Beach Mining For Gold, Part IV: Golden Shores of Nome, Alaska

Nome, Alaska Beach Placers:
To dig gold from a sea-beach seems so simple a form of mining as to be highly improbable, and yet that was the motive to a strange drama enacted on the shore of Bering Sea in 1900. Natives had detected gold on the beach long before the white men came. They had reported the fact to Kogan, the captain of a whaling ship, who traded with the Eskimo living on Cape Prince of Wales; but he paid no attention to the story. In August 1898, a prospector named Tom Mulligan found gold on the shore at a place half a mile east of the mouth of the Sinuk river, 30 miles west of Nome. He found enough to warrant the belief that he could make wages, that is, $8 to $10 per day. But the Anvil creek discoveries diverted him. His discovery was made .known to the thirty men who were camping on the Sinuk that winter, and they planned to work the place during the following summer, but the wonderful richness of the fringe of sand in front of Nome led to the abandonment of their plans.

On June 28, 1899, a soldier found gold on the beach at Nome. He belonged to the small representation of the United States army brought thither by the threat of impending disorder. This soldier used to pan enough gold to pay for an extra meal, but the first "big money" was taken out of the sand by William Fee, otherwise known as Missouri Bill, and his partner, William Cummins, both old Yukoners. This was on August 1. The astonishing fact soon became known. All the idle men, unable to find work owing to the jumping of claims on the creeks and the impending litigation, hastened to construct rockers and wash the golden deposit on the shore.



By the tenth day of August fully 1500 men were at work on the beach; from being 'broke,' they were winning from 2 to 10 ounces of gold per day. "It livened up the town considerably." It is said that the highest yield from a day's work with a rocker was 129 ounces of gold, which was a clean-up made by Missouri Bill and his partner. Within three days silver coins disappeared from circulation, for the dollars were used in the process of saving the gold by means of amalgamation. Gold dust became the sole medium of exchange. Mercury went to $5 per pound. All the sheathing on the boats and the big coffee urns in the restaurants were utilized for the copper needed in the rockers and long-toms. Lumber being worth $400 per thousand, the diggers constructed rockers out of any sort of material, such as the boxes in which the condensed milk was packed. In less than two months 2000 men extracted over $1,000,000 from the beach.

The method of mining was simple indeed. First the prospector tested the sand by washing it in a pan. If the result indicated that he had found a rich spot, he started to dig a hole, from which he obtained a supply of gold-bearing material. This he fed into a rocker or long-tom, two devices of early origin. The long-tom essentially consists of an inclined surface over which the gravel or sand is washed by water fed by hand. From 6 to 10 feet of launder or sluice-box is set at an angle steep enough to permit the light particles to be washed away while allowing the gold to settle on the bottom. At the head, a hopper or box serves to hold from 50 to 150 pounds of material which is flushed, a little at a time, down the slope, by the action of water thrown out of a dipper or small bucket fixed to a handle. To arrest the gold, cross-bars or riffles are nailed to the bottom of the launder. In addition, mercury may be employed, or even amalgamated copper plate. When the latter is used the plate is covered with wire screen or perforated sheet-iron, the effect of which is to size the gravel, causing the larger pebbles to slide down the slope, while the fine stuff sinks through the apertures and comes in contact with the mercury and amalgam. The long-tom was familiar to the early Californian miners, and in its simplest form dates back to the very beginning of the world-wide search for gold. In order to facilitate the process of concentration, a shaking motion was imparted, merely by placing the inclined sluice-box or launder upon rockers. This constituted the cradle, which is shorter and more compact than the 'long-torn,' the quicker separation of the gold rendering unnecessary a long surface.

These methods are still in vogue. It so happened that during August 1908, while I was at Nome, there was a sudden increase of beach mining. At one time I saw more than 100 men at work. The beach is steep and forms a fringe only 60 yards wide between the tundra and the tide. The scene of greatest activity in 1908 was in front of the town itself, under the wharves and in the rear of the houses. As the beach is a Government reservation, no location is possible, each man holding a small patch of ground only as long as he works upon it. Where the beach had been found most productive, the long toms were thick and the workers numerous, but without any suggestion of disorder. Each man knew his rights and forbore to trespass.  The apparatus varied according to the means of the operator. Most of the long-toms had a false bottom of galvanized iron or else tin-plate torn from oil-cans. This is punctured with holes so as to act as a screen separating the fine stuff from the coarse; the latter runs down the slope into the sea, on the edge of which the apparatus is erected. The fine sizes of sand, including the particles of gold, drop down through the false bottom screen and onto the amalgamating plates. These are of copper, usually silver-plated. At the end of the copper plate there is, ordinarily, a bit of carpet, matting, or wire netting to serve as a check on any gold or amalgam escaping from above. At the upper end of the box or launder, the sides are raised or a hopper is constructed; into this the sand is discharged from a bucket, emptied from a wheelbarrow, or shoveled direct from the ground that is being exploited. While one operator attends to this part of the work, his partner is furnishing the water to wash the sand down the incline, standing with rubber boots in the tide and swinging a ladle consisting of a bucket fixed to a long wooden handle. Sometimes, for convenience, a temporary dam is made with bags of sand, forming a pool which is renewed by the waves that break over it at intervals. Some of the contrivances that I saw were pathetically crude; in one instance a small strip of old carpet and a few globules of mercury constituted the entire gold-saving system.

