Locked In an Iceberg

Ever since learning that Thomas Lovewell spent only a few months prospecting at Cape Nome in the summer of 1900, I’ve searched diligently for hard evidence that he paid the Far North a return visit.  

Although a sprinkling of clues suggest that he did get back to Nome, they have been at best sketchy and indirect.  For instance, an outline of his life printed in various newspapers in 1916 following a brief interview, declared that his Alaskan adventures had occupied a whole year, not just one summer.  He publicly announced his intention to head north at least once more after returning from his freshman sojourn in 1900.  An item in the Courtland Register in May of 1901 reported that the hardy pioneer “will start back for Klondike soon,” the term “Klondike” having become a generic term for any gold rush to parts northward.  

After that single mention in the spring of 1901, newspapers in his part of Kansas fell uncharacteristically silent about Thomas Lovewell.  They printed no quotes from him concerning politics, offered no tantalizing memoirs from frontier days, never even passed along a short item about his health or celebrations of personal landmarks.  It was as if he were no longer residing in the neighborhood, but had been transported far, far away.  This apparent news blackout did not lift until the March 27, 1902 edition of the Jewell County Monitor, which might shed some light on his disappearance.

Uncle Tom Lovewell was a pleasant caller at this office Tuesday and talked very interestingly of his trip to Alaska.  He got as far as Cape York, about 300 miles from Cape Nome, where the summer is three months of daylight and winter nine months of twilight and darkness.  On the voyage the vessel he was on was locked in an iceberg for three days, between Nome and York.  He thinks he has found something promising in the way of gold in the far north and expects to go back this spring.  The Eskimos that he met were friendly, civilized and fairly educated and were well pleased with the United States government.  Uncle Tom is upward of seventy and well fixed financially, but the life of hardship and adventure seems to suit his taste.  He owns one of the best farms in this county, where the village of Lovewell stands.  He helped to drive the indians from the White Rock valley and his name frequently appears in the early history of this county.

In 1900 local papers had reported faithfully on Thomas Lovewell's comings and goings - how he was preparing to head north at the start of May, had to delay his plans when connections at Seattle fell through, finally did set out at the middle of the month, and then turned up unexpectedly at the Old Settlers’ Reunion at the end of August.  A reporter who saw him there acknowledged that “Lovewell tells some interesting stories about the gold region” and yet printed not a single detail.  Until the item from the Monitor showed up recently in a search of Newspapers.com, the closest we’ve come to hearing about Alaska from Thomas himself is a history written by his son Stephen in 1945, and published in the Belleville Telescope in 1958. 

At the age of 75 when gold was discovered in the Klondike in 1898 he went from the west coast by boat to Nome, Alaska, from Seattle, Wash.  There he met another prospector; they bcame partners and built a boat together to go up the Yukon river.  He said “The moss was so deep that our feet would sink into the soft growth, hampering and slowing activities.  Eggs were ten dollars a dozen; bacon, ten dollars a pound, and wages extremely high.”  He said, “I had to hire men to dig for me; although I paid good wages, the dirty Devils would steal my gold.

He stayed a year but could make no more than expenses.  So he came home.

For anyone wondering where the exact quotes in Stephen Lovewell’s story could have come from, and why this account seems so different from the interview reported in the Monitor, there may be a simple explanation.  

When Thomas popped up suddenly at Babcock’s Grove at the end of August 1900, his appearance was not a surprise to everyone.  It had even been hinted at in advertising for the event, which promised an introduction from the president of the Old Settlers’ Reunion Committee, and a "response from an old settler.”  As the oldest settler of all, Thomas is supposed to have taken the stage and given a rousing report on his recent adventures in America’s newest frontier.  I suspect that instead of impromptu thoughts, his remarks came from a carefully-rehearsed script jotted down by his wife, who filed it away in her notebook.  If it is an accurate summary of his quest for gold near the Arctic Circle in 1900, then the story in the Jewell County Monitor in May of 1902 could be evidence for a return trip in 1901, one in which he ventured even farther north to Cape York (65.4° N), where he was waylaid by icebergs and chatted with Eskimos.

By the way, if the ship he was on sailed a 300 mile route from Nome to York, she meandered a bit.  The two capes are only about 100 miles apart.  Perhaps the icebergs were large and plentiful, and the field had to be given a wide berth.        

© Dale Switzer 2023  dale@lovewellhistory.com