Nome was incorporated in 1901, and during the summer of 1900 it became the territory’s largest settlement and the world’s busiest seaport without a harbor. About 15,000 gold seekers arrived in June from the far reaches of the Klondike, Seattle and San Francisco. Two years later, more arrived on the steamer Inca from Adelaide, Australia.
A tent city, including a drugstore tent, grew on the gold-bearing sand beach fronting the town. The camp and surrounding country was filled with gamblers, cutthroats and murderers of the worst kind. Saloons mushroomed overnight, 42 by one count, over 60 by another, among them Earp’s Dexter, Rickard’s Northern, William Robertson’s Eldorado and one of Nome’s finest, the Second Class Saloon.
The glitter hid grim realities, for behind Nome’s false-fronted buildings, lay dozens of prostitutes with their own phone system and messengers. Women billed as “actresses” or “vaudeville entertainers” worked the saloons. There were more of these girls in Nome than any other mining camps. Cigar stores would serve as a front for ladies of the night, with names such as Halibut-Face Mary, Toodles, Deepwater Dorah and Daisy Straws.
Nome’s grand jury recommended that in order to curb sin, women should be barred from saloons and those without visible means of support, prosecuted. Raiding the red-light district, the Law threatened prostitutes with arrest unless they paid a $10 “fine” that funded the fire department and police.
Wyatt Earp was 52 when he disembarked in Nome. The aging gunslinger travelled with his common-law wife Josephine “Sadie” Sarah Marcus Earp, a gambler and former dancer and “good-time girl” still a looker at 37. Her gambling habit ran rampant in Nome until Wyatt cut her funds, and asked fellow barmen to do the same.
In 1899, Earp and his partner Charles Ellsworth Hoxie, built the Dexter, Nome’s first two-story wooden showpiece. Among the town’s largest, poshest saloons, it sported 12 “clubrooms” upstairs. Under 12-foot-high ceilings, miners went broke playing faro, monte, blackjack or billiards. In 1901, the year before the Fairbanks gold strike, Earp and Sadie returned to California $80,000 (about $2 million in today’s money) richer.
Damsels in flowerpot bonnets and ankle-length skirts over petticoat layers could be seen feeding rockers and sluices with shovels of muck. For miles along the beach double ranks of men were rocking almost shoulder to shoulder.
True whopper nuggets were to be found in the hills. The largest nugget found in Nome was by the Pioneer Mining Co. on No. 5 bench, Discovery, Anvil, on Sept. 8, 1903 weighing in at an impressive 182 ounces. By the turn of the century, the Bering Strait fields had already yielded $3.5 million, and over the next two decades yielded another $80 million.