IDITAROD TRAIL TO GOLD: A RICH HISTORY

There is no doubt about it. The Iditarod has a certain mystique­—one that is tied up in the bond between mushers and dogs, and the challenges that they together endure for 1,100 miles of wilderness competition. But the Iditarod is more than just a sled dog race. When 71 mushers and nearly 1,200 dogs depart on the 2010 race, they are embarking on a journey rooted deep in Alaska’s past. The history of the Iditarod Trail was important enough to earn the 1978 designation as a National Historic Trail, and is currently celebrating its centennial. This article covers just what exactly mushers and their dog teams commemorate when they race from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race lures fans from around the world. School children follow the race, and participate in reading programs that span the checkpoints between Anchorage and Nome. Enthusiasts know the lingo—Dalzell Gorge, Happy River Steps, Yukon headwinds, Norton Sound crossing, Little McKinley, and the Blowhole. Online race updates, videos, and photos capture moments of the “Last Great Race on Earth.” By the time the winner passes under the burled arch in Nome, few onlookers can hold back tears at the sight of champion lead dogs donning yellow roses. Historic Overview:Segments of the Iditarod Trail were established over thousands of years, first as Alaska Native routes for hunting, fishing, and inter-village travel. Russian explorers in the early 1800s utilized many of these routes to transport supplies to and from trading posts. Trails were built according to demand, although they were few and far between. It was not until gold seekers came to Alaska at the turn of the 20th century, that the need for one “main” trail heightened. Prospectors found Alaska much different from the gold rush regions of the American West. Horses and wagons were not so ideal in this northern place, and there were few reliable routes to get to major mining camps. While boats could be used for transportation in summer, the winter options were limited. Three major gold areas spurred the development of what would become the Iditarod Trail: (1) Cook Inlet area, (2) Iditarod and Innoko area, and (3) Nome and the Seward Peninsula. Dogs proved themselves almost immediately to be the ideal transportation method, but they needed a route to follow from the ice-free port of Seward into the goldfields of the western Interior, and up the Seward Peninsula to Nome. In 1905, the U.S. Congress established the Alaska Road Commission under the direction of the War Department. The purpose was to locate, construct, and maintain trails and roads in Alaska. This was the perfect agency to build a trail from Seward to Nome.In 1908, the Alaska Road Commission sent Colonel Walter Goodwin and a crew of three to scout a trail between Seward and Nome with dog teams. The route, if proven feasible, was significantly shorter than the 1,300-mile Valdez-Fairbanks-Nome route used at the time, and would serve the increasing mining activity in the Interior.Goodwin’s dog team expedition followed the existing mail trail from Seward to Susitna Station, before heading west to Rainy Pass, and through the Kuskokwim valley to the Innoko mining district. They traveled through the newly formed mining towns of McGrath, Takotna, and Ophir. The three-month trip and was a success, but Goodwin was not convinced the trail experienced enough traffic to stay open. Goodwin wrote in his 1908 Reconnaissance Report that it would take more trail traffic to make the route practical. He mentioned that new gold strikes in the Iditarod-Innoko area were necessary for the trail to be realistic. As luck had it, a few months later, on Christmas day of 1908, John Beaton and William Dikeman found gold on Otter Creek, a tributary of the Iditarod River. A stampede followed, and roadhouses popped up according to demand. In light of the gold discovery and subsequent rush, in 1910 the Alaska Road Commission sent Goodwin and a crew to officially blaze the trail from Nome to Seward via the Iditarod goldfields.Goodwin, with a crew of nine men, six sleds, forty-two dogs and supplies began the official scouting of the Iditarod Trail (then called the Seward to Nome Trail) on November 9, 1910. Goodwin attached distance-measuring cyclometers to his sled to track mileages, and kept careful trail notes, marking prospective roadhouse sites and maps. The crew spent Christmas Day 1910 in Iditarod City, where they enjoyed five-course meals, decorated Christmas trees, and watched local dog sled races. On February 25, 1911, the Goodwin party arrived in Seward. The Iditarod Trail was complete. Life on the Iditarod Trail, 1910: What does all this gold rush history have to do with the 2010 Iditarod Dog Race? Dogs. Dogs have been the heart and soul of the Iditarod Trail since its inception. Prior to European contact, Alaska Natives utilized dogs primarily as pack animals, and sometimes in small teams (fan hitches) pulling sleds. Long strings of dogs like the sixteen-dog teams in the present-day Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race were simply impractical prior to the development of fish wheels, steel traps and guns. Food was difficult to hunt and gather, and feeding large dog teams made little sense.Small dog teams came into much greater use in the gold rush days, and Iditarod dogs were the deliverers of essentials—food, supplies, mail, medicine and people.The U.S. Post Office began dog team mail contracts in the final years of the 1890s. Dog team mail carriers were royalty. James Wickersham, one of Alaska early federal judges, recounts the esteem given to mail drivers.”All other vehicles are required by the United States laws to give the right of way to mail-teams, and so the mail-driver is the most important personage on the trail, in the mail-station, or at