Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/April 1900/The Gold Sands of Cape Nome
|THE GOLD SANDS OF CAPE NOME.|
LATE PRESIDENT OF THE PHILADELPHIA GEOGRAPHICAL SOCIETY.
ONE of the most interesting contributions to the history of gold and gold mining has undoubtedly been discovered in the region of Cape Nome, Alaska, during the past summer. Vague reports have from time to time, for a period of a year or more, been sent out from the bleak and inhospitable shores of Bering Sea of the discovery there of rich deposits of placer gold, and of almost fabulous wealth acquired by a few fortunate prospectors—a new Klondike on American soil—but these gained little credence beyond the portals of transportation companies and the organizers of "boom" enterprises. A few of the more credulous and those unmindful of adventure and hardship took practical action on the receipt of the reports, and prepared to buffet the still ice-bound waters of the Pacific to gain early access to the new land of promise. In a brief period the fame of Golovnin Bay had been spread broadcast, only to be again dimmed by the later announcements that the earlier reports of finds were only "fakes." Making and unmaking
are a part of all new mining centers, and in an incredibly short time all manner of conclusions are arrived at regarding the possibilities of a location.
New reports of finds made along the coast of Bering Sea, about fifty miles west of Golovnin Bay, called renewed attention to the region, and those who in the early summer of the past year (1899) timidly ventured their fortunes to share in a possible discovery, found, on their arrival at the tundra-bound shores about Cape Nome, that miles of territory had already been located as claim sites, that sluice-boxes were in full operation, and that sackfuls of gold dust and nuggets had been carefully laid to one side, representing "outputs" of tens of thousands of dollars. At this time many of the journals of civilization in the East, repeating the warnings that they persistently threw out following the discovery of gold in the Klondike, jealously guarded the secrets of the earth by doubting, or even denying, the claims to discovery, but, withal, wisely counseling against that haphazard and purseless rush which is one of the invariable accompaniments of gold announcements. A new mining district had suddenly sprung into existence, and before two months had passed—i. e., by the early days of September—a full front of tents and frame houses took possession of what continues to remain a dreary and desolate expanse of ocean beach—sufficiently pleasant in the quiet, balmy days of summer and autumn, but exposed to the hurricane blasts of the arctic winter—and gave shelter to from three to four thousand adventurers, where formerly a few Indians and Eskimos from the still farther northwest and King's Island constituted a straggling and accidental population. This, in brief, is the initial history of the Nome or Anvil City mining region, which will almost call to it in the coming spring fifteen to twenty thousand additional inhabitants.
Far more interesting to the one who has not been properly rewarded in his search for placer claims than the placer deposits themselves are the gold-bearing beach sands, whose productivity will mainly be responsible for the influx of population to the new region. From them, by crude and simple methods, has been taken, in barely more than two months, gold to the value of more than a million dollars, and what the possibilities for the future may be
no one is wise enough to tell. So clearly exaggerated did the accounts of the free-sand rocking appear, even those coming from reputable miners who were personally known to me, that I could hardly bring myself to take-them at their full value, but, being accidentally drifted in the course of a summer's wanderings to St. Michael, above the mouth of the Yukon River, I had easy opportunity to verify for myself the accuracy of the statements that had been sent out, and to cast a geological glance at the situation. My examination of the region was confined to a few of the later days of September and to early October.
