Wyatt Earp (Photo provided)
Wyatt Earp (Photo provided)
After the gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881, Wyatt Earp’s life became a sojourn though Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Texas and California. Wyatt’s investments in San Diego soured and a scandal ensued over a prize fight in San Francisco which damaged his reputation. Wyatt and his wife, Josephine, then retreated to Arizona. While there, he heard the news of the discovery of gold in Alaska and they decided to chase their dreams in the north. But their departure was delayed because of Wyatt’s hip fracture and Josie’s miscarriage. In Alaska, they settled first at St. Michael, but in 1899 an old friend from Arizona, Tex Rickard, convinced them to head for Nome.

Nome at this time was a tent and shanty city with non-existent basic sanitation. The city was two blocks wide and five miles long, with at best, muddy troughs for streets. Sewage went directly into the river, which was the only source of drinking water. Therefore, typhoid, dysentery and pneumonia ran rampant. A smallpox epidemic led to the opening of the first hospital. A diphtheria outbreak in 1925 was the inspiration for the Iditarod dog sled race. Anti-toxin was rushed to Nome from Anchorage and this is the present day Iditarod route, a distance of approximately 1000 miles.

In Nome, Wyatt Earp and Charlie Hoxie became partners in a two story saloon named “The Dexter.” Prospectors needed to drink, gamble and enjoy the company of women and The Dexter provided. Wyatt always claimed he earned his money by “mining the miners.” He did file several mining claims but “mining” at The Dexter was the most lucrative. Josie stated that The Dexter was more than a saloon. It filled a civic purpose as a clubhouse, a town hall, center for business transactions and a social club.

Tex Rickard was also in the saloon business in Nome. His Northern Saloon was already a popular enterprise when he encouraged Wyatt to settle there. This is the same Tex Rickard who became a famous fight promoter and built the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden. Wyatt observed, “We met and hung out in saloons, there weren’t any YMCA’s.” One prominent guest was a mining engineer and future U.S. President, Herbert Hoover.

In the fall of 1899, the Earps headed south to Seattle on the Steamer Cleveland. It was a most difficult trip. There was an infestation of lice on board plus a storm on the Bering Sea so severe Josephine begged to get off the ship. It took nine days to reach Seattle.

Newspapers in Seattle and San Francisco falsely reported on Wyatt’s wealth which prompted a stampede to Nome to seek similar riches. Nome was advertised as an “exotic summer destination” and four ships a day left Seattle with passengers infected with “gold fever.”

The Earps left Seattle on the Alliance returning to Nome with many luxurious accessories to decorate The Dexter. Within weeks Nome grew to a city of over 20,000 inhabitants. In 1900, the major business there “was not mining, but gambling and saloon trade. There were 100 saloons and gambling houses, with an occasional restaurant.” Losses of $10,000 per hand in poker were not extraordinary. Prize fighting became the sport of choice and Wyatt’s income soared with side bets. He often refereed bouts himself at The Dexter.

The summer of 1900 was a difficult time for the Earps. There were marital tensions caused by Josephine’s displeasure over the saloon’s ties to prostitution and Wyatt’s affairs. In addition, Wyatt’s younger brother, Warren, was killed in Willcox, Arizona. Newspapers linked it to the 1881 OK Corral gunfight. Warren’s death was an unwelcome reminder that even in remote Nome, the Earps could not escape the past. Nome was also racked by political scandals and natural disasters. As the temperature dropped, the stampede was on again but the direction was reversed. Most adventurers left poorer, sadder and probably no wiser.

Wyatt sold his share of the saloon to Hoxie and transferred his mining claims to Josephine’s brother. The Earps returned to Seattle with $80,000 (more than $2 million today) on the SS Roanoke in the fall of 1901. It is alleged Wyatt said of Nome, “She’s been a good old burg. Mighty good to us!”

Upon their return to Seattle, Wyatt speculated in mines and new business ventures, lent money to family and friends, and gambled with good intentions. Their marriage survived but their savings dribbled away. They were forced to rely on Josephine’s wealthy sister for funds. For most of Wyatt’s last decade, the couple lived frugally, shuttling between a one-room rented bungalow in Los Angeles and an isolated desert campsite. Theirs was a life of adventure, wealth and finally penuriousness.