the over-night roadhouse. He is given the best seat at the table, the first service of hot cakes for breakfast, and the best bunk at night.” Lead dogs often slept inside roadhouses at night, and many towns constructed dog barns. Local fishermen caught salmon in summertime, and dried the fish for winter dog team use.How much did it cost to have a team in the early gold rush days on the Iditarod Trail? According to miner Charles Lee Cadwallader, if a man or woman wanted to mush a dog sled team into Iditarod in the late 1910s, it would cost approximately $200 for a five-dog team, up to $5 per harness, $120 for a sled, and approximately 50 cents per dog per day for food. This was cost-prohibitive at the time. Due to the expense, many gold seekers walked the Iditarod Trail, or used skis or snowshoes. One man reportedly ice skated long segments of the Yukon River, and a man named Ed Jesson biked from Dawson City to Nome, covering over 1,000 miles in less than two months time. While these other transportation methods were common, it was the sled dogs that were the most reliable and efficient travelers.In 1910, the Miners & Merchants Bank in Iditarod hired Bob Griffiths to drive the first “gold train.” Griffiths and his dogs reached Seward in 37 days, carrying approximately one quarter million dollars in gold. Griffiths continued driving gold trains until World War I. Remarkably, he was never robbed. For gold trains, mail drivers, and simple travelers of the trail, roadhouses were essential. They could be as simple as a tent with floor space to sleep, and as deluxe as cabins with hosts and fine dining. When Ruby was founded in 1911, several tent roadhouses opened for business. Eventually, buildings replaced tents. In larger villages such as Kaltag, the General Store operated as a supply source, as well as a roadhouse and saloon. At the peak of trail use in 1912, there were dozens of roadhouses between Seward and Nome. Located approximately 20 miles, or one day’s journey apart, businesses typically charged $1 per night, and $1 per meal, and sold supplies such as food, gear, and repair equipment. Although roadhouse keepers were technically squatters along the trail, the government never objected to the businesses since they were essential to travel safety. Iditarod, the Town:Mushers of the present-day Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race think of Iditarod as a ghost town checkpoint. At first glance, they might not be able to imagine that at one point, after the 1908 discovery of gold on Otter Creek, Iditarod was one of the largest towns in Alaska, along with neighboring town Flat.Iditarod boasted modern amenities—clothing stores, banks, saloons, a slaughterhouse, newspaper, hotels, and even ballrooms. Both Iditarod and Flat started as tent cities, and quickly turned to bustling settlements with buildings and streets. A federal marshal kept the peace, and lawyers represented miners and their claims. Dogs reportedly roamed loose in the town. By the summer of 1910, there were approximately 2,500 people in the Iditarod Mining District. Some arrived by steamboat in summer, while other trekked from Seward or Fairbanks or Dawson over the Iditarod Trail.A seven-year-old boy named Tony Gularte came over the Iditarod Trail with his family in 1915. Gularte spent much of his youth in Iditarod and Flat, and during BLM interviews in 1980 he recalled his experiences. He named Flat “the best camp in Alaska,” and said the wages were unusually high with miners making “a dollar an hour in the late ’20s where the rest of them were only getting 50 cents and 60 cents.” Gularte described Flat as a social town with great nights of dancing. Another youngster, Donald McDonald, came to Iditarod in 1910. His Mom, known as “Mrs. Mac” operated the McDonald Hotel on First Avenue, and his Dad was a miner. The young boy recalled “exciting” dog fights. Early gold towns often had as many dogs as people, and it was a fend-for-yourself situation. Like the dogs navigating their own territory, Donald enjoyed his own business ventures: delivering telegrams, fishing, and berry-picking for local restaurants. He claimed to be the town’s “exclusive” representative for Proctor and Gamble soaps. His favorite job was delivering Seattle and San Francisco newspapers, and it was profitable too. He made a dollar a paper, but his mom made him stop his delivery business when she discovered he made most of his money selling papers on the street known as “the row” which housed beautiful single women who perpetually gave him large tips. Donald then resorted to the less glamorous task of hauling refuse down to the river, to be washed away during breakup. McDonald’s childhood days in Iditarod and Flat left a lasting impression on him. He looked back on the experience in a 1969 article in the Alaska Sportsman magazine: “I dream of going back sometime, especially in the wild blueberry season. I’d like to see what is left of the town… our hotel, the Budweiser Saloon, the cemetery and the “row.”… I’d like to walk over the spot on Flat Creek where my father operated a dredge.”The town of Iditarod is located on the southern route of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, which means that the race travels through the ghost town on odd years. From the sight of the ghost town buried in snow, few present-day mushers would be able to envision these stories of gold, the bustling town, and the characters—human and dog alike—that traveled via the Iditarod Trail in the early 1900s.End of an Era:With the consolidation of mines by large corporate operations and the U.S. involvement in World War I, many gold seekers left Alaska. Businesses in gold rush towns could not prosper without clientele, and the construction of the Alaska Railroad lured workers to other parts of the state. New towns emerged according to the location of the “rails.” Local residents along the Iditarod Trail continued using routes between villages, but many sections fell into disuse.One last event took place before airplanes took over the role of dog teams on the trail. 