The geographical position of the Nome region is the southern face of the peninsular projection of Alaska which separates Kotzebue Sound on the north from Bering Sea on the south, and terminates westward in Cape Prince of Wales the extent of the North American continent. In a direct line of navigation, it lies about twenty-five hundred miles northwest of Seattle and one hundred and seventy miles southeast of Siberia. The nearest settlement of consequence to it prior to 1899 was St. Michael, a hundred miles to the southeast, the starting point of the steamers for the Yukon River; but during the year various aggregations of mining population had built themselves up in closer range, and reduced the isolation from the civilized world by some sixty miles. The Nome district as settled centers about the lower course of the Snake River, an exceedingly tortuous stream in its tundra course, which emerges from a badly degraded line of limestone, slaty, and schistose mountain spurs generally not over seven hundred to twelve hundred feet elevation, but backed by loftier granitic heights, and discharges into the sea at a position thirteen miles west of Cape Nome proper. Three miles east of this mouth is the discharge of Nome River. Both streams have a tidal course of several miles. Nome, or, as it was first called, Anvil City—named from a giant anvil-like protrusion of slate rock near to the summit of the first line of hills—occupies in greater part the tundra and ocean beach of the eastern or left bank of Snake River, but many habitations, mainly of a temporary character, have been placed on the bar beach which has been thrown up by the sea against the mouth of the stream, and deflected its course for some distance parallel with the ocean front. A number of river steamers (one even of considerable size) and dredges have found a suitable anchorage or "harbor" in the barrier-bound waters, and much driftwood passes into them at times of storms and higher waters, when the greatly constricted and shallow mouth is made passable. The entire region is treeless, and the nearest approach to woodland is in the timber tract of Golovnin Bay and its tributaries, about forty miles to the northeast. A fairly dense growth of scrub willow, three to five feet in height, with elms and alders, forms a fringe or delimiting line to parts of the courses of the streams in the tundra, which greatly undulates in the direction of the foothills and incloses tarnlike bodies of fresh and slightly brackish waters. It is covered merely with a low growth of flowering herbaceous plants, grass, and moss, with a somewhat scantier admixture of the dwarf birch, arctic willow, and crowberry. The surface is pre-eminently swampy during the warmer periods of the year, and walking over it means either wading through the water or risking continuous jumps to and from the individual clumps of matted grass and moss—the so-called "nigger-heads." The greater part of the tundra seems to rest on gravel and sand—doubtless of both marine and fluviatile origin—and ordinarily the frozen stratum is already reached at a
depth of two or three feet, sometimes less. In early October of the past year it was still too "open" to permit of easy walking over it, but in quite early hours of the morning the surface afforded fair lodgment to moderate weights. Fragmentary parts of the skeleton of the mammoth have been found here and there, even loose on the top grass, but where found in such situations it is by no means certain that they had not been redeposited by high tidal wash. A large fragment of thigh bone, with shoulder blade, which I found about an eighth of a mile inland and perhaps fifteen feet above the water, was associated with one of the mandibular bones of the whale. I could obtain no information as to their having been possibly carried to their present position by man, but it may have been the case. A large skull, which I owe to the kindness of Mr. Inglestadt and to Mr. Louis Sloss, Jr., manager of the Alaska Commercial Company, was obtained, as nearly as I could determine through inquiry on the spot, from about the same locality. Where it abuts upon the sea the tundra stands from eight to twenty feet above it, at places descending to even lower levels. The sea face is almost everywhere an abrupt one, showing undercutting by high water, and it is continued by a broad, rapidly sloping sand and shingle beach, which packs firmly, and almost immediately beneath the surface exhibits a distinctly stratified construction—the alternate layers of fine, flat gravel, coarse, clayey sand, and finer "ruby" (fragmented garnet) sand sloping like the surface, although generally with a milder pitch, to the sea.
The open sea front, with inland tundra, is continued for a distance of about fourteen miles westward of Nome, where it is interrupted by the mountains, in a west-southwest course, reaching the sea; flat-topped Sledge Island, so much recalling in aspect some of the islands lying off Whale Sound, in the northwest of Greenland, is their oceanic continuation for some distance, with, sharp breaks on both the oceanic and inner sides. It is probable that much of the debris that has resulted from the disruption of the mountain masses has been distributed littorally by the sea, with an eastward wash, to form the bars and shallows which for some distance stretch along the coast; nor is it impossible that some of the giant bowlders of limestone, marble, granite, and syenite which are found on the margin of the beach about four or five miles west of Nome, some of them measuring eight and twelve feet or more in diameter, and all of them smoothly rounded and evenly polished, represent a part of this destruction. At the same time, there is good reason to suspect that they may have been deposited by ice action, either as erratics of floe ice coming from the northwest, or of glacial distribution from the region of the mountains. Whatever may have been the final stage in the history of the amphitheater of Nome (the region included between Cape Nome and Sledge Island), which my limited observation did not permit me to determine to full satisfaction, it is almost certain, even in the absence of the ordinary glacial testimony, that the region is one of past glaciation, and that much of the gravel and bowlder material of the ocean front is of morainic origin, so modified and altered in position by readjustments of the land and water as to have lost its proper physiographic contours. The aspect of the hills and valleys is almost precisely that of some of the regions of Greenland which have only quite recently been vacated by the glaciers, while the composition of the shingle—the inclusion over so long a front of bowlders from beyond the first line of mountain heights, many of them most markedly grooved and polished—is also highly suggestive of glacial deposition. The gold sands, or sands that are worked for gold, are merely the ordinary materials of the beach, loose and incoherent like most seashore sands, and particularly defining horizons three to six feet below the surface. In regular stratified layers, with fine and moderately coarse gravel, they embrace four or five distinct layers of fragmented garnets (the components of the so-called "ruby sand"), and it is from these, and at this time almost exclusively from the
bottom layer of three to five inches thickness, which is popularly described as lying on "bed rock"—in most places merely a hard-pan of arenaceous clay or argillaceous sand, with no true rock to define it—that most of the gold is obtained. Each ruby band nearer to the top seems to contain less and less gold, and there is no question that the different layers are merely reformations by the sea from those of earlier deposition, just as surface shingle deposits generally are in part reconstructions of underlying beds. That the ocean is to-day depositing the ruby sand is unmistakably shown by the great patches of this sand lying on the surface and its incoming in the path of nearly every storm. Even these surface sands are mildly gold-bearing, showing that the gold, despite its high specific gravity, may be buoyed up and wafted in by such a light medium as water when it has been reduced to sufficiently minute particles or scalelike forms. It is little wonder that a general belief has gained currency with the more enthusiastic locators that the sand gold is a deposition or precipitate from the sea.
