Elizabeth Robins at Cape Nome
Published in Seattle Post Intelligencer as a two-part article on Sunday, August 19, 1900 (page 24).
Hypertext markup and editing: Joanne E. Gates.
Living Under Martial Law
As a result of the of the lot jumping, shooting affrays and murders, General Randall has placed Nome under military control. Go down town now you will see a sentinel walking up and down before Kimball and Company's warehouse and every here and there a soldier posted, gun on shoulder. In the lot-jumping frays a posse appears before anything worse is done than a man's house pulled about his ears and some vigourous language exchanged, a few blows and a genial threat of sudden death and damnation. The town is quieter since the proclamation than it has been for weeks. But there is more than one sobering influence at work. Smallpox is reported to be greatly on the increase and it is said that we are on the eve of being quarantined, shut in here perhaps till Autumn, perhaps till the ice closes up all escape to the outer world. That is a thought to give pause even to the moderately well-to-do--what is it to the penniless adventurer on the beach?--to the cheechawker back from the Topkuk stampede, disgusted and 'broke'?--to the men and women belonging to the great Considine theatrical company heralded with such a flourish and left stranded with worthless contracts and neither provisions or lodging? Already there is not hardship merely but real suffering down on the beach, and if the Smallpox scattered about increases, as they say it is bound to, and the soaking rains come down on the unsheltered tent town, it will be difficult to find a more miserable spot on earth than Nome. Walking the crowded Front Street that runs parallel to the beach any one not used to the scene would be struck not so much by the roughness of the sun-burned, shaggy, dusty mortals that lounge or shuffle along, as by the expression in their faces, so strangely uniform. It is only fair to say many of these men have been doing the hardest kind of manual labour, making pack horses of themselves, doing contract work or carrying their own stuff on prospecting tours. "Prospect?" The irony of that word of hope! No need to ask these men what they found. As far off as you see them you read that they found nothing, nothing, and that the "prospect" is something very like despair. The sameness of the look stamps itself upon your sense. All the faces take on the same drawn aspect. Even when they carry no pack these people slouch and bend and go heavily, but it is their eyes that tell you the most. It may be the merciless forever-shining sun that weakens them, but the strained fixed look seems to say that fear is as dead as hope and that nothing really matters any more. I was talking to-day to a trained nurse, a great, strong, healthy woman who has done a good deal of slumming and nursing in the worst quarters of that one of our great American cities where vice and suffering are reported to be greatest. She said: "I never saw such faces. I hate to go about the town. I say to myself that I never saw genuine despair before I came to Nome." Certainly I myself have been reminded oftener here of Dante's circle of the damned than I had ever been. If there are lost souls on the earth I have seen them wandering the beach at Nome.
In June Nome was booming. It was the biggest stampede on record. In July what with the hordes of people on the beach (a good proportion of them rogues), unprovided for and helpless, and what with pneumonia and smallpox, and the continued absence of rain, creeks drying up and sluicing more and more difficult, you were told on every hand that "the Nome boom had busted and busted bad." You heard of people who, in June, were refusing $5,000 for a town lot, trying now to find a purchaser at $1,500 and failing. One of the big saloon keepers shook his head dolefully a few days ago and said: "It will never be again what it was for those three weeks in June. I knew it couldn't keep up. If I hadn't had a pardner, I'd have sold and lit out before the drop."
Two Nomites are women who walked over the Chilcoot Pass two years ago and came down the river last Autumn. They have been here through the Winter and have been put to all sorts of trouble and expense to keep their lot from being jumped. Four weeks ago they refused to sell at a price that seems fabulous to the newcomer. Now they cannot get an offer at any figure. They say they will probably have to put in still another Winter with the hope that things here may revive.
The cry from the creeks is for "rain, rain"--thousands of people out of work and the short, precious Summer gliding by. It is characteristic of this topsy-turvy land that the great curse of the brief Summer was said to be the ceaseless, soaking rains. You were prepared to go about cased in rubber and racked with rheumatism. And it turns out the longest experience you have had in your life of continued drought.
