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Posts Tagged ‘Gold’

I’ve watched a couple of shows about panning for gold.  Not those “reality” programs (which probably aren’t real at all), but documentary-style shows where a guy will detail his methods of searching for that most precious and elusive of elements.  I’ve talked about Dick Proenneke on a couple of occasions, and during his stay in Alaska, he often panned for gold, using it to purchase some of the staples he needed in the wilderness.  And then there’s Johnny Horton’s famous song North to Alaska, from which I’ve learned the best locations to search (“where the river is winding, big nuggets they’re finding…“).

So while I’ve never searched for gold (much to the chagrin of my grandmother), I feel I’m more knowledgeable about the process than, well, maybe a two-year-old goat living on a farm in Scranton, IA.

Anyways, I don’t know how big the nuggets were that Sam McCord found (he’s the guy in the song North to Alaska), but they likely paled in comparison to the one found by a couple of prospectors in the opposite hemisphere on February 5, 1869.  John Deason and Richard Oates found what became known as the Welcome Stranger nugget in Victoria, Australia.  Resting just below the surface near a tree, this chunk of gold weighed in at an astonishing 241 pounds.  Yeah, pounds.  After it was fully trimmed out and refined, it still weighed nearly 157 pounds.  That’s one big piece of gold.  And to date, it’s the largest single chunk of gold ever found.

I just checked and, while prices fluctuate, the current price of gold is $1675.80…an ounce.  And 157 pounds is 2512 ounces.  So if I do the math, that totals out to $4,164,393.60.  I don’t know the world in which you live, but in my world, that’s a retirement number.  Deason and Oates were paid $15,000 (give or take) for Welcome Stranger, which seems rather meager, even by 19th-century standards.

North to Alaska…yeah, right.

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I mentioned a week ago that we went to visit my grandma.  When we got there, she was a bit frustrated because “some kids came into her apartment and broke her TV”.  It’s probably true that someone came into her room, because that happens in assisted living facilities.  It may have been to pick up the laundry or run the vacuum or…whatever, but she was right about the TV…it certainly wouldn’t turn on.

I pretty much can’t fix anything, but I volunteered to check it out.  So I messed with it a bit and, wonder of wonders(!), I got it working good as new.  She was pretty happy to have it back and I, for a moment anyway, played the part of hero.

We turned the TV on and there was this guy in a wetsuit in the middle-of-nowhere Alaska.  He had a dual-engined sluicebox and was looking for gold.  It was awkwardly fascinating to watch him sucking up material with a giant hose into his sluicebox where the good stuff would be captured.  He ended up finding quite a bit, at which point grandma asked me if I had ever panned for gold.  Boy, you accidently fix a TV and people think you can do anything.  I would likely be drowned by that sluice contraption long before I found enough gold to pay for my funeral.

But it actually did bring to mind the events surrounding the founding of Helena, Montana…no, seriously, it did.  My frantic mind works that way.  I remember in grade school reading about a guy (or maybe it was some guys…but no girls, because in second grade, girls didn’t do cool stuff like pan for gold) who discovered gold in a place called Last Chance Gulch.  I don’t know why it was called “Last Chance Gulch” (maybe they were about to give up the search)…wait, let’s take a minute and list the things that I don’t know so far…

  • How to fix much of anything
  • How to fix a TV, except by accident
  • How to pan for gold and survive to tell the tale
  • Who (or how many) found gold in Last Chance Gulch
  • Why the place is called “Last Chance Gulch”

I don’t think I’m going to pass the test.

So anyways, a guy (or some guys) found gold in this place in the summer of 1864.  And like all gold strikes, word got around and, pretty soon, there were a bunch of people there, hoping to make their fortune.  At some point, the prospectors decided that “Last Chance Gulch” wasn’t a good name for the place (again, I don’t really know why, but 3-word towns take up a lot of space on an envelope when you’re writing to your grandma, so that’s probably it).

On October 30, 1864, the men met to decide on a new name.  After some deliberation, they settled on Helena and a new town was born.  And I do know that Helena remains, that it’s the capital city of Montana, and probably has one of the smallest populations of any capital in the country (less than 30,000 people).

I also know that if my story has got you interested in doing a little gold-digging on your own, you won’t be able to pan in Last Chance Gulch.  I learned (in second grade) that Helena’s main street runs right over Last Chance Gulch.  Panning for gold there now requires a jackhammer and (most likely) some kind of permit…and those barricade things with the lights on them.

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Secretary of State William Seward was a genius.  I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but in retrospect, his push for the purchase of Alaska from Russia was a masterstroke for the United States.  People scoffed at the idea of yet another huge land purchase, despite its ridiculously cheap price of $.02 per acre.  “Seward’s Folly” they called it.  Some reasoned that the vast territory acquired in the preceding 60 years had yet to be properly populated.

The massive Louisiana Territory (1804), the Annexation of Texas (1845), the Oregon Territory (1846), and the lands from the Mexican Cession (1848) had created the landmass that would ultimately comprise the “lower 48” states.   The Alaska territory was a frozen wasteland…and it wasn’t even connected.

But Alaska was so cheap!  The Russians, who owned the territory, wanted to get out of the “Russian America” business, primarily because right next door was the rival British Columbia and, should a war break out, the land would be easily lost.  And Britain clearly didn’t want to pay for Alaska when the Russians had asked them about it.  So rather than risk losing it for nothing, why not sell it for something?

For the American government, their justification also had to do with the British.  The Russians had been a Union ally during the Civil War, while the British had clearly not been.  So the purchase would help the Russians while simultaneously giving the British an American presence on two sides of British Columbia.

And so, in March of 1867, the negotiations began.  They concluded when the treaty was signed at 4am on March 30, 1867.  The final price was $7,200,000…a tidy sum in those days of Reconstruction.  The territory would be officially passed to the U.S. in October.  And still the criticism would be heard about “Seward’s Icebox”, but over time, one could say that it was an investment well-made.

Within 25 years, gold had been discovered and the Klondike Gold Rush was on.  During World War II (when Russia was an ally and a Lend-Lease partner), supplies were flown in to Alaska from the States, and then flown from there by Russian pilots to aid in their war against Germany.  And after the War (when Russia was no longer an ally), Alaska stood as a barrier of defense to Russian aggression.

And of course, there was that little place called Prudhoe Bay where, in 1968 (just 100 years after The Alaska Purchase), a massive oil reserve was discovered.

William Seward was chided for suggesting the U.S. purchase the no-man’s land of snow and ice from Russia.  And he was berated for actually carrying through with it.  But if those same folks were alive today, their silence would be deafening.

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