Nicholas B. Tweet
(1871 - 1967)
Evinda S. Tweet
(1879 - 1975)
Nicholas and Evinda Tweet at their home in Teller, Alaska, circa 1919.
Photo from the Tweet family collection.
It is difficult to name any couple in Alaska mining history that has had more longevity and perseverance than Nicholas B. and Evinda S. Tweet. In marriage, they formed a team that created a remarkably stable, family owned, placer gold mining firm that continues to this day. Their company, N.B. Tweet and Sons, has operated placer gold mines on the Seward Peninsula of western Alaska for 110 years. Nicholas and Evinda worked their way through several placer gold mining camps, tried their hand at graphite mining, operated two bucketline stacker gold dredges, provided musical entertainment to the mining communities in which they lived and worked, interacted with North American (Inupiat) and Chuckchi Eskimos from their home in Teller, witnessed and participated in the dawn of the air age, and, finally, saw Alaska Statehood before their passing at Taylor in the Kougarok district. Nicholas was 95 at the time of his death. Evinda passed away at the age of 96. In 2010, N.B. Tweet and Sons operated the only floating bucketline stacker dredge in North America.
Nicholas (Nick) and Evinda Tweet were of Scandinavian origin, their parents being immigrants from Norway, and both grew up in rural Minnesota. Nick, born August 14, 1871, was from Franklin, while Evinda S. (nee Lyders) Tweet, born May 16, 1879, was from nearby Sacred Heart. Both towns were small Lutheran farm communities in the Minnesota River Valley, about 150 miles west of Minneapolis. Franklin is sometimes referred to as the 'Catfish Capital' of Minnesota. Sacred Heart was and is a railroad transportation center used by local grain producers. Some also dub Sacred Heart the 'Tornado Capital of the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes', with more of the funnel-shaped clouds touching down within its jurisdiction than in any other Minnesota community.
Tornados didn't chase Nicholas and Evinda out of Minnesota. Instead, the northern frontier beckoned them, and they would live and work there for the rest of their lives. An adventurous 23-year-old, Nicholas Tweet first came north in 1894. He hiked over Chilkoot Pass, and rafted down the Yukon River system to follow up on coarse placer gold discoveries made there by Howard Franklin eight years earlier. Nicholas, then a novice at mining, spent two years in the Fortymile district, where he mined and prospected, and eventually achieved a measure of success for his efforts. In the fall of 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike, and Nicholas packed his gear and moved to Dawson, where he worked and mined until the spring of 1899. The 1898 Alaska-Yukon Directory lists Tweet as a miner, but offers no other information.
The 1898 discovery of gold in the Cape Nome Mining district drew Nick Tweet to the Seward Peninsula. He left Dawson by sternwheeler, and traveled down the Yukon River, eventually reaching Saint Michael, where he found out that he had to walk north several hundred miles along the beaches of Norton Sound to reach the new digging on the Seward Peninsula. On June 20, 1899, he arrived in Nome, which then consisted of several hundred tents, one saloon built with driftwood, and one log cabin. It was in this famous gold rush town that Nick finally succeeded handsomely in gold mining; he did very well capitalizing on the early phases of discovery and exploitation of the gold-laden, modern beach deposits. Buoyed with his success, Nicholas returned to Minnesota briefly, where he courted and then married Evinda Lyders in late 1899.
Nick returned to Nome in 1900, leaving Evinda in Tacoma, where their first two sons, Edgar and Norman, were born during 1900 and 1901. By the time Nick Tweet returned to Nome, nearly all of the good placer ground in the district had been staked, and the easy-to-mine beaches had become largely depleted of gold, including his previous beach placer holdings. Although gold was initially discovered there in 1898, the Nome Rush of 1900 was mainly a stampede to exploit those easy-to-mine beach deposits, and up to 20,000 adventure seekers ventured into the country, traveling from the communities of Dawson and Circle down the Yukon River to its mouth, and then by ocean steamer to Nome. Others came to Nome via Seattle or San Francisco, having originated in Canada, the 48 States, and beyond. Wages could still be made working for companies exploiting the more traditional upland stream placers on Anvil, Dexter, Snow Gulch, and other creeks in the district, but gold production around Nome remained stagnant until the 1905-1906 discovery of the fabulously rich, yet deeply buried, Third Beachline. Many disappointed miners and prospectors began to leave Nome for Stateside destinations, or ventured into other areas of the Peninsula. Tweet was of the latter group, and was willing to test new areas.