That all mining has not been prevented is made manifest not only to those who, like myself, have been present at big clean-ups (in some cases arrived at by all sorts of ingenious contrivances to secure water for sluicing), but from the amount of gold actually shipped from here. They say that three millions have gone out already and the season, dry and interrupted, not half over. The Manager of the Cape Nome Bank is just dispatching $40,000 in dust to the First National Bank of Seattle, making $100,000 he has shipped in one month. And that is of course only a fraction of what has gone out. He has in hand $50,000 worth of dust brought from the neighbouring creeks, Anvil, Dexter, etc., and new strikes on every hand are credibly reported. I saw a man yesterday from the Casadepaga country, which he predicts will be the riches mining district in this part of the world. His accounts of what he had seen there (and he was eager not to sell but to get back) were capped by the stories of a man who had just come in from the last strike on Anvil--high up on the divide overlooking Dexter. Those men who first went prospecting there were the laughing stock of the entire creek. The bench was held to be much too far up to be any good. I have myself talked with a man who saw the results of one day's work--"three men with one rocker cleaned up $600"--and the water to do the work carried half a mile! In some cases the indispensable element is carried even greater distances to prevent the brief Summer working-time from being shortened for lack of rain. Friends of mine on Penny River are working very good pay, and from Topkuk comes word how four men with a China pump took out $400 in one run of ten hours.
In any case the ground is so rich that its attractiveness has induced several hundred miners to defy Uncle Sam and his soldiers rather than refrain from working in the neighbourhood of Bluff City. This trouble is the culmination of a contest between the creek claimants at No. 1, of which there are two factions. One contends that it located its tundra claim in December last. The other that because the initial monument of the first faction was set up on the beach, and not on the tundra, it was not a legal location and was "jumpable." It is now maintained by the miners that the ground thus left open was properly beach ground and workable by anybody and that because some one connected with the "Alaska Commercial Company" (some one who seems to have acquired an interest with the jumpers) had influence enough, pressure has been brought to bear on the military to force this stoppage of all work except theirs along the beach fronting their particular claim. About a week ago over a hundred miners were forced (by soldiers landed there from the United States transport Seward) to stop work. A miners' meeting was held and the men decided to defy Government orders. On the morning of the 17th they returned to work. The soldiers were mustered out on the beach with bayonets fixed and attemped to force the men to leave, but the miners held their ground. Finally a parley was called and thirty or forty miners submitted to arrest and were put under guard, but others immediately took the place of the arrested and were themselves placed under guard until the soldiers had more on their hands than they bargained for. It is said that they simply cannot look after so many. The problem now is how to feed and house the workmen. If the necessary five or six dollars per day per man is not forthcoming to feed the arrested miners, the soldiers will be overpowered. General Randall, in command here, when seen to-day, said that he had ten men in the Nome Jail whom he had brought up from Topkuk with the intention of giving them a severe lesson on the inadvisability of treating the orders of the military authorities with contempt, as well as to punish them on the original charge of claim-jumping if they are found guilty.
No end of petty thieving has been reported in the last few days, and within the past twenty-four hours there have been instances of more serious lawlessness. The scene of one of the attempts at "pocket mining" was the passage near the Madden House where I go constantly in and out to get to the Stenographer's office. It was just here that two pedestrians were held up. There pockets turned out and some indignation expressed that only fifteen dollars could be found. When the thieves had allowed the men to go, they fell to considering the pitiable result of the enterprise, made up their minds that they hadn't done the job properly and that they'd better pursue the matter a little further. So they set off in the direction of their victims, waited till they had entered their tent and gone to bed, proceeded simultaneously to cut holes in the canvas, insert revolvers and by that persuasion keep the occupants quiet while a third went through the tent in a thoroughly workmanlike manner, cleaning up this time something between three and four hundred dollars. In this place where I live, the Hospice of St. Bernard, an attempt was made on Thursday night to rob the superintendent. He had several thousand dollars in dust in his room and a big pocketbook full of bills in his coat. About three in the morning his wife opening her eyes suddenly, saw a long, lean hand stretched in from the open window and just as the fingers closed on the superintendent's garments she screamed with such vigour that the burglar was unnerved. He opened his long, lean fingers and took to his heels. The superintendent running to the front door saw him disappearing as fast as he could travel.
