It’s A Rush!

The old Episcopal Mission and church at Anvik. (Photo Credit: Jeff Schultz)

The Iditarod Trail checkpoints are full of contrasting histories -some are villages inhabited by Alaska Native families who have lived there for generations while others are gold rush towns created by an influx of foreigners seeking their fortune. In the villages of Nikolai, Anvik, and Kaltag I witnessed the challenges and hardship of living off the land in a very cold, inhospitable climate. In Nome I saw the remnants of a history tied to a boom in population. What caused people to come to Alaska to seek their fortune? Gold. Money is a powerful human motivator; one that can cause people to make extreme moves, compromise beliefs, and ravage nature all in the quest for riches. 

Hunter Keefe sings and dances as he arrives in Iditarod. (Photo: David Poyzer)

The Southern Route of the Iditarod Race goes through the checkpoint of Iditarod, a river port for receiving goods that traveled up the Yukon/Innoko/Iditarod Rivers to serve the gold mining operations in nearby Flat, Alaska. Gold was discovered here on Christmas Day, 1908, and the following several years led to a boom in population.  More than 10,000 people flocked to Iditarod to make their fortunes, establishing banks, hotels, and newspapers. This gold rush, a bit later than those in Juneau, Fairbanks, and Nome, was challenging because of the logistics of accessing interior Alaska during the winter months. Dog sleds solved this issue, freighting goods in and gold out of towns like Cripple, Ruby, Ophir, and Takotna, familiar names to race followers . This history of dog sledding is integrally tied to the history of these gold rush settlements in the Alaskan interior.  

Brent Sass showing the gold nuggets he won during the 2022 race. Photo credit: Jim Deprez

Those that traveled to Alaska saw potential wealth as far outweighing the challenges of remote Alaska living or the dangers of mining for placer gold. Was the promise of the dream fulfilled? Iditarod had the 4th largest gold field in the Alaskan gold rush – 1,320,000 ounces – which fell behind Fairbanks, Juneau, and Nome. It was a profitable venture, but short lived – by 1920 the population was down to 50, and currently there are 0 residents in Iditarod. It is a true ghost town. Looking at historical documents related to the Alaska gold rush provides students with perspective on the costs involved in this endeavor – both monetary and physical. There are many factors that go into the decision to embark on a risky venture to improve individual wealth and students studying history, sociology, and economics can learn from the experiences of fortune seekers. Click HERE for the lesson It’s A Rush!

Ryan Redington 51st Iditarod Champion shows off his winnings. Consider the time, effort, and costs that went into this win?  (Photo: David Poyzer)

How does gold rush fever compare/contrast to other recent “get rich quick” schemes? Consider extending the lesson to integrate student interest in social media platforms like TikTok (How do you make money? How much work does it take to be an “influencer?”) or recent movements toward cryptocurrency as a viable alternative to traditional finances. Integrating discussion of current events provides a modern context for a historical event, engaging and inspiring students to think critically about the world around them!

Library Learnings: Several decades ago I found myself applying for my full-time internship to complete my Masters degree in Museum Education. I interviewed at two places; the Smithsonian National Postal Museum and the National Museum of Dentistry. If you’ve followed my journey this year and now know a bit about me, it’s obvious that both these slightly absurd choices make perfect sense for me. I (of course) chose the National Museum of Dentistry, but I’ve long wondered about the other path and have a soft spot for the Postal Museum – especially their beautiful exhibit As Precious As Gold about the Klondike/Alaska gold rush. The online resources feature in the lesson plan this month, but even if you aren’t going to use the full lesson I suggest checking out the website and discovering ways to integrate the primary documents – photos, letters, artifacts – into your teaching!