During 1900-1901, Nick Tweet prospected in the Kougarok and Fairhaven districts in the central portion of the Seward Peninsula. He constructed a small boat in Nome, and rowed to Teller, then up the Kuzitrin and Kougarok Rivers via the Imuruk Basin, and into the Fairhaven and Kougarok districts. In similar fashion he rowed up the Agiapuk River basin north of Grantley Harbor. For much of the time, he pulled the boat by hand, there being insufficient water to row. Nick did not find what he wanted in the Kougarok and Fairhaven districts, although the knowledge gained would provide important information for him and Evinda to consider later in their lives.
Gold placer discoveries in the Port Clarence district 70 miles northwest of Nome beckoned to Nick and Evinda Tweet. The Bluestone River basin became the first significant discovery, and several small paystreaks were successfully hand-mined during 1900. Shortly afterwards, during 1902-1904, small gold placers were found in streams north of Grantley Harbor, including Bay, Sunset, Igloo, Dewey, McKinley, and Offeld Creeks. Several towns sprung up on the shores of Port Clarence, the first being Bering. Sullivan was founded in the Bluestone River basin to the south. A newer town of Teller was formed near Bering, and became the more permanent community. Nick, Evinda, and their two young sons, Edgar and Norman, moved to Teller in 1902. From this base, the Tweet family would mine placer gold in the Port Clarence district for nearly a half century, or until 1947. Principally because of its good harbor, Teller became a favored hub for mining on the Seward Peninsula, despite being a rather modest producer of gold as compared to the Cape Nome and Solomon districts to the east. Saloons, honky-tonks, banks, stores, and hotels catered not only to miners, but also to sailors, whalers, and fisherman from the ships that called into port.
The Tweet family in front of the family house in Teller, Alaska, circa 1924; from left to right, Edgar, Nick, Evinda, Bill (the child being held by Evinda), Norman, and Harold.
Photo from the Tweet family collection.
When Elisabeth Pinson described her years growing up in Teller in her autobiography, Alaska's Daughter, she related many aspects of the economic and social life of that part of the Last Frontier:
"The Tweet family became the last to operate during the great gold rush mining era in the Port Clarence region……My father (Alfred Bernhardt) worked at several of their placer operations around Grantley Harbor."Nicholas and Evinda Tweet, along with their sons, mined on Deese (a.k.a Dese), Gold Run, and Coyote Creeks southeast of Teller. In the early years, the family's gold mining operations were small-scale and largely non-mechanized, but due to the Tweets' resourcefulness and efficiency, N.B. Tweet and Sons quickly became an economic success. According to Pinson,
"The way they [the Tweets] lived showed that they were among the wealthier folk of Teller."In addition to deploying their own family members in the mining of gold, the Tweets hired local people instead of bringing laborers in from outside sources, as was commonly done by mining companies of that era.
There was no clear-cut division of labor during the early years of the Tweet marriage. In addition to raising her four husky 'Norwegian' sons, Edgar, Norman, Harold, and William, Evinda diligently panned and prospected many creek drainages in both the Teller and later Taylor areas, and usually cleaned up the gold from the concentrates of the mine operations. In her years on Deese and Coyote Creeks, she shoveled into sluice boxes alongside her husband and sons, and nozzled away overburden. Financial details of mine development, including property acquisition and 'greenfields exploration', were handled jointly by Evinda and Nick. They were an effective husband-and-wife mining team.
Panning on Coyote Creek, Port Clarence district, Alaska, circa 1921-1922; from left to right, Bill Tweet, Mrs. Reed, and Evinda Tweet.
Photo from the Tweet family collection.
