Eye on the Trail: Nome Traditions

The Widow’s Lamp, Red Lantern and Burled Arch are symbols of great significance seen every year in Nome. What’s the historical significance, what do they symbolize and how did these icons come to be?  With all the mushers off the trail and awaiting the Sunday afternoon Finisher’s Banquet, it’s a perfect time to find out.

As mushers were approaching Nome in the first Iditarod, it dawned on someone that there ought to be an official line.  A spectator produced a package of red Kool Aid and spread the powder across the street to mark the finish of the 1,049 mile journey.  The next year one of the final mushers, Red Fox Olson, thought the finish line should be something grand.  He told Howard Farley, the Nome organizer, that he’d come up with something. 

First Burled Arch to Mark the Iditarod Finish in Nome Displayed in the Nome Red Center  (Photo: Terrie Hanke)

Olson found the perfect piece of timber near Fairbanks.  The log was fashioned into an impressive header that was flown to Nome.  Olson said there’d be no charge however the air freight company required $1,300 before they’d unload the massive piece of timber.  Farley and locals came up with the money and the original Burled Arch was put into service for the next race in 1975.  The first arch reigned over the finish for twenty-five years before it broke into pieces and was retired.  The one-of-a-kind symbol of accomplishment was pieced back together and now hangs in a prominent location inside the Nome Recreation Center where the banquet is held.

2nd Generation Burled Arch Signifies the End of Iditarod (Photo: Heidi Sloan)

The next truly “burled” arch was made from a spruce tree donated by another Iditarod volunteer who thought he had the perfect piece of timber near his home in Hope, Alaska.  The log was shaped to accent the many burls then the inscription, “End of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race” was carved into its face.  It was painted and weather proofed then shipped from Anchorage to Nome.

The Burled Arch Travels to Front Street in March (Photo: J Westrich)

The Burled Arch only adorns Front Street for the finish of Iditarod in March.  Otherwise it’s stored in an out-of-the-way location for the rest of the year.  When it’s time to construct the chute and finish line, a fork lift delivers the burled symbol of achievement and plants it at far end of the finish chute outside of the old Nome Nugget Inn.  By the way, the shapely burls on the back of the arch are equally as impressive as the carving and burls on the front.

Widows Lamp Extinguished When All mushers Are Off The Trail (Photo: Terrie Hanke)

There is a kerosene lantern that hangs from the right arm of the arch during the race.  It’s the Widow’s Lamp.  The Widow’s Lamp evolved from the days of sled dog freighting and mail carrying.  Dog drivers in those days depended on a network of roadhouses that were located about a day’s worth of travel between their village stops.  For the safety of the drivers who ventured out in all kinds of weather, a system was developed.  Word was relayed ahead that a musher and team were on the trail.  A kerosene lamp was lit and hung outside the roadhouse.  It not only helped the driver find his destination at night but it also signified that someone was somewhere on the trail.  The lamp was extinguished when the driver and team reached the destination.  In keeping with the tradition, the Widow’s lamp is lit and hung on the Burled Arch in Nome.    After the final musher crosses the finish line, the Widow’s Lamp is extinguished.  Sometimes the final musher is given the honor.

A Red Lantern is Awarded to the Final Musher to Complete the Race (Photo: Terrie Hanke)

A Red Lantern Award is presented to the final musher to cross the finish line.  The two lanterns have evolved from different traditions and each has its own significance.  An article in Alaska Magazine from years ago states that the first Red Lantern was awarded in the 1953 Fur Rendezvous Race.  Quoting from the article, “Awarding a red lantern to the last place finisher in a sled dog race has become an Alaskan tradition.  It started as a joke but over time has become a symbol of stick-to-itiveness in the mushing world.”  Perseverance as demonstrated by mushers over the 1,000 mile race from Anchorage to Nome is a life-skill that students can emulate from observing the mushers of the Last Great Race®.

Today race sponsor Lynden presented the Lynden “Committed Through the Last Mile” Red Lantern Award to Jeff Reid the 29th and final musher to complete the 2024 Iditarod at 02:22 with an elapsed race time of 12 days, 11hours and 22 minutes.