Getting to Nome

Excerpts from "Alaska's First Free Mail Delivery in 1900"
by Fred Lockley

There may be more "wanderlust" in my blood than is good for me. Possibly the blood of some remote ancestor, some hardy Norseman or adventurous Viking, is cropping out. Certain it is, however, that travel and adventure have a fascination for me. "Nome," there was magic in that name. It was a word to conjure with. What dreams of treasure and adventure it called forth.

A telegraphic request to the Postmaster General secured for myself and a brother letter carrier a ninety days' leave of absence from our duties as letter carriers at Salem, Oregon, which was later renewed for an additional ninety days.

A score or more residents of Salem, formed a society which we called the Salem-Nome Society. The object of this Society was to help each other if need arose, and need did arise on various occasions.

On the 26th of May, 1900, our vessel, The Nome City, cast loose from the wharf at Portland, steamed down the picturesque Columbia, and next morning, crossing the bar at Astoria, we headed northward for Cape Nome on the shore of Bering Sea.

During our trip to the Far North, our vessel was caught in the ice and we spent day after day trying to find leads that would guide us to open water. We saw numerous walrus and seal; also a polar bear with its cub on the ice. On our way North, we rescued the crews of two vessels-The Hunter and The Eclipse, one of them having been wrecked on Cape Romanoff. Finally, we made our way to where the Roanoke, "The Treasure Ship," was trapped in the ice. As it was a larger vessel than The Nome City, it broke its way through the floating ice and we followed in its wake.

Twenty-three days after leaving Portland, we were eagerly scanning what looked like heavy blocks of ice on the shore. In a few hours we were so near that with the naked eye we could distinguish an unbroken line of white upon the beach near the water's edge. Speculation was rife. Some thought it surf; others were quite positive it was ice piled up along the shore. An examination with glasses disclosed the fact that it was nothing more or less than a line of tents, several deep, extending up and down the beach for many miles. Toward the center of the camp some frame buildings were to be seen, but in all other directions it was a city of tents. There were thousands of them, and they made a scene not often witnessed, and never to be forgotten. A flurry of snow brought to us the realization that this was the land of "cold" as well as the land of "gold."

We cast anchor about a mile off shore in the midst of a large fleet. Vessels of every description were here, from the humble schooner to the huge eighteen-knot steamer. Next day lighters put out to the ship and most of the passengers were taken ashore. Our vessel, soon after its arrival, became very shorthanded, most of the crew quitting work to try their fortunes on the beach. In consequence, our baggage and freight was much delayed in getting ashore. Men, whose tents and other camp equipage was in the hold, had to sleep on the damp sand of the beach, in many cases for a week or ten days before their freight was landed, which resulted in their contracting severe colds.

To one who has never witnessed a mining stampede it is hard to convey a correct impression of the conditions. We stepped from the row-boat to the lighter, from which a plank led to the shore. Along the water front for a mile the freight was piled from ten to twenty feet high, the pile commencing within twenty feet of the water's edge and extending forty or fifty yards back towards the tundra. It reminded one of some gigantic anthill, and how the human ants were swarming over the pile. Lighters were being unloaded by long lines of men wearing hip rubber boots, who waded out to the loaded barges, staggering back with heavy loads. Others were sorting over the vast accumulation of freight of every description in search of their own belongings. The narrow strip of sand between the sea and the freight was thronged with men with stretchers or packstraps, carrying freight and baggage. Dog teams, consisting of eight or ten Huskie or Malemute dogs hitched tandem, were straining at their collars to drag their carts through the soft and yielding sand. Men with push carts were good naturedly contending for the right of way; and here and there a team of horses and wagon were coining money for the owner by carrying trunks at $2 each, or hauling freight at $10 an hour. Added to the confusion were the hoarse commands of the lighter bosses to their men, and the "Gangway there," or "Mush on" of the drivers of dog teams.

Going from the turmoil of the beach up one block to Nome's principal street you found you had gotten into confusion worse confounded-a narrow street, ten or twelve paces from store front to store front, so crowded with humanity that one could only make his way along with considerable difficulty. It was worth a long journey to see the eager thousands who are feverishly hurrying by: Here a French count, Count Jacques de Garrets, looking as though he had just stepped out of a fashion plate, is elbowing his way past a couple of Eskimos clad in reindeer parkees and sealskin mucklucks; here an old salt with his rolling gait, there a "Sour Dough" just in from the hills. Miners from all over the world are here. Two dark-eyed, swarthy-visaged Greeks pass, talking in their native tongue. The delightful brogue of the "Emerald Isle" mingles with the gutteral German. Verily it is a Tower of Babel. But Greek or Irish, "Cheechacer" or "Sour Dough," broadcloth or buckskin, all are crowding through the swinging doors of the innumerable saloons. The quality of much of the Nome liquor was enough to make an ardent prohibitionist of a confirmed drunkard.

We crossed Snake River, spread our blankets on the sand in the lea of the wreck of the Joe Mathews, and got a few hours' sleep. The next day we went down the beach a few miles. We met some fellow-townsmen who told us they were only making from two dollars to three and a half to the man a day. This discouraging report was confirmed by dozens of others. "This beach is a 'has been,'" said one, "undoubtedly it was rich at first, but it has been worked and reworked several times since then, and now we are only rocking the tailings." Within three days we discovered that we would not be able to make wages on the beach. A great many others had discovered the same fact, and were applying for work unloading the lighters at a dollar an hour. Men were being refused for longshore work by the hundred, so we concluded our show there was rather slim.