It was not 'all work and no play' in the Teller mining camp, and musically-inclined residents would perform in local dances, usually in an empty warehouse known as "The Woodbine'. Nick Tweet and his two oldest sons, Edgar and Norman, would play harmonicas; the elder Tweet would also keep the beat of the music with two spoons rattled together, and he was quite skilled at both. Another miner, Jim LaPierre, would play his violin. David Bernhardt would join in with both an accordion and sometimes a guitar, and the patriarch Alfred Bernhardt would also play an accordion. The favorite piece of Alfred Bernhardt, a naturalized citizen from Germany, was "Blue Danube", but the group would also perform polkas, square dances, Virginia reels, and schottisches. When the group was not playing live music, they and others would listen to the powerful transmissions of KNX Radio in Los Angeles, which aired National Barn Dance on the weekends. During the long, cold winters, the Tweets taught the German-Eskimo Bernhardt family how to play card games, and some of these tournaments would last for days. In return, David and Tony Bernhardt showed Nick and Evinda Tweet and their sons how to play Eskimo football, known as munna munna. Ice sailing was another popular sport that the Tweets and Bernhardts participated in, and some of their ski-rigged boats were clocked at more than 30 miles per hour.
Situated on the shores of the Bering Sea, Teller has had a unique international perspective. The community is only about 100 miles from the Siberian coast, and quite literally, there are nearby localities where one 'can see Russia from one's house'. During the Bolshevik Revolution, refugees from that difficult period in Russian history were known to appear briefly in the town. Chukchi Eskimos from the Chukotka Peninsula would also appear, and interesting enough, could not speak or understand the dialect of the Inupiat Eskimo or vice versa. About the time that Evinda and Nick arrived in Teller, there was a robust trade in reindeer meat arriving from Chukotka, as natural populations of game in Alaska were sparse or in decline, and could not meet the needs of the gold mining industry, or even local residents. This condition eventually led to the establishment of Alaska's reindeer industry at about the same time. Arctic explorers would call into port at Teller, and local residents, including the Bernhardts and the Tweets, would visit with Raold Amundson, Italian Commander Nobile, and explorer Lincoln Ellsworth, who were aboard the world's largest dirigible, Norge, during its top-of-the-world stop at Teller in 1926. Strong winds wrecked the Norge at Teller. Other explorers who ventured to Teller include Vilhjalmer Stefansson, and pilot Joe Crosson. The Tweets also felt first-hand the tragic loss of Carl Ben Eielson and Earl Borland, when the pioneer pilot and his mechanic suffered a fatal airplane crash off the coast of Siberia in 1929. Teller was the base of operations for the search, and the whole town participated in the attempted but unsuccessful rescue.
Events in Europe temporarily changed the Tweets' direction in mining. World War I caused a strong demand for graphite, a non-metallic commodity used in lubrication applications for the war industry. High grade graphite deposits in the nearby Kigluaik Mountains (a.k.a. Sawtooth Mountains) east of Teller had been known since 1900, when claims were staked west of the Cobblestone River. A company called 'Uncle Sam Alaska Graphite Mining Syndicate' had produced some graphite there in 1912, but ceased production later that same year. Nick Tweet staked graphite-bearing mining claims, and then leased them to a company called the 'Alaska Graphite Company' in 1915, which subsequently mined and shipped approximately 500 tons of high grade graphite in 1916 and 1917, and a few more tons in succeeding years. Subsequently, Nick, Edgar, and Norman worked the claims for the company. Nick and his brother-in-law, Carl Lyders, also mined graphite on other claims at a small scale. In order to support the mine efforts, a bunk house and storage shed were built on Graphite Bay in the Imuruk Basin, and a three mile long road from Imuruk Basin to the mines sites on Glacier Creek was constructed. Alaska Graphite Company employed seven men to complete the seasonal (summer only) mining activities. Most of the graphite ore was conveyed from an open pit on the hillside to a loading station about 200 feet lower, using a hydraulic pipe 400 feet long and 8 inches in diameter. Hand sorting of high grade was completed at the pit, and was sacked there separately. Transportation from the mine to Graphite Bay was by trailers drawn by a small, gasoline-powered HoltTM tractor. This was certainly one of the earliest tractors to be used in the Alaska mineral industry, and predates another HoltTM and a ClectracTM model used in the Kantishna and Iditarod districts, respectively, during the early 1920s. Holt would later merge with another firm, BestTM, to form Caterpillar. The Holt gas tractor used to haul the Kigluaik graphite resides today at Taylor.
