Founded during the last great American gold rush in 1898-1900, this town has persevered through a diphtheria epidemic, fires, and numerous floods and severe storms. It served as the last stop on the route ferrying American lend-lease aircraft to Russia during World War II. It is also the finish line of the famed Iditarod Dogsled Race.
Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 240
Nome, AK 99762
ph.: (907) 443-5535
fax: (907) 443-2855
Web site: www.alaska.net/~nome
Nome began as a gold rush camp in 1898. The yellow metal discovered by three Swedes (Jafet Lindeberg, Erik Lindblom, and John Brynteson) on the Anvil Creek caused thousands of prospectors to flock to the beach on the Bering Sea. By 1899, the tundra behind the beach was the site of a tent and log cabin city of twenty thousand prospectors, gamblers, claim jumpers, saloon keepers, and prostitutes, making Nome Alaska’s largest city. By the time the rush quieted in 1901, the numerous mining camps had consolidated into a city and more permanent structures were constructed. Most of these structures were destroyed by a fire in 1934. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, one of the few buildings to survive the fire, was renovated in the mid-1990’s in anticipation of the city’s centennial and has since been used as a community center.
The founding of Nome began on Anvil Creek when the “Three Lucky Swedes” discovered gold in 1898. News spread to the Klondike, an area in northwest Canada also experiencing a gold rush, and by the winter of 1899, Anvil City’s population reached ten thousand. In 1899, gold was discovered in the beach sands and the last gold rush in American history began as the outside world learned the news. Until shipments of finished lumber arrived during the summer of 1899, the thirty miles from Cape Nome to Cape Rodney was a tent city.
The naming of Nome is an interesting aspect of the city’s history. Terrence Cole writes that in February, 1899, a group of forty-two men who had staked property and mining claims on the Snake River near Nome City officially agreed to change the name of the new mining camp to Anvil City. They did not want the new city to be confused with the Nome River, about four miles southeast of the city, and with Cape Nome, a point of land about twelve miles from the city. The town was known as Anvil City for most of 1899, but the United States Post Office officially called the community “Nome” because Anvil City could be confused with the village of Anvik on the lower Yukon. After a vote, city leaders reluctantly agreed to change the name of Anvil City to Nome.
Controversy surrounds the name of the city. One theory proposes that the name was the result of a spelling error. In the 1850’s, an officer on a British ship off the coast of Alaska noted on a map that a nearby point was not identified. He wrote “? Name” next to the point. When the map was copied, another draftsman thought that the “?” was a “C” and that the “a” in “Name” was an “o.” According to Terrence Cole, a mapmaker in the British Admiralty designated the point “Cape Nome.” The second theory argues that Nome is derived from the Native American phrase Ko-no-me, meaning “I don’t know,” the natives’ reply when asked the name of the place.
The Nome gold rush attracted a large number of fortune seekers of questionable character to the tent city along the Bering Sea. Andrea Helms and Mary Mangusso argue that this gold rush was very similar to other rushes in the American West. Nome was a city in disorder with little governmental authority. While there was fraud, corruption, and some violence, the residents of Nome relied on legal process rather than action by local vigilantes. Nome residents regularly appealed to distant authorities to assist in settling disputes, particularly those involving the validity of land claims.
The “lucky Swedes” who initially found the gold sparking the rush were assumed to be aliens. Since many of the richest claims were held by foreigners, prospectors arriving later in 1899 questioned the legal rights of aliens to hold claims. Those who owned claims were forced to defend their property, often at gunpoint. By July, 1899, claim jumping had become violent enough that the United States Army sent Lieutenant Oliver J. Spaulding, Jr., to maintain the peace in Nome.
Lieutenant Spaulding was successful in keeping peace largely due to the discovery of gold on the Nome beaches. This new discovery allowed more prospectors to strike it rich without having to challenge the claims of those further inland. This discovery turned Nome into an even-larger boomtown. In 1900, the city’s population grew from three thousand to twenty thousand. With the rapid increase in population, leading citizens called on the federal government to provide federal justice to the district. Federal judge Arthur H. Noyes of North Dakota was appointed to administer the newly formed judicial district created to settle the hundreds of claim disputes that plagued Nome. His first action was to put all contested claims into receivership. The judge, part of a “gold conspiracy,” proceeded to exploit the claims, keeping miners from their claims, and benefiting Noyes’s patrons in North Dakota and Washington, D.C. Two appeals to the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco and two U.S. marshals were required to jail Judge Noyes and his henchmen. Journalist Rex Beach dramatically recounts the conspiracy in his novel The Spoilers (1906).
