Booms and Busts: Iditarod Trail History

By Don Bowers

Gold rushes were a major part of Alaska history beginning in the 1880’s. The strikes near Juneau in 1880, the Klondike in 1896, Nome in 1898, and Fairbanks in 1902 helped define Alaska’s very character. In fact, they directly resulted in the founding of three of the state’s largest cities (Fairbanks is second, Juneau third and Nome seventh).

However, these bonanzas were only the best known of more than 30 serious gold rushes in Alaska from 1880 to 1914. In fact, the last full-scale, old-fashioned, frontier-style gold rush in the United States roared into life in 1909 at Iditarod, 629 trail miles west of the future site of Anchorage and half way to Nome. By the next year, Iditarod eclipsed Nome and Fairbanks to briefly become the largest city in Alaska with 10,000 inhabitants. It boasted several banks and hotels and even a newspaper, all supplied by regular sternwheeler service up the Innoko and Iditarod Rivers, tributaries of the mighty Yukon River.

Many gold districts in Alaska could be served by steamboats in the summer plying the many rivers lacing the Alaska interior. Nome, on the coast, had regular ocean going steamship service. Nonetheless, there was virtually no way to travel to any of these places when freeze up stopped the river and ocean traffic from October to May. By 1910, the need for year-round mail and freight service to the miners in western Alaska led the Federal government to survey and construct a winter trail from Seward to Nome for use by dog sled teams.

The original Iditarod Trail started at Seward (or more properly, about 50 miles north at the end of the under-construction Alaska Central Railroad, which later became the Alaska Railroad.) From the end of track, the trail wound along Turnagain Arm through what is now Girdwood, over Crow Pass, down the uninhabited Eagle River Valley and northward to the tiny trading post of Knik, the largest town on Upper Cook Inlet until the railroad town of Anchorage was found in 1915.

From Knik, the trail arrowed west through the wooded valleys of the Susitna and Yentna Rivers and climbed tortuously over Rainy Pass through the massive Alaska Range. West of the Range, the trail drifted across the vast Kuskokwim Valley to the hills west of McGrath, to the Innoko River mining district and the town of Ophir, another classic boom town ebbing even then from its glory days of 1907.

From Ophir, the trail rolled southwest through the ridge and valley country of the Kuskokwim Mountains to the bustling town of Iditarod. Swinging northwest from Iditarod, the trail pushed to the Yukon River, then due north up its frozen mile-wide expanse to the Koyukon Athabascan village of Kaltag.

At Kaltag, the trail angled back southwest along the 90-mile Kaltag Portage, known for centuries to Eskimos and Indians as a shortcut through the low coastal mountains to Norton Sound and the Bering Sea. The western end of the portage was anchored by the ancient Yup’ik Eskimo village of Unalakleet, whose name means “place where the east wind blows.”

From Unalakleet, the trail swept north and then west around the rugged shore of the Seward Peninsula, passing through old Inupiat villages with names like Shaktoolik, Koyuk, and Golovin. Fifty miles before Nome, the trailed dropped down onto the beaches that had caused the rush to Nome a decade before. After more than 1,150 miles, the Iditarod Trail opened onto Front Street in Nome, then the site of North America’s most notorious saloon row, whose proprietors at one time included Wyatt Earp.

The typical traveler on the Iditarod Trail was a musher driving a team of twenty or more dogs pulling a massive freight sled capable of carrying half a ton or more. These mushers followed in the ancient traditions of Alaska Natives, who mastered the fine art of using dogs for winter transportation many centuries ago. Different Native peoples bred dogs for their particular needs over the centuries. The Malemiut Inupiat people of the Seward Peninsula developed a particularly hardy breed of sled dog that today bears their name: the Malamute.

When Russians and eventually Americans arrived in the North Country, they quickly discovered that dog teams were practically the only way to reliably move across long distances in Alaska when river travel was not possible. Indeed, they found that dogs were ideally suited for winter travel for a number of reasons.

Pound for pound, the sled dog is the most powerful draft animal on earth, and a team of twenty dogs averaging perhaps 75 pounds each can easily match a team of horses weighing more than twice as much. As a matter of interest, one dog has pulled more than half a ton in the canine equivalent of a tractor pull. As late as the 1960’s Yup’ik Eskimos of Nelson Island moved much of their town, including entire houses, to a new site two dozen miles away with hundred-dog teams.

Dogs are faster than horses over the long haul, capable of maintaining average speeds of eight to twelve miles an hour for hundreds of miles (including rest stops), and can exceed twenty miles an hour or more on shorter sprints. Even better, dogs can be fed from the land with moose, fish, or caribou in the winter, while horses or oxen require expensive hay or grain. Moreover, heavy draft animals cannot use the snowpacked winter trails.