1925. Nome, Alaska. Nome’s children fell ill with diphtheria. Several died, and more became sick with the disease known as “the strangler.” Curtis Welch, the town’s only doctor, had ordered a fresh supply of inoculations the summer before, but it had not made the last ship North. Welch had a few expired doses of serum on hand, but there was no guarantee they would be effective. Ships would not arrive for months, and the lives of Nome’s children were in jeopardy. Welch called a meeting with Nome’s town council, and they established a temporary Board of Health. A town-wide quarantine was issued immediately. Village to village travel was strongly discouraged, for fear the disease would spread across the Seward Peninsula. After several urgent inquiries, the Board located serum through Dr. John Bradley Beeson at the Anchorage Railroad Hospital. The challenge was how to get the medicine to Nome. Arctic aviation advocates jumped at the opportunity to prove the future of flight through this medical mission. However, the only available plane in Fairbanks, a World War I surplus Standard J-I open cockpit biplane, was not tuned up nor the best choice for winter flying. Alaska Territorial Governor Scott C. Bone decided a dog sled delivery was the wisest choice. He made a plan: the serum would travel by rail from Anchorage to Nenana; there, mushers and their dog teams would relay the serum to Nome. When Wild Bill Shannon started the dog team relay in Nenana on January 27, 1925, the thermometer read -50 F. He had to ward off hypothermia, and keep the serum from freezing. Shannon, an experienced hunter, trapper, and mail carrier, made it the 52 miles to Tolovana. There, nearly frozen, he passed off the serum to Edgar Kallands. The determined mushers and canines of the serum relay endured extreme weather conditions the entire route. The serum made it 674 miles to Nome in less than five and a half days (127 hours, 30 minutes). From start to finish, the medicine passed through the hands of twenty different drivers. Leonhard Seppala traveled the farthest (261 miles total), mushing from Nome to Shaktoolik to pick up the package from Henry Ivanoff, and then heading back towards Nome via Golovin, where he passed off the serum to Charlie Olson. Gunnar Kaasen was the last musher of the relay and delivered the lifesaving package to Nome on February 1, 1925. Thanks to the ingenuity of the twenty mushers and over one hundred dogs, Nome’s children were saved. Planes stole the spotlight quickly thereafter, making the 1925 Serum Run a grand finale to the traditional use of sled dogs on the trail. Revival of a Historic Trail: A man named Joe Redington Sr. had a vision to revive the spirit and traditions of the gold rush days of the Iditarod Trail. Redington homesteaded in Knik in 1948, on the Iditarod Trail. His fascination was for sled dogs, and the more he learned, the more he explored their historic role in Alaska. The Iditarod Trail was largely forgotten when Redington staked his homestead, but quickly Redington discovered the historic importance of the trail, and the need to keep alive the tradition of dog sledding in Alaska. Tirelessly, he promoted the trail to anyone who would listen, and wrote letters to government representatives about its significance. “It was about protection of the trail,” said Redington, “so we have a place to mush dogs all the time. And the history was very important. I wanted to rebuild some of the roadhouses. I waited and waited and they said there was no money. I initially wrote to Congressmen in the 1950s.” In 1967 and 1969, fellow Knik resident Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. staged short sled dog races on the Iditarod Trail. The races were held to stir up interest in the historic trail as well as to advocate the revival of sled dog travel.In 1973, Redington founded the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome, and his message was clear: the Iditarod Trail was an important historic route that deserved recognition, and sled dogs would continue to run across Alaska, annually, for years to come. 2010 marks the 38th consecutive running of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.In the early 1970s, Iditarod race founders—Joe Redington Sr., Dorothy Page, Gleo Huyck, Tom Johnson, Bill Cotter, Dave Olsen, Joel Kottke and Dan Seavey—did not foresee that recognition for the Iditarod Trail would also come through the federal government.In 1978, after President Jimmy Carter signed the paperwork, the Iditarod Trail became one of our nation’s National Historic Trails. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was assigned to be the federal administrator of the Iditarod National Historic Trail, and a citizen advisory council formed. After the council sunsetted in 1998, a nonprofit organization, now called the Iditarod Historic Trail Alliance, was formed to promote, protect, and educate the public about the rich heritage of the Iditarod Trail. The Iditarod Trail celebrates its centennial between 2008-2012. This celebration is not just about the past century—it’s about the preservation of the trail and its history for generations to come. Find out more about the centennial celebrations at www.iditarod100.org and www.iditarodnationalhistorictrail.org. Gold. Medicine. Mail. Adventure. Dogs. This is the legacy of the Iditarod National Historic Trail. Joe Redington Sr. once said, “Alaska needs this trail: its history and beauty should be preserved forever.” On the first weekend of March, watch Iditarod dogs and mushers as they continue this rich history. •

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