Circle is a small, predominantly Athabascan community at the
end of the Steese Highway 160 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Located on the
Yukon River’s south bank, it began life in 1894 as the supply center for the
Circle Mining District 50 miles to the southeast, and as a winter haven for
miners frozen out of their diggings.
The cabin in the drawing, dating from Circle’s early days,
is located near the town cemetery. It is constructed of squared spruce logs
with dove-tailed corners (a traditional Scandinavian technique) and has a galvanized
metal roof. It was owned by Circle homesteader, Henry Appel, who willed the
building to the Pioneers of Alaska when he died.
According to Melody Webb’s book, Yukon, the last frontier, gold was discovered along Birch Creek in
1892, but mining didn't begin until the next year. In the spring of 1893 the discoverers,
Sergei Cherosky and Pitka Pavaloff, returned to their claims after obtaining
grubstakes from Leroy “Jack” McQuesten, an agent for the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC).They were trailed by miners
following rumors of a new strike.
The region’s creeks proved rich, but during the district’s early
years miners didn’t overwinter on their claims. The winter of 1893-94 most
lived at a site called “Fish Camp,” upriver from Circle’s present location.
Flooding the next spring forced the camp’s move downstream to
a high riverbank on the edge of the Yukon Flats. A townsite was laid out and
named Circle City. (Founders erroneously believed they were north of the Arctic
Circle when they were actually about 50 miles to the south.)
Strung out along the riverbank, Circle quickly developed
into a settlement of 300-400 log cabins. It also boasted several stores
(including McQuesten’s ACC store), a hospital, Episcopal church, school, opera
house (described by some as essentially a two-story dance hall), numerous dance
halls and saloons, and even a newspaper. It claimed to be the largest log cabin
city in the world.
Some residents called it the “Paris of the North.” James
Wickersham, in his book, Old Yukon,
wrote that in Circle’s heyday “its inhabitants were a cosmopolitan lot. Bearded and roughly
dressed miners from the creeks, gamblers, actresses, prospectors, preachers,
merchants, prostitutes, dog-mushers, hunters, dance-hall fairies, and dogs–a
frontier gathering from every land, drawn together by the lure of a mining camp
stampede.” Athabascan Indians also lived there and mingled with Circle’s other
A few writers were less enthusiastic. Josiah Spurr, who visited Circle
in the summer of 1896 with a U.S. Geological Survey expedition, described it as
simply, “a settlement of log huts dignified bythe name of Circle City.”
According to Spurr’s account, Circle’s population was about
700 people, but only during winter. In summer the population shrank to a few
hundred as miners returned to their claims. In any event, Circle’s glory days
ended in the fall of 1896 when word of the Klondike gold strike filtered down
the Yukon River. Most miners abandoned their claims to join the stampede to
Dawson City. By the spring of 1897 not more than 50 people, mostly women and
children, remained in Circle.
The town recovered when disgruntled miners, unhappy with
Canadian regulations and the lack of stakeable ground, began returning in the
fall of 1898. By 1899 Circle’s population had rebounded to its pre-Klondike
numbers, but the 1900 Nome gold rush once again emptied the town of most
miners. Later stampedes lured others away.
The miners who stayed gradually adopted new mining
techniques and fewer sought winter refuge in Circle. The town never again
approached the population it had during its pre-1900 glory days. It survived as
a regional supply center until completion of the Steese Highway in 1928 allowed
miners to ship supplies out of Fairbanks.
Most of the town’s old buildings have been destroyed by
fire, been torn down (with building materials either re-used or burned as fuel),
or lost to the river. The only survivors from Circle’s early days are a few cabins
scattered around town and the Washington Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph
System wireless radio station. Circle now has just two small stores and most
residents live a subsistence lifestyle.
Conversation with Earla
Hutchinson, co-owner of HC Company Store in Circle
Gold Placers of the Circle District, Alaska—Past,
Present, and Future. Warren Yeend. U.S. Geological Survey. 1991
Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and
Trials. James Wickersham. Washington Law Book Company. 1938
Yukon Frontiers—Historic Resource
Study of the Proposed Yukon-Charley National River. Melody Webb Grauman. National
Park Service. 1977
Yukon, the last frontier. Melody Webb. University of
Through the Yukon
Gold Diggings. Josiah Edward Spurr. Eastern Publishing. 1900
I took this is a photo on a recent trip to Circle. It is a small Native cemetery beside the Steese Highway just outside of town. Circle began in 1894 as a supply center for the Circle Mining District about 50 miles to the southeast. It was predominantly non-Native to begin with, but as the town's role as a supply center and winter refuge for miners diminished, the proportion of residents who were Athabascan Indians increased until they now represent almost 90 % of the population.
Betsy and I tromped to our secret blueberry
place yesterday. With all the recent rain I expected to find multitudes
of berries, but there were no more than usual, perhaps ever a bit fewer. (Other people have reported finding lots of berries so I suspect our berry patch is no longer secret.)
The ones we did find seemed a bit plumper than normal, though.
