Placer era holds a special place in Alaska history

Posted: Friday, July 22, 2005

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

In Alaska's history nothing has ever matched the excitement of a gold camp. There was a wild exuberance about the diggings on the Stikine River, Gold Creek, the Klondike and Yukon river tributaries, the Bering Sea sands of Nome, Fairbanks and the Iditarod.

These were placer mines, where an individual could prospect and hit it rich before the days of industrial mines such as the Alaska-Juneau and Treadwell. The placer era began shortly after Alaska's purchase from Russia in 1867 and petered out by the 1920s.

A brief note in the Empire harkens back to that time. In the July 10 issue, it noted the anniversary of the Iditarod Pioneer, the first newspaper printed in Iditarod in 1910.

The front page of that first Pioneer said, "Iditarod Creeks are Looking Good."

The writer asked - having arrived at Iditarod and having taken a trip over the creeks and through the thriving towns - "What do you think of it?" The answer was, "It looks good."

I had a friend who traveled to Iditarod about that time. Her name was Belle Simpson. She was on a visit to her brother, Izzy Goldstein, who ran an apparel store. She was born in Juneau in 1885. In 1985 at the age of 100, Belle gave an interview to a Seattle newspaper and remembered her trip as the most thrilling experience of her life. She was invited by the miners to walk barefoot in the sluice which separated the gold from the dirt and stones.

"Every now and then, a miner would stop me and put a nugget in my hand," she said. Where else in the world and in what age could such a scene be repeated?

But like a flickering candle, the gold rush ebbed and disappeared. All across the western United States, small weather-beaten wood buildings were shuttered up. Iditarod became a ghost town.

I am reminded of the most famous story ever written about a placer gold rush - "The Luck of Roaring Camp" by Bret Harte. It's about a baby called the "luck" of the camp, born in a gold town in the California Sierras whose mother died in childbirth.

The luck ran out at Roaring Camp, too. In the end, a great tidal wave of river water came down the gulch and washed the town away. The little baby was found clutched in the arms of a dying miner.

"He's a taking me with him - tell the boys I've got the Luck with me now."

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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