Spend any time at all in Alaska and you quickly discover that a recurring theme runs through the history of America's last frontier: Gold! Nearly all of the state's railroads, ports, highways, cities and towns owe their existence to gold rush fever. Prospectors began pouring in to the region in the late 1800s and gold continues to draw people to the state today, as reporter Mike Osborne discovered in one of Alaska's original gold rush towns.
The tiny bayside village of Hope, Alaska lies 130 kilometers, and about a hundred years, south of the state's largest city, Anchorage. The contrast between the two couldn't be stronger. Anchorage is a modern city of more than 200,000. With a population of less than 200, Hope still looks much as it did a century ago.
"A fella named King found gold here in 1888-1889. Didn't find very much," explains long-time Hope resident Diane Altice, who recently published a book on her town's history. "A few more people trickled in to the Resurrection Creek area and in 1895 a large stake was found. Next year, 1896, 3,000 people poured into the area, ran up and down the creeks. There was a tent city here."
Log homes soon replaced the tents and a name for the community was chosen. Diane Altice says "Hope" suited the town since that's about all the local miners had.
"This was never a really wealthy strike," she said. "It was a poor man's gold rush. People got by on a bit of mining, a bit of gardening. Some of the people who came to Hope went on to other gold rushes; Klondike, Fairbanks, Iditarod, Nome."
Even though commercial mining quickly came to an end, the town remained. Ms. Altice says residents love the area so much, they look for a reason to stay.
"You have to be resourceful," she says. "But it's worth it. It's a very pretty area. Quite a few retired persons here in Hope. A few people even commute to Anchorage to work. Other job options are highway construction jobs, carpentry jobs, a few government jobs, the school, the post office, a little bit of tourism. During the summer we have three open cafes. There's a lodge and a bed and breakfast... a number of crusty old bachelors who talk mining and do a little of it."
Several Hope residents still own and work gold claims in the surrounding mountains. Walter Wilkins, 84, works a 10-hectare claim along Canyon Creek at the foot of Manitoba Mountain. He searches for gold in the gravel two meters below the river's surface using a diver's dry suit and a dredge.
"Well, a dredge, you know, it's just like a vacuum cleaner," he says. "You get down there with your dredge and your suction hose and just suck up the gravel. Then it goes up through the sluice box and the gold stays in the sluice box. There's riffles you know…runs over the riffles and the gold lays in there."
Mr. Wilkins holds several small glass vials filled with the gold he's collected. He pulls out a stopper and pours the tiny flakes out on the table.
"I've been in there in the winter time when it was froze over and just where the swift water run you know there'd be a little hole," he says. "And I've got down there with a seven-foot ladder with my dry suit and dredge and found a little gold. But, thing of it is, I'd probably found more but I was just a little leery about getting back under that ice."
A considerable risk for the hundred or so grams of gold Mr. Wilkins manages to mine each year. He gives most of what he finds to family and friends as souvenirs. The rest, he sells to jewelers like another of Hope's better known characters, Dru Sorenson, or Sourdough Dru as she prefers to be called. She operates a jewelry store on Hope's main street. She specializes in creating jewelry out of raw gold, an item as popular with Alaska residents as it is with the tourists.
"I tell you, my biggest gold customers are the Europeans, mostly Germans, they're my biggest gold customer," she says. "These are raw nugget earrings. They're just little nugget rocks. Just think of rocks! Just think of rocks that are gold."
The golden rocks have a surprising amount of character. Some are rough and dark, others look like they might have been polished. What makes the difference is how much time the gold spends bouncing along the riverbed. Experts like Sourdough Dru can often tell what stream the gold came from.
"And you can see the difference in the color and sometimes the texture," she explains. "Like these here are real bumpy. Those are from Bear Creek. The gold is rougher because it hasn't gone as far or it's closer to the motherlode - so it's rougher than say these nuggets. I think these are from Canyon. Canyon Creek the gold is not as close to the motherlode."
Most of Alaska's gold rush towns - places like Nome and Fairbanks and Valdez - moved on to more profitable enterprises as the decades rolled by. But the small town of Hope seems content to serve as a living tribute to an era long since past.