For several years I have thought there were a few larkspur plants lurking among my high-bushcranberries. Those plants actually bloomed this year and I discovered that instead of wild delphinium among my cranberries, I have larkspur-leaf monkshood (Aconitum delphiniifolium D.C.)
The flowers are beautiful, and I have been thinking that monkshood would make a nice addition to my native species garden and ta-da! Here they are.
All parts of the plant are poisonous, However, I have been assured by our local Cooperative Extension office that casual contact probably isn't hazardous unless sap gets into a cut or wound, and the taste is so bitter no one could accidentally ingest it.
This summer has been unusually wet and monkshood is a moisture-loving plant. That may have something to do with the monkshood finally blooming.
For more photos of larkspur-leaf monkshood click here.
Dredge buckets sinking into muskeg along Nome Creek
The footprint left by mining on the Nome Creek Basin north
of Fairbanks appears minimal at first glance. It’s obvious that the creek has
been worked, but no buildings remain from the historic mining period and only
scattered pieces of mining equipment are left. However, the paucity of physical
evidence belies the fact that two gold dredges once worked the creek’s gravels.
The dredge buckets shown in the drawing, slowly sinking into the muskeg, are a
few of the relics left from one of these dredging operations.
is a 22-mile long tributary of Beaver Creek located in the White Mountains north
of Fairbanks. It is within the White Mountains National Recreation Area,
managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and is accessed via the U.S. Creek Road at Mile 57.5 of the Steese Highway. (A section of the Davidson Ditch can also be seen from U.S. Creek Road.)
to the BLM report, Beaver Creek National
Wild River Cultural Resources Inventory,the
region’s original inhabitants were Birch Creek or “Tennuth” Kutchin Athabascans.
Tragically, the Birch Creek Kutchin were decimated by a scarlet fever epidemic.
Gold was discovered along Beaver Creek shortly before 1900,
but the actual date of discovery is unknown. (When the mining district’s first
recorder left the country, he took the minutes and books for the district with
In 1900 the
discovery claim on Nome Creek was staked near the creek’s lower end, just
across from the mouth of Ophir Creek. During the next decade a few score miners
trickled into the area. That changed in
the summer of 1910, with a major discovery along Ophir Creek. Lured by
exaggerated tales of diggings richer than the Iditarod, several hundred miners
from the Fairbanks vicinity stampeded into the Nome Creek Basin. The U.S.
Geological Survey report, Placer Deposits
of Alaska, states that by the end of 1910 all the ground in the Nome Creek
and neighboring basins had been staked.
gold from the frozen gravels of the creek bottoms was laborious. Most miners
earned only meager profits (if they earned a profit at all), and by 1912 the area’s population had dwindled to
about 25 hardy souls. The gold was still there, but it was beyond the resources
of most individuals to economically wrest it from the ground.
In 1925 the Nome Creek Dredging Company was formed, and
built a small dredge on Nome Creek in 1926. It was originally powered by a
wood-fired steam boiler (a real problem considering the scarcity of timber in the area), but the dredge’s owners replaced the boiler with
diesel generators in 1930. The dredge operated until 1932 when it was destroyed
by fire and never rebuilt.
Seven years later the Deadwood Mining Company moved its
dredge about 40 miles from Deadwood Creek near Central to Nome Creek.
Photographs from this period show a structure very similar to the Fairbanks
Exploration Company dredge now at Chicken.
The Deadwood Mining Company reorganized as the Nome Creek
Mining Company and operated its dredge from 1940 to 1942, when gold mining was closed
during World War II. The dredge worked again from 1945 to 1947 before
permanently shutting down, and then sat rusting in Nome Creek for many years
before being dismantled for salvage.
One very visible remnant of the gold dredging era is a
two-mile section of Nome Creek called the “Maze.” Nome Creek wanders down the
center of the valley for most of its course, but through the Maze (located a
mile or so below the bridge) the creek zig-zags back-and-forth across the
valley floor between tailing piles.
The BLM has improved the roads in the area, built a bridge
across Nome Creek, and constructed two campgrounds: Mt. Prindle Camground about
two miles above the bridge, and Ophir Creek Campgound about 12 miles downsteam.
In between is a stretch of Nome Creek open to recreational gold panning
(hand-tools only). There is also a put-in at Ophir Creek Campground for boaters
floating Beaver Creek.
If you do visit the area, remember that the historical
artifacts you see are part of our cultural heritage. Leave them in place for
future visitors to find and enjoy.
Beaver Creek National Wild River
Cultural Resources Inventory. Susan Will. U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
rise up from mountains of mining tailings.” Jeff Krauss. in Alaska Frontiers. BLM. July/August 1998
Woodchopper and Nome Creek in the 1950s. Ramsey Collection, University of
Alaska Fairbanks Archives
“History of Gold Mining on Nome Creek.” Sarah McGowan. BLM.
of Deadwood Creek dredge in 1930s. Lawrence Collection. Circle District
Placer Deposits of Alaska, Geological Survey
Edward H. Cobb. U.S. Geological Survey. 1973
Mining in the Yukon-Tanana Region.” C. E. Ellsworth & G. L. Parker. in Mineral Resources of Alaska. U.S.G.S.