The gold itself occurs in an exceedingly fine state of subdivision, too fine in most cases to be caught without mercury or the best arrangement of "blanketings." Much of it is really in the condition of colors dissected nearly to their finest particles, and it is hardly surprising that it should have so long escaped detection. Occasionally pieces to the value of three to six cents are obtained in the pans, and I was witness to the finding of a scale with the value of perhaps nearly twenty cents. The usual magnetitic particles are associated with the gold, and their origin can clearly be traced to the magnetite which is so abundantly found in some of the schists (micaceous, chloritic, and talcose schists), which, judged by the fragments and bowlders that everywhere lie in the path of the streams of the tundra, must be closely similar to the series of schists of the Klondike region. The particles of fragmented garnet, which by their astonishing abundance give so distinctive a coloring to the layers which they compose or constitute, are of about the ordinary fineness of seashore sand, perhaps a trifle coarser, but occasionally much coarser particles or masses of particles are found; and in the placer deposits of Anvil Creek, as in the bunch of claims around "Discovery"—about five miles due north of Nome—fragments of the size of lentils are not uncommon. I have seen full garnets obtained from the wash here which were of the size of small peas. Nodules of manganese (manganite, pyrolusite) are at intervals found with them, and some stream-tin (cassiterite), as in the Klondike region, also appears to be present. Apart from the evidence that is brought down by the magnetite and garnet, it would naturally be assumed that the gold had its primal source in the mountains back of the coast. These, as has already been stated, have undergone exhaustive degradation, and the materials resulting from their destruction, in whatever way brought about, have been thrown into the sea, and there adjusted and readjusted—or, so far as the gold particles are concerned, one might say "concentrated." Latterly, and perhaps this is also true to-day, the land has undergone elevation, and exposed much that until recently properly belonged to the sea. The tundra is a part of this ocean floor, and it too doubtless contains much gold, perhaps even very much.
The length of the sea strip that was worked during the past summer, and so far in autumn as the clemency of the weather permitted, covered a nearly continuous thirty or thirty-five miles, extending beyond Synrock on the west and, with interruptions, to Nome River on the east. The full extent of the auriferous sands remains unknown, however, and report claims for them reappearances throughout the entire coast as far as Cape Prince of Wales. The season's work gave easy and lucrative employment to perhaps fifteen hundred, mostly needy, prospectors, who realized on an average certainly not less than fifteen dollars per day, and many as much as sixty, seventy, and eighty dollars. It is claimed, and I have little reason to doubt the truthfulness of the statement, that from a single rocker, although operated by two men, one hundred and fifty dollars had been taken out in the course of nine hours' work. It is also asserted that two men realized a fortune of thirteen
thousand dollars as the result of their combined season's work, and two others are said to have rocked out forty-five hundred dollars in the period of a month. Women have, to an extent, shared with men the pleasures of "rocking gold from the sea," and their application in the toils of the sea plow, with booted forms, rolled up sleeves, and sunbonnets, was certainly an interesting variation on the borders of the Arctic Circle from the scenes one has grown accustomed to at Atlantic City or Newport.
The placer deposits of the Nome district are in the form of shallow, largely or mostly unfrozen gravels, which occupy varying heights, partly in disrupted or overhanging benches, of the valleys and gulches which trench the slate and limestone mountains. Perhaps the most favored ones are those of Anvil and Glacier Creeks (with Snow Gulch as an affluent of the latter), tributaries of Snake River, and Dexter Creek, a tributary of Nome River. My time and the conditions of weather permitted only of a visit to Anvil Creek, and an examination mainly of the properties about "Discovery." The diggings here are all shallow, from four to seven feet, when bed-rock, a steeply pitching and highly fissile slate, is reached. As before remarked, the gravels are not frozen, and thereby present a marked contrast to the condition that prevails in the Klondike region, and one, it is hardly necessary to state, which is eminently to the favor of economy in mining. A layer of ice, about eight inches in thickness, covers one side of the layers in claim "No. 1 below," but beneath this the matrix is
again open. In all these claims the pay-streak was at first reported to be very broad, but it seems that the later work has narrowed down the probabilities of extension very measurably—at any rate, in the condition of a rich producer. Of the wealth contained in these claims there is no question, but it would probably be straining the truth to say that it is the equal of that of the best or even the better claims of the Klondike region. A two days' clean-up from "No. 1 below" is reported to have yielded thirteen thousand dollars, while the entire product of that claim from July 26th, when the first wash was made, to September 21st, was placed at one hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars. Claim "No. 1 above" appears to be equally good, and "Discovery" falls perhaps not very far below either. A nugget of the value of three hundred and twelve dollars—a magnificent specimen, measuring upward of four inches in length—was obtained from the tailings of "No. 1 below"; a larger one, of the value of four hundred and thirty-four dollars, is to the credit of "No. 1 above." It is interesting to note that these rich claims are located at the very issuance of Anvil Creek from the mountains—i.e., at the contact with the upper rise of the tundra—and other good properties are found still lower down, a condition which makes it certain that the inner reaches of the tundra, whatever the whole tundra may be, must yield largely in gold.