A more serious affair was reported this morning to the authorities. A man, C. Jacobson, recently arrived and living in a tent near the Standard Oil Company buildings, went to bed a midnight very tired and fell into a heavy sleep. About two in the morning he was roused hearing a noise in the tent, started up and saw two strange men standing over him. He wasn't given a chance to speak. One of the men hit him over the head with the butt of a revolver, while the other held a blanket down over his head deadening his cries and nearly suffocating him. While one man held the blanket in place, the other took a piece of rope and bound the legs and arms of the partially unconscious object of the attack. Having "fixed" Jacobson, they ransacked the tent at leisure, taking a long time and doing the thing thoroughly. They came across a variety of small valuables, but they took away nothing identifiable. $320 in coin and bills rewarded their efforts and then with a kick at the motionless (and for all they knew lifeless) body they departed. When Jacobson thought they were well off the premises he painfully wormed and rolled himself out to a neighbouring tent, awoke the inmates and got them to loose the cords that bound his arms and legs. His head is badly hurt and his wrists are in a lacerated condition. Captain French says he is trying to bring the desperadoes to justice. This crime, until a few hours ago, was called the boldest that so far had been perpetrated here. The unending daylight, the continual movement up and down the beach and principal streets, the nearness of one tent to another and the lack of "getting-away opportunities" made the undertaking one of the great hazard and speaks volumes for the desperate character of men who could conceive and carry to a cold-blooded successful conclusion such an unpromising plan of violence and robbery. Within the last few hours two more cases of robbery and burglary have been reported, either one of which would result in a long term of imprisonment "in the States" should the perpetrators fall into the clutches of the law. Pessimists are saying that the town is filled with members of the professional criminal class who will pass beyond control unless vigourous measures are promptly adopted. The military authorities are doing all they can to suppress the current lawlessness, but are utterly unable to cope with the situation. Partly because of the small number of men available for patrol duty, and partly because of the disinclination of citizens to help in bringing the offenders to justice.
Apologetic people maintain that after all Nome lacks only two things--water and good society. "That's all hell lacks," the repartee runs. A variation of the sentiment is put into the mouth of a well-known Nome character: "If I owned Alaska and owned hell too, I'd sell Alaska and live in hell."
The Court Arrives
[Ed. note:] Because Elizabeth Robins's second part of her letter to Seattle was written so immediately after the arrival of a district judge, "The Court Arrives" betrays nothing of the sinister conspiracy which came to Nome on July 19, 1900 in the shapes of Alexander McKenzie and Judge Arthur H. Noyes. Alexander McKenzie, the Republican National Committeeman from North Dakota said to have known "every Republican President from Grant to Harding,"[ The National Cyclopedia of American Biography (New York: James White and Company, 1945), 92-93] failed in an attempt in Congress to have mining claims in Alaska staked by foreigners declared void. He did however secure the appointment of an alcoholic, incompetent crony, Arthur H. Noyes, as District Court Judge, who was supposed to be responsible for maintaining law and order in the gold fields around Nome. McKenzie calculated that if his Alaska Gold Mining Company could control gold claims for one summer his company could ship out millions of dollars of gold with impunity. If two deputy U.S. marshalls from California had not arrived on October 15, 1900 with an arrest warrant, he might have succeeded.
The coming of Judge Noyes and his Court has been the great topic in Nome since the Senator brought them in a few days ago. They did not actually land till to-day, the surf being so high, but even before they set foot on the sands of Nome, ended was the golden reign of Commissioners Swinehart and Shepherd. They had been having it all their own way here, reaping a glorious harvest. Shepherd has been boldly charging a fee of twenty-five dollars before he would even agree to consider trying a case. The story of the impositions of these two men would sound absolutely incredible to the citizens of decently governed places. When you ask: "Why did the people stand it?" the answer is a shrug. "How did those men get the authority?" "Hadn't any." "What did they have?" "Plenty of pure unadulterated bluff."
