Six degrees of separation, it turns out, can span an entire century and two continents. The book, Gold Rush Wife (Ember Press, 2016) about the Turnagain Arm gold rush of 1896, helped solve a family mystery in Norway, which in turn added to the historical veracity of a stampede that predated the Klondike gold rush.
One hundred years ago, the last his Norwegian family had heard from 63-year-old gold miner, Tallef Hammers, was a letter he sent from Sunrise, Alaska. Hammers left Norway in 1880 at the age of 38 seeking a new life in America. He made his way to Seattle where he worked as a carpenter and in real estate. Like others who had fallen on hard times during an economic depression, the promise of gold lured Hammers north in 1896. The last letter the family received from him was dated May 1, 1907. Hammers wrote that he was headed back to Seattle for treatment of an illness. No one heard from him after that.
For years, Hammers’ family wondered what became of him. Fast forward one hundred years.
Today all that remains of Sunrise is a historic archaeological site and small cemetery overlooking Sixmile Creek. Rolfe Buzzell, a historian recently retired from the Alaska office of History and Archaeology, has made it a life-long, personal quest to capture and preserve not only the artifacts but the spirit of one of Alaska’s most important gold rush communities.
What first fired Buzzell’s interest was a manuscript titled Memories of Old Sunrise penned by stampeder Albert “Jack” Morgan. Buzzell researched the manuscript’s authenticity, then wrote an introduction, and edited the book for publication (CIHS1994, Ember Press 2013).
Buzzell also had a manuscript by the daughter of Nellie Frost, a friend of Albert “Jack” Morgan and resident of Sunrise. This manuscript offered a woman’s account of many of the same stories that Morgan told. Again, Buzzell edited and wrote the introduction to Gold Rush Wife (Ember Press, 2016) which was published through the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm (KMTA) National Heritage Area.
Earlier this year, in Bergen, Norway, Torjus Midtgarden, the great-grandson of the missing T. Hammers, did an internet search and discovered Memories of Old Sunrise and Gold Rush Wife. He contacted KMTA National Heritage Area explaining how the family never knew what happened to their relative. He hoped to learn more about his great-grandfather and his life as a gold miner in Alaska.
Midtgarden was put in touch with Dr. Rolfe Buzzell and the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. Buzzell and Midtgarden shared photos, historic documents, and newspaper clippings. Buzzell found Hammer’s obituary in June 1, 1907 Seward Weekly Gateway. Hammers passed away May 7, 1907, just a week after writing his last letter home. He was buried two days later at the Point Comfort Cemetery at Sunrise.
Buzzell knows the cemetery well, having overseen the restoration of Point Comfort in 1995. Now the Hammers’ family knows where their relative is buried; and Buzzell has accounted for one of the unmarked graves that he always wondered about.
From Midtgarden, Buzzell learned that Hammers was the eldest son of twelve living children and he that had inherited the family farm.
“He left Norway in 1880 after a serious conflict with his wife and after having to sell or pledge his family’s farm,” Midtgarden wrote. “He bought and sold timber in the 1870s when the prices were high but the prices suddenly dropped and he went bankrupt.”
Hammers left behind his wife, Signe Andrea and two children, one-year-old daughter, Gro and three-year-old son, Gunnar.
Hammers was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1896 and Midtgarden doubts if he ever intended to return to Norway.
Investigating his great-grandfather’s travel dates and the schedules of the SS Mexico and the SS Bertha, Midtgarten discovered that Hammers sailed on the same ships as Gold Rush Wife Nellie Frost and her husband Jack. He is listed along with the Frosts on a roster of just 141 residents in the Sunrise district in1897-98. The Frosts mined in the summer and ran a general store in the winter. Although thousands went north looking for gold, surely the Frosts and Hammers crossed paths from time to time. They may have even shared coffee over Nellie’s famous home-baked chocolate cake.
Through the curiosity of a great-grandson, the tenacious research of a historian, and the publication of Gold Rush Wife, a mystery was solved. While history is often considered a study of bygone days, it turns out in the end, that the past is still being written.
(This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of Alaska magazine. This story also appeared as the preface to the 2nd edition of her book Trails Across Time: History of an Alaska Mountain Corridor which was released in October 2017. As her day job, Kaylene is executive director of the Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area.)