Not long before his death, Don honored me by sharing his then current version of his proposed History of the Iditarod Trail with permission to share it with others, particularly for educational reasons. While I'm still disappointed that the full work has never been published, I'm happy to be able to share it here. Although Don made it freely available to teachers on his site, do not copy it for any reaon without asking permission as it is copyrighted material.
An Informal Background of Mushing in Alaska, the Alaskan Trail System, and the Iditarod Trail
By Don Bowers
(Author's Note: This information has been compiled with assistance from Mike Zaidlicz of the Bureau of Land Management, Anchorage District Office, and Joan Dale and Dr. Rolfe Buzzelle of the Alaska Office of History and Archaeology. A list of resources is appended.)
The Iditarod Trail and the mushers who used it have become legends in the history of the north country. However, there is much more to the story than many people realize. The Iditarod and the sled dog were part of a system of transportation and a way of life in Alaska that were in many ways unique in the world. Nowhere else did the particular combination of factors come together as they did in Alaska in the decades surrounding the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century. It can safely be said that mushing as a means of transportation reached its zenith in Alaska in those years. Specifically, the Iditarod Trail can be considered the high-water mark of the dog sled as a primary means of long-distance transportation.
The full history of the Iditarod goes back to the dim mists of antiquity, with the use of dogs as winter draft animals by the natives of Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, and Siberia. Mushing in the modern sense, however, has developed only in the past two hundred years. Even more recent was the extensive network of long-distance winter trails in Alaska and the Yukon, which was largely a product of the gold rushes of the 1890s through the 1920s.
When the Russians arrived in western Alaska in the early 1800s, they found Alaskan Natives using dogs to pull sleds of various designs, running ahead of their teams to guide their dogs on yearly travels between villages and fish camps and hunting camps. By the 1840s, the Russians had improved on the Native teams, harnessing teams in single file or in pairs and adding handlebars to sleds. The Russians also introduced the concept of the leader, a well trained dog to follow the driver's voice commands and keep the team in order.
The Russians stayed largely along Alaska's coasts, rarely penetrating very far into the Interior, and even then their settlements were restricted to major rivers. They used existing Native trails between villages and improved a few sections of longer trails, such as the Kaltag Portage from Unalakleet on the Bering Sea to Kaltag on the Yukon River, which was extensively used. Russians and Natives alike made much use of frozen rivers for winter travel.
After the United States bought Alaska in 1867, the nation's newest possession slipped into a period of not-so-benign neglect for almost two decades. For most of this period, the non-Native population of the region probably totaled no more than a few hundred, most of whom were fur traders and wandering prospectors. The United States knew little about its huge new northern possession and had scant interest in learning more.
With the withdrawal of the Russians, the sprawling region essentially had no government. The San Francisco-based Alaska Commercial Company (interested mainly in furs) bought the assets of the Russian-American Company, while the United States government sent a steadily decreasing handful of ships and soldiers to perform a desultory oversight of the ill-defined Department of Alaska.
With no courts or civil laws, no system of taxes to build or maintain public services and facilities, and no way to record mining claims or establish ownership of private property, day-to-day affairs remained in limbo. At best, the senior military officer in the region (and eventually the head customs official) served as the chief federal functionary. At worst, there was no law of any kind in many areas. In any case, there was no effort to build or maintain any kind of a transportation network for an area comprising almost 600,000 square miles.
In 1883 the U.S. Army sent Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka and seven soldiers on a journey of exploration of the then-little-known Yukon River. Reminiscent of Lewis and Clark's expedition to the Pacific in 1803, this was the first of several notable explorations by the Army in Alaska which contributed much to the knowledge of America's vast new territory. More than a few of the trails blazed by military explorers became major routes after the turn of the century.
In 1884, Alaska became a "civil and judicial district" (one level below a territory), under the largely inappropriate laws of the state of Oregon. Without a transportation or communication system, there was still little formal authority in the region. The new Governor, Alfred P. Swineford, said in 1887 that government authority was a myth outside the relatively accessible southeast panhandle.
By the late 1880s, however, gold had been discovered near what is now Juneau and within a few years prospectors began to make significant discoveries in southcentral and interior Alaska. Informal winter trails were established between the gold fields and along the major rivers, especially the upper Yukon, but there was still no government effort to this end.
Several mining districts were already in operation in Alaska by the time of the great Klondike strike in the Canadian Yukon Territory in 1896. Alaskan prospectors made the initial Klondike finds and miners from existing mining districts in Alaska such as Circle were the first to head for the Yukon, often as not on their dog teams.
The U.S. Post Office, which would become a major factor in the establishment (and eventual abandonment) of trails across Alaska, contracted for its first regular long-distance Alaskan mail route in 1895 with the son of the chief of the Taku Tlingit tribe, Jimmie Jackson. He received $700 plus $1 per letter to deliver the mail from Juneau to the gold fields on the Upper Yukon River near Circle. He and two Tlingit friends went up the Stikine River in a canoe as far as they could and then went by dog sled the rest of the way to Circle, more than a thousand miles.