The early mushers used a mixture of breeds, ranging from Native types such as the Malamute and Siberian husky to various domestic dogs imported from the Lower 48. Some mushers even used wolves. To promote Alaska statehood, an Alaskan musher drove a team of wolves all the way to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933.

By 1900, dog teams were as common in Alaska as cars, ATV’s, and snowmachines are today. Almost every winter photograph of early Alaska includes a dog team of some kind. These ranged from small family work teams used for hauling wood and water, to massive freight teams used for long distance movement of supplies, mail, and even passengers. The Iditarod Trail and other winter trails around Alaska (such as the old Eagle Trail from Valdez to Eagle on the Yukon River) were built primarily for the freight mushers, who occupy a special place in Alaska history. They manned Alaska’s winter lifelines in the days before airplanes and modern communications.

The freight mushers on the Iditarod Trail would start out from Knik laden with mail, food, and gear for the isolated miners as soon as the river crossings were frozen. In November of 1911, for example, 120 teams headed west across the Alaska Range. Each day they would try to make 50 or 70 miles, stopping at roadhouses located about a day’s travel apart. Many roadhouses were in villages, but some, such as Skwentna Station and Rohn Roadhouse, were isolated waystations not much different from Old West stage stops of half a century before. Mushers could get a meal and a warm bed, food for their dogs, and a place to wait out the storms that periodically swept the trail.

A trip to Nome could take three weeks or more. Mostly the teams hauled cargo, but passengers were sometimes carried in long sleds. (Most people who did not plan to winter over probably had taken the last steamboat out in the fall when “termination dust” began to coat the tops of the mountains.) The dog teams sometimes hauled out the season’s gold on the return trip to Knik. According to Ron Wendt in Hatcher Pass Gold, 2,600 pounds of gold arrived at Knik on December 10, 1911, hauled by four teams. In December of 1916, no less than 3,400 pounds of the precious metal came out behind 46 dogs.

The trail was used every winter through the World War I era and well into the 1920’s, with parts of it being used as late as the 1940’s. The inevitable end for the Iditarod and other long distance winter sled trails in Alaska, though, was the airplane. The first airmail in Alaska was flown from Fairbanks to McGrath in early 1924 by legendary aviator Carl Ben Eielson, and the use of airplanes rapidly spread throughout the North Country. Alaska went directly from the steamboat and the dog team to the airplane, without the road and railroad building era that led to the dense road and rail networks of the Lower 48. (Even today, Alaska has fewer miles of highways than any other state except Rhode Island.)

But the sled dogs has one last taste of glory in early 1925 when a diphtheria epidemic (one of several devastating epidemics to sweep Alaska in the first part of the century) threatened isolated, icebound Nome. The nearest serum was in Anchorage and the first thought was to fly it to Nome. However, the only pilot in the Territory considered capable of braving the unpredictable weather was Carl Ben Eielson, who was on a trip in the Lower 48 and was not available.

Instead, a Pony Express-type relay of dog teams was quickly organized. The serum was loaded on the newly completed Alaska Railroad and rushed to Nenana, where the first musher took it westward down the frozen Tanana River to the Yukon. Every village along the route offered its best team and driver for its leg to speed the serum toward Nome. The critical leg across the treacherous Norton Sound ice from Shaktoolik to Golovin was taken by Leonhard Seppala, the territory’s premier musher, and his lead dog Togo. Gunnar Kaasen drove the final two legs into Nome behind his lead dog Balto, through a blizzard hurling 80 mph winds.

The serum arrived in time to prevent the epidemic and save hundreds of lives. The 20 mushers had covered almost 700 miles in little more than 127 hours (about six days) in temperatures that rarely rose above 40° below zero and winds sometimes strong enough to blow over dogs and sleds. The serum run received worldwide press coverage and the mushers received special gold medals. A statue of Balto, one of the heroic lead dogs, was erected a year later in New York’s Central Park (it’s still there).

Today, ‘Togo’ resides at Iditarod Headquarters in the museum to remind people of Togo’s incredible feat.  There is also a statue of Balto at Headquarters. 

But the day of the dog team as an integral part of Alaska’s long-range transportation system was over. The bush pilots were in the ascendant, learning the techniques for flying the air routes now taken for granted by Alaskan pilots. Within a decade of the serum run, pioneer aviators like Noel Wien and Mudhold Smith and Bob Reeve were beginning to fashion a far-flung air transport network that today serves nearly as many scheduled destinations as all Lower 48 airlines together.

The decline of the need for the sled dogs in Alaska, something Joe Redington Sr., had witnessed first hand, was the inspiration Joe needed to dedicate much of his life to the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

Edited 2/2012