

In spring Hartnett headed for the Ambler, prospected fruitlessly, then returned to Kotzebue Sound in July to act as a passenger agent for the schooner General McPherson. For each passenger ticketed, Hartnett got $2.50 and, in addition, free passage to Nome where gold excitement was intense. Other Kotzebue Sound miners who retained health and optimism after their discouraging experience also headed for Nome where, at least, one could be certain of earning wages.

George L. Webb, age 40, a Utah cattle rancher, was another Kotzebue Bay argonaut. He sailed from San Francisco aboard Falkenburg on May 17, 1898, and landed near the mouth of the Kobuk River on July 14. On August 4, Webb and his party had a camp 90 miles below Fort Cosmos. Already some disappointed men were leaving the country, and Webb bought 100 pounds of beans at a good price. Webb had seen no signs of gold, and men returning from upriver reported that things were "no good."

Webb wintered over and worked hard sinking a shaft on his claim. The season's cleanup was not rich enough to justify staying on and Webb moved up the Reed River for the 1899-1900 winter. By this time the region's population of prospectors had dwindled from an estimated 900 to 32 still hopeful souls. [53]

By late June 1900, Webb had had enough. "I am going back to my little old Utah Ranch," he wrote his mother, "it is better than any place I have seen since I left, and I can find as much gold there as I have here. We had great hopes in the Noatak River country, but I am satisfied there is no use fooling away any more time here." [54]

But Webb's adventures were not over. In late June he carried all his supplies from his Noatak River camp over the range to the headwaters of the Reed River. He rafted down the Reed to the Kobuk, then reached the Koyukuk, rafting down slowly while prospecting along the way. His voyage ended when the raft struck a rock and dumped him. He lost everything he owned but made it to the coast on foot, going from one prospectors' camp to another for food.

No transport was available at Kotzebue Sound, so Webb followed the coast to Nome, arriving in time to ship aboard the Revenue Marine's Bear for passage to Seattle. Bear carried a load of broke prospectors on that voyage.

Webb's movements reflect the trend of 1894-1900 among the miners who stayed in the country. Only a few who had managed to find small paystreaks on the Kobuk remained there. Most of those who stayed on for a second year moved into the Koyukuk country and did not prosper there either.

Notes: Chapter 11

1. Morgan Sherwood, Exploration of Alaska (New York: Yale University Press, 1965), 115; Fickett's diary, UAA.

2. Bettles, "Some Early Yukon River History," Bettles papers, UAF.

3. Cole, "Gordon Bettles," unpublished manuscript in author's files.

4. Yukon Press, January 1, 1894.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. A.G. Maddren, The Koyukuk-Chandalar Region Alaska. USGS Bulletin No. 532, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1913), 84-85; Irving M. Reed, "Report: Upper Koyukuk Region, Alaska," (Juneau: Alaska Territorial Dept. of Mines, 1937), 145-46; Cole, "Early Explorers" in Alaska Geographic Society, Koyukuk, (Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Publ. Co., 1983), 29; Claus Naske, Paving Alaska's Trails (New York: University Press of America, 1986), 252, gives the number of stampeders who wintered over in '98-99 as 200.

8. Evey Ruskin, Ed., "Letters to Lizzie: A Koyukuk Gold Seeker Writes Home" (Anchorage Daily News, May 6, 1980), "We Alaskans," 12-13.

9. John Clark Hunt, "Adventures of the Iowa Goldseekers," (Alaska Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 1977), 5.

10. Ibid., 5-7.

11. Ibid., 8.

12. The William Michaels Collection at the UAF archives includes letters from Clear Creek and letters published in an Iowa newspaper, including the exuberant letter from Frank Davis that started the Iowa enterprises.

13. Journey to the Koyukuk: The Photos of J.N. Wyman. 1898-1899 (Missoula: Pictorial Histories, 1988), passim.

14. Capt. J.D. Winchester's Experience on a Voyage from Lynn, Massachusetts to San Francisco, Cal., and to the Alaskan Gold Fields (Salem: Newcomb and Gauss, 1900), 218-19.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. William Brown, Gates of the Arctic (NPS manuscript in press), 181-82.

18. Fonda scrapbooks, UW Northwest collection.

19. Geo. M. Hill, "The Koyukuk, (Alaska - Yukon Magazine, June, 1909), 211.

20. Quoted in William Brown, "Gates of the Arctic," (NPS manuscript in press), 169.

21. L.D. Kitchener, Flag Over the North (Seattle: Superior Publishing Co., 1954), 158-61.

22. Borchsenius to Day, August 22, 1904, NA, RG60, Letters Received.

23. Nome Nuggett, May 4, 1904.

24. Ibid., October 22, 1904.

25. U.S. vs. Francis Ledger, Court record, case No. 92, RG 21, FRC.

26. McKenzie to Winchester, March 20, 1903, Wickersham Collection, AHL.

27. U.S. Congress. Committee on Territories. Conditions in Alaska, Senate Repts., 58th Congr., 2nd sess., No. 282, Pt. 2, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1904), 112.

28. Ibid., 113.

29. Ibid., 114.

30. McKenzie to George Turner, December 17, 1903, Wickersham Collection, ASL.

31. Ibid.

32. Wickersham to Rustgard, July 6, 1904, Wickersham Collection, ASL.

33. Wickersham to Rustgard, July 6, 1904, Wickersham Collection, ASL.

34. Cole, "Early Explorers," 40.

35. Ibid., 279.

36. Alaska Weekly, March 23, 1923; September 19, 1924; April 17 and June 12, 1925.

37. Hudson Stuck, Voyages on the Yukon (New York: Charles Saibner's Sons, 1917), 314.

38. Ida Williams, "Nolan on the Koyukuk," (Alaska - Yukon Magazine, August 1910), 221.

39. Elizabeth H. Goddard, "Yukon and Koyukuk Rivers," typescript manuscript, Goddard Collection, UAF, for this and following quote.

40. Robert Marshall, Arctic Village (New York: Literary Guild, 1933), 37-38.

41. Ibid., 36-37.

42. Clip from Fairbanks newspaper with Reed, "Report: Upper Koyukuk Region; Alaska, 1937," i.

43. Reed, "Report," 165.

44. Ibid.

45. Brown, "Gates of the Arctic," 287-88.

46. Ibid., 309.

47. Thomas R. Stewart, "From Rags to Riches," (Alaska Sportman, September 1944), 10.

48. Ibid., 11.

49. Joseph Grinnell, Gold Hunting in Alaska, (Elgin, Ill.: David C. Cook, 1901), 7.

50. Ibid., 52.

51. Ibid., 27.

52. Hartnett diary, August 19, 1898, Hartnett collection, UW.

53. Webb diary, 12, author's files.

54. Ibid., 48.

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