Nome experienced one of the most dramatic gold rushes on the continent. Gold was discovered on nearby creeks in 1898, and 3,000 stampeders appeared in the new mining camp of Nome by July 1899. The discovery of gold on the beaches that summer, however, sent thousands more hopefuls sailing to Nome. Located on Seward Peninsula, on the north side of Norton Sound, not only was Nome relatively easy to reach but the gold itself was also easy to reach, just 1 foot to 4 feet or more below the surface of the beach, where claims could not be staked. Shoulder to shoulder, gold-mining novices crowded together, needing only a shovel and a rocker to separate the gold from the sand.
The town itself was chaotic. Described as two blocks wide and 5 miles long, Nome originally consisted of tents and a few driftwood log cabins lining the seashore. In 1899 and 1900, the new wave of gold seekers shipped their own buildings to the treeless tundra, including 8 million board feet of lumber and a few galvanized-iron structures. Streets were narrow, and often occupied by buildings; sanitation was rudimentary; and 25,000 people swelling the small city produced near anarchy.
In the next decade, several strikes on ancient beaches east of town produced prosperity and some degree of permanence for the town, whose population settled at about 5,000. The buildings constructed at this time run the gamut of wood-framed structures in cottage, bungalow, and farmhouse forms. Like most towns in Alaska, Nome did not have a “richest man in town” house, an obviously wealthy man's house built to make a statement. Instead, the classes mixed freely—as wealth and status were dependent on the luck of the pay dirt—and the architecture had a certain uniformity of scale and lack of pretention. The houses are small and narrow, with gable roofs and clapboarding. Bay windows, arctic entries, and wood shingles ornament them. Because construction materials are so valuable, buildings tend to be adapted to new uses and the resulting changes on the exterior are not always flattering to the architecture. The numerous repairs and alterations with available materials give the buildings a patchwork, often shabby, appearance.
Nome has been battered by several storms and fires. In 1934, a fire devastated the commercial district, destroying all the buildings on twelve city blocks. As a result, several streets were widened and straightened; the street plans collide at Bering Street, marking the new and old sections. Although some older buildings have been moved into the eastern area, the town lacks the cohesion of steady growth. The seawall constructed in 1949–1951 and a timber and concrete jetty built in 1919–1923 have also drastically altered the appearance of the town, obscuring the beaches that made Nome famous. Several buildings remain, however, to give the architectural flavor of this westernmost gold-rush town. Mining continues west of Nome to this day.
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