Graphite mining on Ruby Creek, Kigluaik Mountains, Alaska, circa 1917.
Photo from the Tweet family collection.
From Graphite Bay, the graphite ore was loaded into scows, towed to Teller, and then loaded onto ocean steamers bound for market destinations, mainly Seattle and San Francisco. The Tweet graphite production amounted to large bulk samples shipped to several market destinations. According to Harrington's 1919 summary, the best graphite mined in the Kigluaik Mountains was
"Very high grade (up to 98% carbon), and comparable to high quality flake graphite deposits produced elsewhere; even the poorest material is regarded as good ore as compared to many commercial locations."But cessation of international hostilities ceased in 1918, and the graphite market steeply declined, with resultant loss of market for the Tweets. By 1920, all of their graphite shipments had ceased. Interest in these high quality graphite deposits east of Teller resurfaced during World War II and the Korean War, and even recently. N.B. Tweet and Sons continue to maintain federal mining claims there.
The 1920s through the1940s saw N.B. Tweet and Sons continue to mine placer gold near Teller, but the firm was increasingly aided by yellow machines of the modern, mechanized, placer mining vintage, and then by dredges. In 1927, the oldest Tweet son, Edgar, married the local school teacher, Mary Monagle. Several years later, Edgar started a successful store franchise in Teller. During the late 1930s, Edgar decided to greatly expand the store, and sold his mining interests to Nick and Evinda, his younger brothers, and other mining partners in order to concentrate on his store operations. During the 1930s, Nick, Evinda, and their three younger sons mined placer gold on Deese, Coyote, and Igloo Creeks. Territorial records show that N.B. Tweet and Sons operated a gold dredge on Deese Creek almost continuously during the 1930s, until it was shut down in 1938.
Graphite en route to Imuruk Basin during a test haul, circa 1917; Nick Tweet is seated on the wagon, the others are not identified.
Photo from the Tweet family collection.
The second World War shut down gold mining throughout Alaska, and the operations of N.B. Tweet and Sons were not exempt. The elderly Nick Tweet, at age 71, served in the Alaska Territorial Guard as a Private. Joining him in the Guard was forty-year-old Norman, who served as a Sergeant, and forty-two-year-old Edgar, who served as a Lieutenant. The two younger sons, Harold and Bill, served on active duty in the Army. Bill served in Anchorage and Valdez, and Harold served in the Aleutians and in other parts of the Pacific Theater.
N.B. Tweet and Sons resumed mining after World War II, but moved in different directions. Their claims in the Port Clarence district were largely worked out, and the company began to search for new ground. In 1947, Bill and Harold married Muriel and Virginia Carpenter respectively, both of whom were also school teachers. That year, Nick, Evinda, Norman, Bill, Muriel, Harold, and Virginia spent the summer on a sort of combined prospecting and honeymoon trip. They traveled with D6 and D8 Caterpillar tractors, and covered roughly the same route that Nick had covered in the Fairhaven and Kougarok districts nearly 50 years previously. They found good pay on Humbolt Creek (now in the Bering Land Bridge National Monument), and mined there in 1948 and 1949. N.B. Tweet and Sons decided to move their operational headquarters from Teller to Taylor, and did so in 1950. The family continued to spend the winters in Teller until the late 1970s.
In 1936, Alaska Mining Hall of Famer John McGinn, along with Fairbanks financier Sam Godfrey, secured capital from Tacoma and San Francisco investors to build a 2.0 cubic foot, Washington Iron Works bucketline stacker dredge for Kougarok Consolidated Placers (KCP) at Taylor. The dredge was placed into production by the end of the 1937 season, and it operated until 1939 or 1940. Financial difficulties ensued, and the partnership of Castleton and Keenan purchased the KCP dredge in 1940, and operated it until the untimely death of Keenan, the operator, who was killed in an airplane crash. The KPC dredge was shut down during World War II. After several more unsuccessful attempts to operate the dredge, by several different firms, N.B. Tweet and Sons acquired the KPC dredge assets from Grant Jackson of the Miners and Merchant Bank in 1951.
