The idea that the beach sands might contain gold was sometimes talked about in the Cape Nome mining camp in the summer of 1899. But until the middle of July, no one took it seriously. Everything changed when one of Lieutenant Spaulding’s men, on digging a well on the beach, found gold. With the confirmation of Soldiers Gulch, as the discovery was called, miners sped to the beachfront. There was room for all, as the beach ran for tens of miles, beyond the mouth of the Snake to the west and beyond the mouth of the Nome River to the east. The finest place to prospect was a strip of rust-colored sand, several feet wide, running parallel with the waterline above the high-tide mark. Iron filaments in the sand made for its “ruby” glow. But there was gold to be found above and below this band, and best of all, the metal lay close to the surface.
The presence of abundant gold in the sands struck the camp as fantastical. Some of the miners were veterans of the Klondike gold rush—survivors, more like it, given the extreme hazards of that trek. Gold by the seashore was unheard of. One miner called the treasure “star mist”—the prospectors, he insisted, were digging up “millions of fine particles” of the metal that had rained down on the earth from meteor showers and collected on the beach.
The beach find immediately lifted the downcast mood of the camp. Gold was currency—to pay for beer to slake one’s thirst, for one thing. Sourdoughs and cheechakoes alike could profitably work the beach. A man’s last name—his place of birth—suddenly felt less important. A pan and a bucket for water could be enough to get by, although a shovel was certainly helpful. Rockers could be hammered and nailed together from driftwood. Almost everyone made for the beach.A miner could hold a spot for as long as he or she kept at it, whether for four hours or for fourteen. But once the miner left the spot, anyone else could occupy it.
By general consent, the miners declared the beach a commons. In other words, in this “poor man’s paradise,” as one newspaper called it, no staking was allowed. A miner could hold a spot for as long as he or she kept at it, whether for four hours or for fourteen. But once the miner left the spot, anyone else could occupy it. Turnover was frequent, as only the hardiest could keep a place for very long. Even in July, temperatures dipped into the forties, numbing the hands after just twenty minutes of work. The winds blew sand into the eyes. A dense fog might cut visibility to twenty paces; a black cloud might bring a cold rain, soaking clothing and bedding. The Bering might be a placid lake one day, a roiling sea the next.
The harsh conditions bred a spirit of fellowship. Miners pitched tents on the beach and established a kind of canvas city in which everyone was welcome to live. As there was no ownership of the beach, there was no landlord to whom rent was due. By the briny mouth of the Nome, pink salmon, on their way to their freshwater spawning grounds, were easily caught. As word of the “golden sands” got out beyond Cape Nome, the first beach settlers were joined by a mini-rush of outsiders, some coming from the Alaskan interior, some from the US mainland. Still, at the height of the summer season of 1899, there were scarcely two thousand miners in the tent city—a manageable number, even if, in some sections of beach, prospectors were so closely packed as to nearly touch shoulders. Those arriving from the mainland often felt a sense of liberation, a feeling of release from the confinements of life back home. They kept the full reward of their labor, for once, and because the beach was a commons, it offered “poor opportunities for that class of men who live on the labor of others,” as a miner observed. Indeed, there was a distinct pleasure in knowing that “that class of men”—the bosses of industry—could not have their usual domineering way on this new frontier. A cynic might have said that the fellowship of the beach miners was cheaply earned—arrived at not by some shared high principle but by a rare chance of circumstance that gave material plenty to everyone. But the happiness, no matter its root, was genuine. Many sang songs as they slogged away; an elderly miner, his fortune secured, praised the Lord again and again and again.
It couldn’t last. The plenty quickly provoked greed: how to capture these beach riches? For speculators, looking to make a fast profit by buying and then quickly selling mining properties, the idea of the beach as a commons, exempt from the usual rules of property rights, was repugnant. The speculators staked claims starting on the edge of the tundra land adjoining the beach and extending onto the beach itself, all the way to the high-tide mark. This effort took on a more aggressive cast with the arrival on the scene of the Nome Mining and Development Company, a consortium of tundra claims holders, the sort of corporate presence the beach miners feared and were determined to thwart. The company posted notices along the coast, declaring that “its” beach “claims” could be mined only with a permit, available for purchase for fifty cents per day per person. Anyone found working the beach without a permit would be “prosecuted for trespass and larceny,” the notice warned. In addition, the company enlisted a half dozen army soldiers to guard the company’s “claims” against “jumpers.”
Here was a challenge that the beach miners could not ignore. The lawyers among them—and there were a few—believed that the miners were protected by a US law that set aside, as a “roadway” for the public, a sixty-foot-wide strip of beach, above the mean high-tide mark, along every coast in America. This theoretical roadway could be considered part of the commons, the lawyers reasoned, hence off-limits to the speculators and corporations. But it was by no means clear that this law applied to beach mining, and it was difficult to draw an average high-tide line, given the fluctuations in the peaks of high tides.
The beach miners responded with an inspired plan of their own. One of their leaders, Key Pittman, a young lawyer and a future US senator, suggested that the miners defy the warning against trespassing by showing up on Nome Mining company “property” in the hundreds, daring the soldiers to arrest and jail them all. The ploy worked as intended. Nearly three hundred miners were arrested, and each one of them refused bail and demanded a trial. The soldiers could not possibly house and feed such a large group, much less arrange for trials, and the miners all had to be released. For the time being, the commons remained a commons, including the disputed section over the high-tide mark. It was an important victory for the miners, showing their mettle and their capacity for organized resistance. Their fraternal bonds were strengthened as a result of the episode—and they must have felt pleased when a reporter on the scene for the San Francisco Chronicle filed a story calling the arrests a “farce” and praising the miners for trying to make an “honest living.” But this was just a skirmish: the schemers with their eyes on the beach prize did not consider the matter settled. Surely, they felt, there was another way to seize ownership of the golden sands. And the miners understood the battle wasn’t over; even in a poor man’s paradise, they had learned, there was always a snake.
Excerpted from A Most Wicked Conspiracy: The Last Great Swindle of the Gilded Age, by Paul Starobin. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.