|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.
Nome Creek 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.)
According 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 him).
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.
Extracting 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. 1986
- “Campgrounds rise up from mountains of mining tailings.” Jeff Krauss. in Alaska Frontiers. BLM. July/August 1998
- Film of Woodchopper and Nome Creek in the 1950s. Ramsey Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives
- “History of Gold Mining on Nome Creek.” Sarah McGowan. BLM. 2011
- Photos of Deadwood Creek dredge in 1930s. Lawrence Collection. Circle District Historical Society
- Placer Deposits of Alaska, Geological Survey Bulletin 1374. Edward H. Cobb. U.S. Geological Survey. 1973
- “Placer Mining in the Yukon-Tanana Region.” C. E. Ellsworth & G. L. Parker. in Mineral Resources of Alaska. U.S.G.S. 1911