Ernest Hemingway, author of “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Farewell to Arms” and many other works, would be 118 years old this year. He was born the year after the discovery of gold at Nome. The writer who left a legacy of great literature—as well as litters of polydactyl (six-toed) cats—did not take part in the stampede to the north.
Many other writers, however, did heed the tempting call of adventure. They came, they saw, and they wrote about the people who moiled for gold.
That term, by the way, was written by Robert Service whose rhymes were identified most with the Gold Rush. Surprisingly, he did not personally witness those who did moil in the muck. Instead, he was a teller in a Whitehorse bank who listened to the tales of the miners. His mind wrapped around what he heard and the words that formed came out through his fingers.
The first line of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” for instance, was inspired by the revelry going on in a saloon he passed on his way home one night. Without bothering to go to bed, he grabbed a pencil and began writing on a large sheet of paper tacked to a wall of his cabin. “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malamute Saloon,” he wrote. Then flowed the 10 stanzas until he finished about 5 a.m.
Service didn’t realize the value of his works. Actually, he asked his father to have a printer reproduce several pieces because people who heard them recited suggested he do so. He promised Robert Sr. that he would reimburse him for the cost. He was stunned when the printer sent him a check. As it turned out, the workers in the shop were so impressed that the owner wanted to publish the poems in a book.
Service’s cabin at Dawson, where he lived after the Gold Rush languished, is preserved by the Canadian Park Service.
Visitors cannot go in, but are able to peer through the windows. His creations—he did not call them poems, but insisted they were mere rhymes—are still recited today at celebrations of the glory days.
Former Anchorage Mayor Anton Anderson, who engineered the Whittier Tunnel, recited many Service selections and was often called upon to entertain. His deep voice, perfect inflection and clear enunciation made the performances memorable.
Jack London, author of “Call of the Wild,” “White Fang” and many seafaring books, went over the Chilkoot Pass in 1898, only to be wintered-in at Lake Bennett. He became deathly ill with scurvy and barely made it to Dawson where after several months he began to recover. Two mining engineers took him in and their dog was said to be the inspiration for “Buck,” the heroic animal in the successful book written after London returned to the States.
After spending time at Dawson, he traveled to St. Michael and signed on as a seaman with a steamship headed for San Francisco. His time spent at the dockside saloon made him a welcome shipmate. Still suffering from the effects of scurvy, he missed several shifts but was generously covered by his fellows.
London led a troubled life. His parents had checkered pasts and young London spent his childhood doing homework at Heinold’s First and Last Chance Saloon, located beside the dock in Oakland, Calif.
He claimed to have had his first beer at the age of 3 and regularly consumed hard liquor soon thereafter.
As did Service, London listened to and absorbed the tales told by sailors who hung out at Heinold’s. They were to be the background for many of his later stories. An avid reader, the young London was a regular at the library and was encouraged by the librarian to pursue his literary interest. While still in high school he entered a writing contest. Entries came from college graduates, published writers, and many novices such as himself. London won first prize. He enrolled at the University of California Berkley, his tuition paid from a loan by the owner of Heinold’s, but did not graduate.
“Call of the Wild” was published first as a series in Saturday Evening Post. After its huge success it was picked up by McMillan’s. London traveled extensively and wrote many novels that were widely acclaimed. He settled in California and built a mansion he called “Wolf House,” only to see it burn. The ruins still stand. He died at age 40 of uremic poisoning, sitting on the sun porch of the nearby ranch home.
Rex Beach was born in Michigan in 1877 but his family soon after moved to Florida where his father bought land and established orchards.
Beach enrolled in Rollins College but did not cater to their rigorous rules. He was censured for sailing on Sunday and for leading classmates astray. Although he did not graduate from the school, he was awarded an honorary doctorate and is venerated today as a benefactor. His manuscripts and notes are held in the Rollins library. The ashes of he and his wife are interred in the courtyard of the Rollins Alumni House.
Beach’s two brothers were attorneys with a practice in Chicago and Rex enrolled in law school, confessing that he had visions of becoming a Supreme Court justice. To his adventurous heart, though, the lure of gold in the far north was too much to ignore. He ended up forming partnerships with various prospectors and mined on Minook Creek, the Yukon River camp that became known as Rampart. From there he went to Nome where he found that city to be the source of romance, intrigue and heroics he was to put down on paper.
In winter, there was little for the population of the young metropolis to do. In the days before television, theatrical presentations were welcome diversions. The larger saloons and dance halls had stages where regular productions were exhibited. Some were adaptations of Broadway shows and some were locally written. Beach acted in several which resulted in favorable reviews.
A thespian troupe visited Nome at the time it was experiencing a great influx of prospectors. Their engagement over, one actress decided to stay and open a hotel. Edith Greta Carter was an attractive blonde with whom Beach was immediately smitten. He was to say that she “had dimples that looked like they had been stuck into her cheeks by a mischievous finger.” They were married in New York in 1907.
The couple retired to Florida where Beach had orchards and grew gladiolus varieties whose bulbs were in great demand. Beach’s health deteriorated and grew worse after Edith passed away. He took his own life not long after.
During Beach’s time in Nome a major scandal unfolded. He was not involved but it would make him wealthy.
The Anvil Creek discovery was made by “Three Lucky Swedes,” Jafet Lindeberg, John Brynteson and Erik Lndblom. Although two of them had become United States citizens and the third had applied, they and several other mine owners with “foreign” names were suspect. It was generally believed that only American citizens could own mining claims.
Alexander McKenzie, a political power Outside, came up with a scheme. He was able to see that a friendly federal judge was appointed to the Nome seat, along with a U.S. marshal and court clerk. When henchmen cross-filed on the rich claims under contentions that they were owned by “foreigners,” the judge agreed to hear the cases. He decreed that their gold be impounded and that a receiver would continue to operate the mines. Judge Alfred Noyes appointed McKenzie as receiver. The miners were able to regain their claims only after the Ninth Circuit of Appeals in California overturned Noyes’ rulings. McKenzie and Noyes were charged and found guilty. McKenzie was sentenced to jail but released early due to severe health needs, although he was said to have sprinted out the door and to the train station once freed. Noyes was fined a small sum and removed from the bench.
Beach wrote of the events in “The Spoilers,” a novel which was made into a movie that was to be remade four times. An astute businessman, Beach retained the rights to the movie and collected 40% royalty. He wrote at least five other Alaska-based novels: “The Iron Trail” depicting events related to construction of the Copper River Railroad, “The Silver Horde” about the Bristol Bay fishery, “Valley of Thunder” based on the Matanuska Valley Colony, “Oh, Shoot!” and “Pardners.”
These writers brought lasting attention to Alaska and the Yukon and set the stage for many more authors who followed. Alaska’s majestic beauty, extreme weather, natural resources and resourceful people continue to generate wide interest.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.