Empire’s Edge: American Society in Nome, Alaska, 1898-1934
November 4, 2013
Review By William Morrison
How many Canadians know exactly where Nome is? Yes, we know it’s in Alaska, though the author of this book may not be confident that all readers will know, since he names the state as well as the town in his title. Yes, there was a gold rush there, and it must be on the ocean somewhere since the books all refer to gold being found “on the beaches of Nome.” But how many could locate it on a map? In fact, Nome is on the south shore of the Seward Peninsula, on Norton Sound, an inlet of Bering Strait, 240 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, about the same latitude as Fairbanks. It’s about three hundred kilometers east of the nearest point of Siberia, and, surprisingly, more than eight hundred kilometers in longitude west of Hawaii, making it the most westerly as well as one of the most isolated towns for its size in North America.
In this charming and informative book, Preston Jones examines not the history of the famous Nome gold rush of 1898 (despite the dates in the title) but, rather, the history of the years after 1900, when the rush dwindled and excitement drained out of the town. These were the lean years, when the town struggled to maintain its prosperity and even its very existence. And what the people of Nome created out of this struggle was a piece of the United States in a very unlikely location: “In the process of wrenching order of out chaos, Nomeites did something extraordinary: they built an easily recognizable American com munity in a most uncommon environment. As a writer for Harper’s Weekly put it, ‘in the face of nature’s most severe obstacles,’ Nome’s settlers had created ‘one of the present wonders of Uncle Sam’s domains.’”
So, according to Jones, although there was much about Nome that was unique, “the most striking thing about the city [was] its normality … The city’s mundane Americanness always struck, and usually surprised visitors.” Interestingly, the same thing was true of Dawson City, Nome’s Yukon twin, whose residents, after the gold rush ended, tried desperately to create an ordinary Canadian community in an uncommon environment. Laura Berton, Pierre’s mother, in her fascinating autobiography I Married the Yukon, describes the rounds of teas and calling cards, and the importance of belonging to the local chapter of the iode. Much the same was true, mutatis mutandis, of Nome.
At the time of Nome’s gold rush, there were rival communities on the Seward Peninsula and Norton Sound, and some had amenities – a good natural har bour, trees – that Nome lacked. Nevertheless, during the twentieth century, all but Nome shrank almost to the point of disappearance. Empire’s Edge describes the town’s anxieties that it, too, might fade away, and its attempts to avoid that fate through civic boosterism, public relations, enthusiastic participation in the First World War, self-congratulation, and a rich variety of community activities. There were many of these: the town had five different Masonic orders in the second decade of the twentieth century – Elks, Shriners, members of the Order of the Eastern Star, and all the rest. The community had an active and engaged political life; in the municipal election of 1917, 98 percent of eligible voters cast ballots. Also – and this was somewhat ironic for the residents of a region that prided itself on self-reliance – they made repeated pleas to the federal government for assistance, particularly in improving harbour facilities.
The book is organized topically: Chapter 4, “Commentary,” for example, has the subheadings “Public Life,” “Dogs,” “Learning,” “Rhetoric [politics],” “Labor,” “Natives,” and “The Courts,” a scheme that keeps both author and reader focused. The only flaw in this book is that it seems too short: at 117 pages of text, plus endnotes and bibliography, it leaves one wishing for more information about this isolated community, different from Main Street America in many ways but (mostly through the efforts of its citizens), in its essentials, surprisingly the same.