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Originally published Sunday, April 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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'The Last Train to Nowhere' sits outside Nome, a ghost on the tundra

Nome, Alaska, houses a ghost yard of old steam engines on the tundra outside of town.

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

Nome, Alaska

More information

Nome Discovery Tours (Richard Beneville). P.O. Box 2024, Nome, AK 99762. Phone: 907-443-2814. Internet: www.discoverry@cgi.net

Nome Convention & Visitor Bureau, P.O. Box 240, Nome, AK 99762, Phone: 907-443-6624. Internet: www.nomealaska.org

NOME, Alaska — "There are strange things done in the midnight sun by the men who moil for gold . . ." So wrote Robert W. Service, the gold-rush bard.

But perhaps none stranger than a ghostly tableau a few miles east of Nome. There, stranded forever on a strip of summer-green tundra, are three steam locomotives from the 1880s.

Locals have named it "The Last Train to Nowhere."

"This is a land of broken dreams," says Richard Beneville , a longtime Nome tour guide. "And this forlorn, little railroad is one of those dreams that never came true."

Nome was the scene of a great gold rush at the birth of the 20th Century. Thousands of stampeders crowded the creeks and Bering Sea beaches here in search of gold.

It was a wild time. There were claim-jumping murders and corruption so rampant that even a federal judge was among the ringleaders. Wyatt Earp, the gunslinger from the OK Corral, ran a saloon in Nome, and one night was threatened with arrest by a bold town marshal for disturbing the peace.

But not all of the action was in Nome itself.

A few miles down the Bering Sea coast from Nome, investors from Chicago decided a railroad was needed to connect newly sprouting mining camps. Later, the sponsors said, the rails could be extended all the way south to booming Vancouver, B.C.

Thus was born the Council City & Solomon River Railroad, now "The Last Train to Nowhere."

Soon after the Bering Sea ice retreated in 1903, the steamer Aztec arrived from Seattle with two locomotives that had been retired by the New York Elevated rail system. One of the engines had been manufactured in 1881; the other in 1886. The third locomotive, of similar vintage, arrived the following year.

The Aztec also delivered several box cars and flat cars, plus 51 miles of standard-gauge track, 165,000 ties, 4 million board feet of lumber for trestles, railroad offices, employee housing and a machine shop.

(A technical note: all three locomotives are 23-ton 0-4-4 Forney-type steamers).

By the end of the 1903 construction season, workers completed about 10 miles of main line. A town site was laid out in the port area by the Solomon River, starting point of the Council City & Solomon River Railroad. Soon five saloons, six restaurants and other establishments were open for business. The town was named Dickson, for J. Warren Dickson, the railroad's general manager.

But as the Nome-area gold rush faded, debts began to crush the fledgling railroad. Construction stopped in 1906, with only 35 miles of track in place.

Now there are only the rusting remains of the three locomotives leaning into the tundra a few yards from the icy Bering Sea.

"The Last Train to Nowhere." It seems a fitting name.

There is a spooky silence about the place.

"Let's take a walk," said Richard Beneville, our guide. .

We hiked down a gravel slope, then "went aboard" the railroad for a close-up inspection of the antique locomotives. They looked like giant toys tossed by a cyclone.

"Unreal," Beneville said.

My old friend, Richard himself could have been one of the gold-rush characters who strolled the streets of early Nome.

A song-and-dance man from New York, Beneville drifted to Alaska in 1982 with a drinking problem.

"My life was in the dumps," he recalls. "I was sure I was a failure,"

He found a job selling furniture for the Alaska Commercial Co. in the High Arctic village of Barrow.

"I arrived in 40-below weather, wearing a three-piece suit and a tie," Beneville said. "An Eskimo guy at the airport in Barrow looked me over and asked, 'Who the hell is that?'"

That's how it was for many of the lonely miners who wandered into Nome more than 100 years ago.

"Back during the gold rush, a man could disappear here, if he wanted," Beneville said, "Some were running from bad marriages or maybe crimes. Nobody asked questions, and personal information wasn't volunteered.

"It was sort of like that for me at first."

Beneville had some happy memories, along with his failures, when he arrived in Alaska. Once he was an understudy for Joel Grey in the Broadway production of "Cabaret." That didn't last long.

But brighter times were ahead for the song-and-dance man from Broadway.

Richard moved from Barrow to Nome (pop. 3,500) on a warm summer day in 1988.

"Right away I joined A.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous) here. I've been sober ever since," he says.

"I love it here. I love my life. I am so blessed!"

Now Beneville — described by friends as "a happy leprechaun" — directs and performs in local musicals when he isn't guiding visitors around Nome. He is easy to spot on Front Street with his nimble gait and a tattered top hat, a gift from a cast member of "A Chorus Line."

Touring with Richard is a package of surprises.

He will introduce visitors to Eskimo artists, help them pan for gold and escort them to the Front Street finish line of the Iditarod sled-dog race. But his real joy is to show them the warmer side of Nome.

That itinerary may include a drive to see snow-white tundra swans gliding on a wilderness pond. Or maybe a herd of shaggy musk ox, leftovers from the Ice Age, burrowing into a cool patch of never-melting snow.

But his first love is the almost magical display of wildflowers that carpet the tundra for a brief few weeks in summer. It's a spectacular array of tiny flowers . . . purple, blue, orange, red and more . . . that appear somehow from the icebound tundra.

Benevlle's favorites include wild daisies, bluebells, wild beach peas and a jewel-like purple star from nearby Siberia known as the Kamchatka Rhododendron.

The rhododendron is no taller than a kitchen match. The best way to see it is to drop to a prone position and enjoy some "belly botany," Richard suggests.

"Life for me is good, very good," he says.

Stanton H. Patty, a Vancouver, Wash. writer, is etired assistant travel editor of The Seattle Times.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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