The Alaskan Gold Rushes


Kinross' Open-Mining Pit - SO HUGE!
The decisive role that gold played in shaping modern Alaska is incontrovertible.  From Fairbanks’ Golden Days Festival to the popular Discovery Channel show, “Gold Rush Alaska,” it is impossible to visit Alaska today without being reminded of its tumultuous mining history. Differing from the Gold Rush of 1849, Alaska did not have one rush, but indeed several. Most notable are the rushes of Klondike, Nome, and Fairbanks. Collectively, these rushes gave spotlight to Alaska that it had never before received on the national stage.


Gold in Alaska was first discovered in 1872 near Sitka. The first substantial gold strike came in 1880 in Juneau when Joseph Juneau and Richard Harris led by a native Alaskan found “large pieces of quartz, of black sulfite and galena all spangled over with gold” (alaskascenes.com) at a creek now known as “Gold Creek.” It is estimated that Gold Creek yielded $67 million in profits. 

The next major encounter with gold would occur 27 years later. Prospectors had tried for decades in the wilderness of the Yukon River Valley to strike gold. The tide changed on August 16, 1896 when two members of the local Tagish tribe, Keish and Kaa Goox, and George Washington Carmack found gold on Bonanza Creek, a tributary of Klondike (nps.org). This find sparked a frenzy among prospectors in the area, and within just a few months, all of the potentially valuable land along Bonanza Creek had been claimed. Astonishingly, the Alaskan prospectors were able to mine for a year before their delicious secret leaked to the surrounding world. When it did, the Klondike Gold Rush began.     

The excitement of “striking it rich” reached people from everyone socioeconomic background. Few truly comprehended, however, the hostility of the Alaskan climate and topography. To be adequately prepared to enter the frozen world of the Yukon, travelers had to bring a one-year supply of food and resources. Travelers had the option of traversing two equally daunting passes: the 3,000-foot Chilkoot Pass and the White Pass (aptly nicknamed “Dead Horse Trail” for the many horses that died during the crossing). Of the 100,000 people that set out on the Klondike Trail, only 30 or 40 thousand completed it, and only a few hundred found substantial amounts of gold (nps.org). It is estimated that the Klondike Gold Rush yielded $150 million in gold.

Though the success rate was dismal, the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897-98 more importantly succeeded in bringing mining, and by extension Alaska, into the conscious mind of the United States. Stories of ill-fated prospectors graced the covers of many “yellow” newspapers. The search for El Dorado carried on by prospectors and news  media greatly benefitted Alaska, as businesses sprang up to meet the needs of treasure-seekers (Alaska, 126).

The Gold Strike at the city of Nome, Alaska on the Seward Peninsula followed on the heels of the Klondike Rush. The Gold Strike official began on September 22, 1898 when three prospectors, Jafet Lindeberg, Jon Brynteson, and Eric Lindblom, discovered gold at Anvil Creek (Alaska, 129). The influx of prospectors began to trickle in, and by October 1899, there were more than 3,000 men working at Nome. While life at Nome was anything but pleasant (lawlessness, the climate, and lack of lodging all made for misery), the discovery of gold on Nome’s beaches eclipsed any discomfort. Beach-mining proved to be much easier, as there were no frozen materials to thaw and only minimal equipment needed (Alaska, 130). By the summer of 1900, Nome’s population swelled to accommodate more than 20,000 male workers.

Fairbanks, too, owes its existence to the Gold Rushes. It was initially unsuccessful, but by Christmas of 1903 after the discovery of gold at three creeks near the town, Fairbanks began to grow. What makes the story of Fairbanks interesting is the growth of companies within the township. Men who became employed by big companies now had a steady paycheck and could thus afford to bring over their families. Because of this domestication of the mining town, the influx of families brought with it a rudimentary infrastructure for Fairbanks, complete with a hospital, schools, and churches. By 1905, the population of Fairbanks had soared to 5,000 citizens.

During our stay in Fairbanks, HOM was fortunate enough to tour Kinross, a modern marvel of gold mining.  Located within the heart of Fairbanks’ mining district, Kinross is one of the largest producing gold mines in Alaska (Kinross.com) with 289,794 ounces gross production in 2011 alone. Despite the sub-arctic climate and harsh winters, operations at Fort Knox are carried out year-round!
HOM got to appreciate the monstrosity of Kinross’ operations. The current open-mining pit is absolutely ginormous! As it turns out, the Kinross is equally impressive with equipment matching the scale of Kinross production. The crusher – the first destination for raw gold ore – receives several tons of rock. It works like a turbine and uses steel balls measuring both 5 and 3 inches to reduce to a consistency like gravel.
The monster trucks used for transporting the gold ore to the crusher require new tires each year,
the cost of a single new tire: $90,000.00!
The gravel is later reduced to a fine power and cyanide is then added that eliminates the valueless rock and what is left is pure gold.
Keagan posing with a gold brick valued at over $406,000.00!
Our tour of Kinross enabled me to gain a deeper appreciation of Alaska’s mining history and its continued importance in the present day. Seeing the innovation of past mining operations evolve into the well-oiled mining machine that is Kinross was an extraordinary experience.  

No comments: