Travelling north from Fairbanks, Alaska, the Dalton Highway crosses the Yukon River before climbing into the Brooks Range yo one of the more remote gold rush areas. For many years the Koyukuk River provided the only access into the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle.
Gordon Bettles, a trader and prospector, managed to get supplies 365 miles up the shallow reaches of the Koyukuk by gas-powered boat, scow, and pack horses, and the town of Bettles grew. The Tramway, Florence and Hughes bars in the Koyukuk River had enough gold to attract the first prospectors. Men working in the mountains would come downriver, and if they didn’t have enough gold to pay for an outfit, they would pan Tramway bar to get gold for groceries at Bettles, 45 miles farther down.
Word began to spread — there’s gold on the Koyukuk! With rumors running wild, it didn’t take long for them to home in on the Koyukuk. Newcomers sailed north to St. Michael, chugged up the Yukon River by steamboat, then journeyed by boat or on foot up the Koyukuk River. Miners from Dawson came by dog team, traveling on the frozen Chandalar River. More than a thousand hopeful fortune-seekers rushed into the area, setting up a series of temporary towns — clusters of shacks with names like Peavy, Arctic City and Bettles.
In 1898, a sudden freeze-up, not uncommon in Koyukuk country, provided a sub-zero wake-up call for most of the adventurers. Almost overnight, 68 steamers carrying 900 passengers were frozen in place for the winter’s duration. About half of the disillusioned miners grabbed whatever rations they could carry and escaped to the Yukon River via dogsled. The 350 who stayed were broke, but survived with rations left behind by others. When the ice melted at breakup, most of the prospectors fled, turning their settlements into ghost towns. Bitterly disappointed, many of these miners left the country never having begun their search for gold.
Hastily built in 1898, Arctic City appeared practically overnight. A camp of only 28 men and their tents in August 1898, Arctic City boasted 20 cabins, a saloon, a dancehall and a sawmill by March 1899. They even had electric lights to brighten the gloom of the long, dark winter. As miners abandoned the area in the spring, Arctic City died as quickly as it was born, having lived not more than a year.
Shallow water prevented steamboats from penetrating deep into gold rush territory. Poling boats was one or the few alternatives for hauling supplies to points beyond steamboat navigation. Despite the harsh conditions, miners made the best of the situation. Some lived in small camps on the creeks looking for gold, while others stayed in more substantial towns such as Bettles, Bergman or Arctic City, waiting for spring to come. Saloons sprang up, and the town of Bergman even offered a string band and boxing matches for entertainment. Without a single strike that winter to lift their spirits, even those prospectors who made it to the gold fields found their dreams of gold fading like the disappearing sun. As winter dragged on and morale plummeted, plans to escape the treacherous conditions became more urgent. In spring, many of these miners joined the exodus.
The Koyukuk Gold Rush may not have fulfilled the many dreams of gold, but one thing it did do was change lives. Before European contact in the late 1800’s, both Indians and Eskimos lived in small bands in the Brooks Range and along the Koyukuk River, traveling seasonally to where food was available. When dozens of towns and mining camps sprang up along the Koyukuk in 1898, a new way of life was introduced and change was inevitable. As prospectors and businessmen flooded the region in search of riches. Natives also saw opportunities — a chance to profit from trade and employment. Natives migrated toward the new settlements and began pursuing more cash-producing activities, such as trapping for furs, guiding prospectors, transporting supplies, and hunting and fishing for the miners. Many aspects of the Natives’ traditional semi-nomadic,subsistence lifestyle were left behind. Disease and a decline in the caribou population also contributed to the drastic changes taking place in the lives of Natives.
Among the miners, Natives soon became known and respected for their generosity and abilities. On more than one occasion, Natives rescued ill-prepared and inexperienced prospectors from difficult and sometimes life-threatening situations. Natives became an integral part of the new communities along the Koyukuk River and shared much in common with their white neighbors — all lived in cabins or sod houses, all hunted and fished for food, and all had to pay bills at the trading post. Together, both Natives and non-Natives learned to survive in their new homes, developing a semi-subsistence lifestyle that still exists today.
Soon, miners began complaining about the food, demanding better quality supplies and insisting on more frequent mail service. In response, the Northern Commercial Company moved upriver in 1902 and established a small branch store at a cluster of cabins on Slate Creek. This small town eventually earned the name Coldfoot after prospectors who got that far, then turned back because they got “cold feet.” Coldfoot’s first postmistress arrived on April 28, 1902, along with a promise of monthly mail service.
Prices remained high in the Koyukuk Mining District. A bag of flour cost $11.23 in Coldfoot, while the same bag of flour cost $1.50 in Nome. With the discovery of gold in 1906 at Nolan Creek, the richest strike in the area, a new surge of people filled the valley. During the first five years of production, this strike produced more than $800,000 in gold.
The town of Wiseman sprang up near the Nolan Creek strike and soon became the mining hub. Over the next several years, some cabins and even the schoolhouse and post office were sledded up the river to Wiseman, leaving Coldfoot virtually abandoned. A few folks, however, did remain. One resident, Jim Murphy, found the deserted cabins useful. He burned them as firewood.
In 1907, three Swedes leased a small piece of ground on Nolan Creek and dug a deep shaft to bedrock. In three years, they took out over $250,000 worth of gold at $20 an ounce ( worth approximately $60 million dollars today!). By 1915, the Koyukuk Mining District produced approximately $2,900,000 worth of gold, (nearly 3.2 billion today) making it one of Alaska’s largest mining districts. Three hundred people lived in the area.
Late in life, Nellie Cushman, a familiar gold-camp character from Tombstone to the Cassiar in British Columbia, made Wiseman her last hometown. Her Midnight Sun Mining Co. had claims on Nolan Creek, and she was known to mush from Fairbanks to the upper Koyukuk. At 81, she finally Wiseman and died in a hospital she helped establish in Victoria, British Columbia.
On Smith Creek, off Nolan Creek, the Silverado Mining Co. did a deep drift and got a 41 ounce nugget out of it. Following the early Koyukuk gold rushes, interest in the region did not end. When the price of gold rose in the 1930s and again in the 1970’s and 1980’s, mining in the area intensified. The Koyukuk continues to lure gold-seekers today. The promise of adventure and the possibility of hitting the mother lode still captivates the imagination. As long as the mountains and creeks of the Brooks Range continue to hold their hidden treasures, miners will be drawn to this remote and rugged land.