Nick, Evinda, and their sons were happy to acquire the KCP gold dredge, and recognized that a hefty gold resource lay in the large alluvial terrace at Taylor. For Nick and Evinda, who were long overdue for retirement, it was a way to continue the family tradition of placer mining. Their eldest son, Edgar, had passed away in 1948, but the younger sons, Norman, Harold, and Bill, began to plan for a long-term run with the dredge. The first year of gold dredge production in the Kougarok district by N.B. Tweet and Sons was 1953 or 1954; the firm also continued to mine with non-float and dragline methods.
During the 1960s, the fixed price of gold continued to take its toll on the Alaska gold mining industry. Almost all of Alaska's dredges, with the exception of two small boats operated by the USSR&M Company (and the Goodnews Bay platinum dredge), had shut down by 1963. N.B. Tweet and Sons temporarily reverted back to non-float mechanized mining on their Kougarok district properties. However, by the early 1970s, as related by Clark Spence in his classic book, The Northern Gold Fleet,
"N.B. Tweet and Sons was again digging on Taylor Creek in the Kougarok District."State of Alaska records, maintained by the writer throughout the 1970s to late 1990s, and then by others since, show that N.B. Tweet and Sons' gold dredging activities have been more-or-less continuous ever since. The typical mine cycle for N.B. Tweet and Sons has been to prepare ground for mining one year, using first hydraulic and then mechanical stripping technology, and then to operate the dredge the following year. This cycle has worked very well for the Tweets. The length of time the dredge operates each season depends on how much ground was stripped during the previous year. When totaling the times of both the Deese Creek and Taylor dredges, N.B. Tweet and Sons has operated bucketline stacker dredges on the Seward Peninsula for more than 50 years.
Nicholas Tweet nozzling at the Taylor Camp, circa 1956.
Photo from the Tweet family collection.
Beginning in 2009, N.B. Tweet and Sons began to systematically rebuild all aspects of their Taylor dredge. New buckets were cast at a foundry outside of Alaska, and the substantial improvements have resulted in the fabrication of practically a brand new dredge. The wide alluvial terrace at Taylor will provide years of reserves for the dredging operation. In 2010, the Tweet dredge was believed to be the only operating bucketline stacker gold dredge in North America.
The KCP-Tweet dredge, ready to dig, circa 2010.
Photo from the T.K. Bundtzen collection.
Nicholas and Evinda Tweet saw their Taylor dredge recover gold, but would not see their grandsons and great grandsons renovate the dredge. Nicholas B. Tweet died on July 14, 1967. Evinda followed on May 28, 1975. Nick was 95 at the time of his death, and Evinda was 96; both died at the family mining camp near Taylor. Son Norman died in 1977, Bill in 1981, and Harold in 1995. Nick and Evinda Tweet's grandson, Douglas Tweet, told the writer,
"Our grandparents never made much money in mining, but they always paid their bills, raised a mining family in the North Country, and taught their descendents how to live and how to love the placer mining lifestyle. They never became wealthy, but somehow, through their inspiration, we, the Tweet family, have since mined continuously."
By Thomas K. Bundtzen, October 2010
Panning on Coyote Creek, Port Clarence district, circa 1921-1922; from left to right, Edgar Tweet, unidentified, Bill Tweet, and two unidentified women.
Photo from the Tweet family collection.
Coats, R.R., 1944, Graphite deposits on the north side of the Kigluaik Mountains, Seward Peninsula, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Open File Report 44-25, 8 pages.
Collier, A.J., Hess, F.L., Smith, P.S., and Brooks, A.H., 1908, The gold placers of parts of Seward Peninsula, Alaska: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 328, 343 pages.
Harrington, G.L., 1919, Graphite mining in Seward Peninsula: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 692-G, pages 363-367.
Holdsworth, P.R., 1953, Report of the Commissioner of Mines for the Biennium Ended December 31, 1952, Alaska Territorial Department of Mines, 66 pages.
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Williams, J.A., 1960, Report of the Division of Mines and Minerals for the Year 1959: State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 80 pages.
Williams, J.A., 1961, Report of the Division of Mines and Minerals for the Year 1960: State of Alaska Department of Natural Resources, 86 pages.