A more systematic arrangement commonly seen on the beach is a series of 6 to 10 sluice-boxes, set on a slope so that the reject falls into the sea and is removed by the tide. The boxes are lined with woven wire, having 2 to 4 holes per square inch, lying upon the cocoa matting that covers the bottom. Mercury is sprinkled on the matting by shaking it from a bottle through a cloth stopper. In order to expedite operations a small gasoline engine works a pump to supply the water for washing. The intake pipe of the pump rests on two wheels so that it can be withdrawn during stormy weather and the mouth of the pipe is protected with a wire net to shut out drift-wood. The distribution of the gold is erratic, so that constant panning is necessary in order to ascertain whether it is rich enough to be profitably worked. Thus I saw a man, shovel in hand, scrape the top sand to one side and then dig into the red layer underneath. Shoveling about 20 pounds of this stuff into his pan, he walked to the edge of the sea, dug a hole, which, becoming filled by the incoming wave, served as a basin in which he panned the sample. He obtained three "good colors," that is, three particles of gold worth about 10 cents. This was the first gold I had ever seen won from the sea-shore, although similar deposits are known in Oregon and California, in Tierra del Fuego, and also off the west coast of New Zealand. The gold in the beach at Nome is the result of a natural process of concentration, in which the surf is the final agent. The gold bearing material thus concentrated is derived from the rocks of the coast, the gold occurring in small quartz veins in soft schist, which is the prevailing formation. As the schist is weathered and eroded, the softer portions are swept into the streams and carried by them far out to sea, while the shattered quartz yields particles larger than silt but small enough for transport by running water. When borne to the mouths of the rivers this gold-bearing quartz gravel meets the tide and the surf, and. by them it is washed to and fro, until the heavier particles are thrown in a narrow band at the upper edge of the beach where it is topped by the tundra. Among the heavier particles thus deposited is the gold, which, by disintegration of the quartz that contained it, has been released and now in the form of flakes of metal lies concentrated in a fringe along the 30 miles of Arctic coast.



In the hills four miles north of Nome are found quartz veins, carrying gold and traversing the soft schist similar to that which in a former period yielded the material for the beach placer. Between these hills and the beach, a coastal plain extends, flat and undulating, crossed by several meandering streams in the beds of which gold-bearing sand is found. This coastal plain is covered with the tundra or Arctic moss, mantling a deposit about 100 feet thick of gravel and sand, all of which is gold-bearing, although not all of it is rich enough to be mined. Only where concentrated by the running stream or by the sea is the deposit enriched. Under the deposit is the rock, either soft schist or limestone, similar to the formation observed on the hillsides to the north. Approaching the sea the surface of the plain slopes gently until it ends in an escarpment or abrupt slope only 10 to 15 feet high. At the foot of this declivity the beach slopes to the sea at an angle of 4 to 5 degrees, and for a width of 50 to 75 yards. During stormy weather the action of the waves extends for the full width of the beach, but ordinarily such action is restricted to the lower half of the shelving strand.

The beach is composed of sand and shingle, in which both the quartz and the schist are easily recognized. At the limit of the tide a reddish band is noticeable. This is the celebrated “ruby sand” of the miners. On examination it is found to owe its color to particles of garnet, with which a little black magnetite is also present, darkening the tint. At the foot of the tundra, that is, at the upper edge of the beach, a layer of clay can be detected, dipping under the ruby sand. This clay serves as a 'false bottom' under the gold-bearing garnetiferous sand, and upon it the valuable concentrate has been deposited. By digging a hole into the beach, it can be ascertained that below the covering of barren gray shingle and sand is a layer of ruby sand lying on clay. The clay is from 3 to 7 feet deep; the gold-bearing red sand is from 6 inches to 2 feet thick; the fringe that represents the marine concentration is from a few inches to three or four feet wide. Sometimes two gold bearing layers exist, separated by nearly barren sand. As the deposit lies on the bed of clay the dip is toward the sea. The flakes of gold are small, the largest weighing one pennyweight; these particles of metal are bright and amalgamate freely, although the grains of quartz associated with it are iron-stained. About $5,000,000 has been won from this beach deposit. In 1899, the beach-workers got as much as $5 to $10 per pan; and even with the roughest contrivances, of the kind already described, some individuals in one summer season of only four months took $30,000 to $40,000 from the diggings on the shore. Today a man can still make $3 per day on the Nome beach. Two partners told me that they had made $60 in 3 days. Another operator and his partner got 3 and a half ounces of amalgam, yielding a little over an ounce of gold, on the day previous. Storms re-concentrate the sand repeatedly; the appliances required are cheap and easily constructed. It is a poor man's mine.

Continue on to:
Beach Mining: Part I, Shore Deposits

Beach Mining: Part II, Alaska and California
Beach Mining: Part III, Oregon
Beach Mining: Part IV, Nome, Alaska

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