The city of Nome itself might properly be termed a model of production. Before the end of June, 1899, there was practically nothing on its present site; in early July it was still a place of tents, but by the middle of September it had blossomed out into a constructed town of three to four thousand inhabitants, more than one half of whom were properly housed in well-built cabins, the lumber for which was in part brought from a distance of two thousand miles, and none of it from less than one hundred miles. Numerous stores and saloons had arranged themselves on both sides of a well-defined street (which was here and there centrally interrupted by building transgressions), the familiar signs of dancing and boxing bouts were displayed in front of more than comfortably filled faro and roulette establishments, and in a general way the site wore the aspect of riding a boom swell. And indeed there was plenty of activity, for the final weeks of fine weather warned of the impending wintry snows and blasts, and much had to be done individually to shield one from these and other discomforts. There was at that time a threatening shortage in building material, and fears were expressed for those who seemingly would be obliged to spend the winter months—a dreary expanse of nearly one half the year, with hurricane blasts of icy wind blowing with a velocity of fifty to eighty miles an hour, and under the not very comfortable temperature of –40° to –60° F.—in the frail shelter of tents. How many, if any, remained in this condition can not now be known. Much driftwood and some coal had been secured by many of the more fortunate inhabitants, and it is possible that some provision has been made by which everybody of the two or three thousand wintering inhabitants will receive a proper measure of heating substance, without which the utmost discomfort must prevail. The last coal before my departure sold for seventy-five dollars per ton, but I suspect that later importations must have realized the better part of double this amount. In early October flour could still be purchased for seven to eight dollars per sack, and meat for a dollar a pound, but these prices were run up very materially in the period of the next two weeks. Good meals were only a dollar, and fractions of meals could be had for twenty-five and fifty cents. Magnificent oranges were only a quarter apiece, and watermelons four and five dollars. All these prices were, at the least, doubled before the first week in November, when the locality was finally cut off from contact with the rest of the civilized world. The principal commercial houses doing trade in Alaska—as the Alaska Commercial Company, the North American Trading and Transportation Company, the Alaska Exploration Company, all of which, besides others, have their agencies in Dawson and at various stations on the Yukon River—have well-constructed, iron-sheathed warehouses, and carry large lines of goods. The energy which in so short a period has planted these interests here, and in so substantial a manner, is certainly astonishing. Who a year ago could have expected that the needs of a resident population situated close under the Arctic Circle, and along the inhospitable shores of Bering Sea, would have demanded depots of sale of the size of those that one finds in cities of importance in the civilized South?
Nome prints to-day three newspapers, the first issue of the first journal, the Nome News, appearing about the 10th of October. Its selling price was twenty-five cents. Up to the time of my leaving, there were no serious disturbances of any kind, but indications of trouble, resulting from the disputed rights of possession, whether in the form of squatter sovereignty or of purchase, were ominously in the air, and it was feared that should serious trouble of any kind arise, neither the military nor civil authorities would be in a position to properly cope with it. It was freely admitted that the community was not under the law that so strongly forces order in Dawson and the Klondike region. Much more to be feared than disturbance, for at least the first season, is the possibility of conflagration; closely packed as are the tents and shacks, with no available water supply for combating flames, a headway of fire can not but be a serious menace to the entire location, and one which is in no way lessened through the general indraught of hurricane winds. The experiences of Dawson should have furnished a lesson, but they have seemingly not done so, nor has apparently the average inhabitant profited in any effort to ward off the malignant influences arising from hard living, unnecessary exposure to the inclemencies of the weather, and a non-hygienic diet. Hence, typhoid or typho-malarial disease, even if not in a very pronounced form, has already sown its seeds of destruction, and warns of the dangers which here, as in Dawson, man brings to himself in his customary contempt for the working of Nature's laws.