But with Judge Noyes and the district court here at last, Justice may once more show her face publicly in Nome. Judge Noyes, despite the quarantine, will, by special permission of General Randall, be allowed to go for a few days to St. Michael's. He will there establish his official residence, regularly organize the court, divide the country into districts, define the borders of each and assign recorders. In short, he will carry into effect the newly passed law giving Alaska her civil code. As soon as his St. Michael's work is completed, he will return to Nome and hear the civil case that demand immediate attention. The regular opening of Court here will be at the end of thirty days from the issue of notice. There is talk of court being held temporarily in the Barracks.
In order to ascertain the sentiment of the business community in relation to the incorporation of the town, as provided by the act passed at the late session of Congress, a number of prominent business men have been interviewed. All admit the necessity of an efficient form of civil government. The arrival of the district court makes incorporation possible within a few weeks and it rests with the people to see that the right kind of men are elected to the Council. A strong point in connection with the advantages of incorporation is brought forward by R. B. Milroy. "Real estate titles" he says "cannot be placed upon a sure basis until this step is taken. We must secure a patent of Nome as now surveyed, and the appointment by the Secretary of the Interior of a trustee who can make entry of the townsite in the Land Department. Until titles to property are on a sound basis the business of the community is bound to suffer."
The fact that already the business interests have suffered to an enormous extent makes the plea require no urging. At a meeting of the Chamber of Commerce on the evening of the 23rd., after President Ferguson had introduced the application for the incorporation of the town, that question which has been growing so grave here, the indigent sick, was considered. The state of things in this connection was admitted to be terrible. It was decided to draft a memorial to the War Department, asking that the destitute should be taken out of the country by the Government transports. Major Ingraham strongly advocated appealing to the Seattle Chamber of Commerce for help. "If any place has profitted by the discovery of gold in Alaska and by the rush to Nome in particular, that place is Seattle," and the Major is confident that Seattle will recognize her plain duty in the matter. So let Seattle take note.
Another very serious turn in Nome affairs is that a stop is put on the vigourous activity of Millionaire Lane's enterprises here, which promised to do so much for the opening up and advancement of Nome and the district generally. Charles D. Lane, as all the world hereabouts knows, bought certain rich interests which were originally in the hands of Laps and aliens. These last, through not having been naturalized American citizens, had no right to own the properties they sold. It was said at the beginning of the season, when I first came here, that Lane's energetic presence and millions would do enormous things for Nome, which expectation began quickly to be realised. It was also generally believed that since the question of the ultimate ownership of the property he had bought from the aliens could not in all probability be decided for a year or two, a "hustler" like Lane would get all the gold out by the time it was decided (if it should be so decided) that he had no claim in the land to the ground he has been working with such prosperous results. By that time it would be pretty well cleaned out and of no special value to any man. So, upon his arrival here, he is received with trumpets and the "shouting of the Captains" (so to speak) and he stirs up the whole district down as far as Golovin Bay. He builds the first railway, starting from the sand spit and going over hill and dale to Anvil, and everything he touches begins straightway to "boom." Then hey, presto! along comes that Power, unknown in these latitudes from the dawn of creation till now--THE LAW and descending like a bolt from the blue knocks millionaire Lane's schemes into a cocked hat. The best paying claims in the district are shut up by litigation. Lane has already in these few hours discharged over one hundred and fifty men and other property holders on Anvil, who, like him are affected by the new turn in affairs, are turning off their men as rapidly as possible. In the present state of Nome's depression and tightness of money this new blow comes down hard. It means that the camp's one hope for this year, the anticipated large output of the best mines, has been snuffed out.
So here we are in a country enormously rich, where the gold is locked up by two stubborn keys--drought and litigation. In the few properties where water is available or where there is capital to bring it from a distance, there stands the Majesty of the long-delayed Law, crying "hands off." Vain now for Pacific Coast Transportation Companies to spend fortunes in advertizing and to cut the rates. All in vain that the journey which in May and June cost $125 without premium, should cost only $25 to-day. The rush to Nome is over for this year, if not forever.
First available on line: 25 February 1999