Chaos of a Boomtown

A Yankee prospector’s scrapbook of his summer in Nome reveals the hardships of the Arctic gold rush.

The Bering Sea storm of September 11-13 hit Nome’s Front Street with high winds, heavy rain and powerful waves, leaving a swath of destruction in its path. All Photos by Frank E. Downs, Courtesy NYPL Digital Collection

On a stormy May 23, 1900, Connecticut native Frank E. Downs and a group of friends steamed north from Seattle, Washington, on the SS Olympia to find their fortune in gold on the chaotic shores of the Bering Sea and Nome, Alaska. They were part of the Cape Nome gold rush that had started when three lucky Swedes discovered gold in Anvil Creek in September 1898. A few short months later, the stampede was on to the Arctic boomtown. By December, Nome had over 10,000 residents dug in for winter on the isolated southern Seward Peninsula coast of the Norton Sound. Just like those who flocked to the Klondike and Fairbanks gold rushes, which were happening at the same time, men and women by the thousands turned their backs on their homes and struck out for Nome hoping to strike it rich. 

Frank Downs, the son of a prominent feed lot owner in Bristol, Connecticut, had grown up hearing stories about his Uncle Robert Carleton Downs who had gone West during the California Gold Rush and had remained in the Golden State since 1849. Likely inspired by his uncle, 43-year-old Frank went to Nome, camera in hand, and set up his tent camp and sluice on the beach four miles from the town’s center. Downs and his fellow stampeders, N. Muzzy, J.H. Pomeroy (a mining engineer), Jacob “Jake” Friedel and A. H. Buckingham, put their backs into it and worked their claims through the Arctic summer. Downs took photographs along the beach, in camp, at work, in town and even at midnight when the sun did not set. The adventurous Yankee’s images capture the rawness and hazards of living on the edge of the Arctic amidst the mud, disease, detritus and extremes of life under the midnight sun.

A major storm hit Nome on September 11-13 resulting in a great loss of life aboard ships at sea and on land, where many buildings were damaged or destroyed, as were encampments, including that of Frank Downs and friends. National newspaper reports recounted that the town’s mines were hitting bottom and many fortune-seekers were leaving because the gold was playing out. The desolation of the storm left Frank no choice: he, like hundreds of others, packed up and returned south by steamship to Seattle. 

Downs’s return to the states without riches did not quell his wanderlust. He continued to tour the Western United States and Mexico, chronicling his way-stops with his ever-ready camera along the way. Following in the footsteps of another uncle, Ash Upson (well-known New Mexico journalist and co-author of Pat Garrett’s autobiography), Downs settled in the Pecos River Valley near Carlsbad Plantation and Orchards Company. Frank’s sister, Florence Emlyn Downs Muzzy, compiled the scrapbook a few years later, with unique annotations (most likely gleaned from stories told to her by her brother) that provide us with remarkable insight into the life of a prospector who had answered the call of the wild and gone north—north to Alaska!

Frank Downs (far right) and his associates (l.-r.) N. Muzzy, J.H. Pomeroy (a mining engineer), Jacob “Jake” Friedel and A. H. Buckingham, posed on the deck of the SS Olympia en route to Nome, Alaska, in late May 1900.

 

Rough seas and crowded conditions above and below deck defined Downs’s passage with 300 other passengers on the SS Olympia from Seattle to Nome in May 1900.

 

Frank Downs photographed the scenes that defined his summer in Nome, including the landing of freight and prospectors on his first day of arrival on the boomtown’s shores. Note the lighter in the upper right packed to capacity with passengers incoming from one of the steamships anchored a mile and a half offshore.

 

At midnight on June 21, 1900, Downs photographed the steamboat Quickstep, which was then a hotel and restaurant, docked on the Snake River. The Claflin Brothers also had a hardware store on Front Street. Neither made it back to Boston: one committed suicide; the other died of typhoid fever.

 

One of the few people that Downs identified in his photographs was Nome lawyer A.J. Green (center), an active lawyer defending miners as well as a prospector. Note the fresh bananas hanging from the shop wall, foreground left.

 

In July 1900, four miles of the Wild Goose Railroad opened from Nome to the Anvil Creek mining district. This is most likely the narrow-gauge’s Climax Class A locomotive near its railhead in Nome.

 

The September 11-13, 1900, storm destroyed much of the beachfront property and camps along the beach of Nome.

 

Even with his primitive camera (which remains unidentified, but possibly was a Brownie Box camera), Downs was able to capture light and reflections of puddles in the mud of Front Street.

 

After the storm, Downs described himself, his friends and fellow miners who boarded lighter boats for their steamer south to Seattle as having “cold feet.” Yet his departure was not entirely melancholy; he is quoted reflectively by his sister: “I’ll leave my happy Nome for you.”

 

A remarkable aerial view of the landing beach at Nome was most likely taken from the crow’s nest of the barge SS Skookum docked on the shore.

 

Downs’s interior image looking east shows the bunks of Friedel, Muzzy and Pomeroy before they were destroyed and carried away by the September 11-13 storm, which ultimately led to the men picking up their stakes and returning to Seattle.

 

Frank Downs and his partners built a sluice to pump sand from their claim mixed with seawater in hopes of finding enough gold to at least cover the cost of their summer venture to Nome. It is not known if they succeeded in doing so.

 

 

Editor’s Note: Florence Muzzy’s daughter, Frank’s niece, Adrienne Florence Muzzy, was a librarian for the New York Public Library and was responsible for the donation of the invaluable, annotated scrapbook to the library’s special collections. Further reporting on the New Mexico connection to Frank and Florence’s famous maternal uncle, Marshall Ashman “Ash” Upson, will await another story.

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