By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, the gold rush in Nome had largely ended. Large mining companies replaced the independent prospectors. The large companies used dredging equipment to get at most of the gold. While Nome’s founding was marked by drama, the current condition of the city has been shaped by a number of events. A diphtheria epidemic in 1925 required a serum run from Nenana, Alaska, that has been immortalized in the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Much of the city’s decline can be attributed to the weather. In October, 1913, one of the most destructive storms in the history of Nome pounded the city with wind and waves. Many buildings on Front Street were torn from their foundations while other structures were pummeled by the debris. Terrence Cole writes that the east end of the city and the business district were destroyed. Many of the survivors of the storm left Nome never to return. Other severe storms struck the city in 1945 and 1974. After the 1945 storm, Nome residents debated moving the city away from the coast. Instead of moving, city leaders decided to lobby the federal government to build a sea wall to protect the business district. The wall was completed in 1951 at a cost of approximately one million dollars. During the storm of 1974, the sea wall kept the city from being washed away. Despite damage estimated at thirty million dollars, residents of Nome rebuilt.
Fire also changed the face of Nome. The fire of 1934 destroyed most of the structures built during the Gold Rush. The cause of the disaster remains unclear. One legend holds that the fire started when a whiskey still exploded in the Golden Gate Hotel, a wooden structure in the central business district. The fire could not be contained to the hotel because twenty to thirty mile an hour winds carried embers to adjoining wooden structures. When the fire was brought under control after about four hours, almost all the gold rush buildings in downtown Nome were destroyed. Total damage was estimated at two to three million dollars, but no one was killed. Many of the persons left homeless by the fire decided to stay in Nome.
During World War II, Nome served as a base for the lend-lease aircraft ferried to the Soviet Union. American pilots flew the aircraft from Montana through Canada, stopping at newly constructed bases there and in Fairbanks, Alaska. Since the Soviet government would not allow American airmen to enter Siberia, Soviet pilots picked up the planes in Fairbanks, stopping in Nome for refueling before heading to Siberia. Nome’s population increased during the war as more military personnel were stationed in the region to protect Alaska from potential Japanese attacks.
After the war, Nome returned to a state of relative peace. The city, being on the “frontlines” of the Cold War, was affected by a number of “red scares.” The military maintained a presence in the region with several early-warning radar stations. Since the war, Nome rebuilt from the 1974 storm and worked to modernize a city located only 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle. At its centennial celebration, Nome’s population was four thousand with an economy relying mainly on gold mining and tourism.
Much of Nome’s gold rush architecture was destroyed in the fire of 1934 or one of several violent storms. The Carrie McLain Memorial Museum on Front Street includes numerous photographs from the gold rush period in its collections. The museum also provides a self-guided walking tour of Nome; sites include famous homes, saloons, and the red-light district. One of the homes, a slightly run-down building on C Street north of Seppala Drive, is said to be the boyhood home of Jimmy Doolittle, the World War II general whose raid on Tokyo in April, 1942, made him a national hero. The city owns the building.
St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the first Catholic church in Nome, is the city’s oldest building. It was established in 1901. Dogsledders used St. Joseph’s lighted cross as an important navigational aid, known to the Eskimos as “white man’s star.” In 1946, the church was replaced by a newer version and the old church became a warehouse for a mining company. In the mid-1990’s, the city, after a long debate, decided to renovate the old church. Townspeople worked to restore the building from the foundation to the rotting steeple. The church has become a community center and is used for business meetings, seminars, and weddings. It also has been nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The church’s steeple remains the tallest point around.
While Nome is not connected to other Alaskan cities by a highway system, there are roads out of the city. The Dexter Roadhouse is about ten miles outside of town on the Kougarok Road. Wyatt Earp is said to have been an owner of the roadhouse at one time. Other roads take visitors to neighboring villages, native fishing camps, and gold mining areas. From Nome, visitors also may board flights to Siberia.
The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race ends in Nome every March. The competition starts in Anchorage on the first Saturday in March. The first musher arrives in Nome approximately nine to eleven days later. A number of activities keep Nome residents and visitors busy while awaiting the mushers. These activities include reindeer potluck dinners, arts and crafts shows, the Iditarod Basketball Tournament, and a winter golf tournament. Couples have been married under the arch that serves as the race’s finish line.
Beach, Rex. The Spoilers. Reprint. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Literature House, 1969. Fictionalized account of the Nome gold conspiracy. Bronson, William. “Nome.” The American West 6, no. 4 (July, 1969): 20-31. Brief history of Nome, focusing largely on the development of the city, with illustrations. Cole, Terrence, ed. “Nome: City of the Golden Beaches.” Alaska Geographic 11, no. 1 (1984). Illustrated history of Nome with particular emphasis on the gold rush. Helms, Andrea R. C., and Mary Childers Mangusso. “The Nome Gold Conspiracy.” Pacific Northwest Quarterly 73, no. 1 (January, 1982): 10-19. Scholarly discussion of the Nome gold conspiracy. “Nome Gold Rush Centennial.” www.nome100 .com. Provides information on the centennial of the Nome gold rush as well as the city’s history. “Nome Homepage.” www.alaska.net/~nome. The official Web site of the Nome Convention and Visitors Bureau.