You could play faro with Wyatt Earp

Where the river is windin’
Big nuggets they’re findin’.
North to Alaska,
They’re goin’ North, the rush is on.
—Johnny Horton, “North to Alaska”

IT STILL IS. In the spring of 2003, a Nome miner found a nugget the size of a man’s clenched fist worth $75,000.

Nome sits on the southern coast of the Seward Peninsula, between 2,000 and 4,500 (amounts vary according to source), about sixty percent of whom are Alaska Native. A granite seawall is the only thing between it and Norton Sound, which has made energetic attempts at washing Nome into the Bering Sea in the past and will do so again, given half the chance. The winds coming off the sound are what help keep Nome tree free, but don’t imagine the landscape to be barren. Think instead rolling green hills topped with rock formations reminiscent of Monument Valley, creeks and streams and rivers winding between, with always the bright blue Bering Sea on your peripheral vision.

You can tell a camp’s development by
the price of the drinks…five cent beer
means the stampede has started for the next diggings.
–The Nome Chronicle, August 11, 1900

Everybody knows about the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897-8, from George Carmack discovering the gold to the first ton of gold arriving on the steamer Portland at the Seattle docks to the tens of thousands of stampeders heading north to fight their way over the Chilkoot Pass, hauling a thousand pounds of goods with them, building boats at Lakes Lindeman and Bennett to take them to the rest of the way to Dawson City and the rivers of the Klondike that they dreamed were running with gold.

By the time most of the stampeders got to Dawson most of the gold claims were staked, and by the summer of 1899 many of them had hightailed it down the Yukon River to Nome, where you could literally scoop gold up off the beach. You could also play faro with Wyatt Earp, legally settle a quarrel with a public fight, belly up to the bar at the Behring Sea saloon for a “Snake’s Kiss,” or be a victim of one of eighty murders the first summer alone.

According to E.C. Trelawney-Ansell, Nome during the Gold Rush was “filled with gamblers, cut-throats and murderers of the worst kind.” Then the law arrived in the form of Judge Arthur H. Noyes, and things got even worse, with the miners afraid to work their claims for fear that Judge Noyes and his henchmen would hear of it and jump them.

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