Jimmie Jackson was the first of Alaska's legendary mail drivers, starting a tradition of "Contract Star Route Carriers" that endured for many decades. (The last dog sled mail delivery in Alaska was in the 1960s by Chester Noongwook to Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island, which until then was one of the few remaining Alaska communities without a suitable airstrip.) The Indian mail carriers delivered the mail year-round on the Juneau-Circle route until the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Railway from Skagway to Dawson in 1901, receiving $600 per trip.
On the other end of the Yukon, in the winter of 1897-8 Jack Carr carried the mail from St. Michael on the Bering Sea, up the Yukon to Dawson, and over the Chilkoot Trail to Dyea. He arrived in Dyea after 82 days on the trail, covering more than 2,000 miles.
The tens of thousands of gold-seekers heading north to the Klondike soon discovered that dog teams could be even more valuable than gold, and many thousands of dogs were imported from the Lower 48 to join the native dogs already at work. However, by the time the huge mass of stampeders reached the Klondike from the Lower 48, the best claims had already been staked. Many of the would-be argonauts went home, but many more overflowed into Alaska to seek new strikes.
The immense influx of miners into Alaska in the late 1890s generated a need for better government and improved transportation. This need quickly intensified when gold was discovered at Anvil Creek on the Seward Peninsula in 1898, and the city of Nome exploded into existence. The rush to the Seward Peninsula not only drew new hordes from the Lower 48 but immediately absorbed the excess from the Klondike and other areas as miners streamed across the length of Alaska on steamboats, dog teams, horses, skis, bicycles, and on foot.
In 1899 the U.S. Post Office started official mail service up the Yukon in the summer through St. Michael, across Norton Sound from Nome. St. Michael, an old Russian post, was the closest deepwater port to the mouth of the Yukon River and was the major transfer point between oceangoing ships and river steamers for goods, passengers, and mail. The Post Office also started a 1,240-mile round-trip reindeer mail route in the winter from St. Michael to Eaton (Unalakleet) and Kotzebue.
As the gold rush to Alaska gained momentum, the U.S. Army arrived to help maintain order, establishing posts at Fort Seward (Haines), Fort Liscum (Valdez), Fort Egbert (Eagle), Fort Gibbon (Tanana), Fort St. Michael (St. Michael), and Fort Davis (Nome). A major problem, however, was communication. The Western Union Company had sought to build an inter- continental telegraph line linking North America and Asia in 1866 and 1867 and actually built a short operating segment on the western part of the Seward Peninsula. However, the completion of the trans-Atlantic cable caused the entire effort to be abandoned.
By the turn of the century Alaska still had no link to the outside world except by steamship. In 1900 the Army undertook the construction of the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System (WAMCATS), in some areas following the long-disused route of the old Western Union telegraph project. The new WAMCATS system was an extremely ambitious project and was designed to not only to link the far-flung chain of forts with each other and with the Lower 48 but to provide civilian communications as well. (Indeed, the military operated Alaska's combined civilian-military long-distance communications system until 1970.)
One of the chief architects of the WAMCATS was an enthusiastic young Army lieutenant named Billy Mitchell. He learned quickly how to turn the Alaskan winter to his advantage and became a highly accomplished musher, outdoorsman, and trails expert. He used dog teams extensively in the scouting, surveying, and construction of much of the WAMCATS.
Mitchell later learned how to fly and rose to the rank of brigadier general in World War I. As assistant chief of the Army Air Service after the war, he organized (but did not participate in) the first flight of airplanes from the Lower 48 to Alaska in 1920, the expedition of the Black Wolf Squadron from New York to Nome and return. (Several of the squadron's pilots and crewmen received sled dogs as gifts from Alaskans, including two pups from famous musher Leonhard Seppala.) Mitchell also directed the first around-the-world flight, conducted by four Army seaplanes in 1924, and made sure Alaska was included on their route.
Mitchell became world-famous as a radical prophet of air power, but was court-martialed for insubordination in 1925 and resigned from the Army. He remained a staunch supporter of Alaska and its strategic military importance until his untimely death in 1936. He also formed close friendships with aviator Wiley Post and humorist (and aviation enthusiast) Will Rogers, both of whose lives--and deaths--are inextricably linked with Alaska. Mitchell was posthumously awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. He has also been inducted into the Mushing Hall of Fame at Knik along with other legends such as Leonhard Seppala and Joe Redington, Sr.
Completed in 1903, the WAMCATS was difficult to keep up in the face of adverse weather, forest fires, animal depredations, and vandalism. To make maintenance easier, the Army erected shelter cabins and camps about every 40 miles for the soldiers (and dogs and horses) detailed to keep the line operating. The cleared and marked WAMCATS trails became major public corridors, especially from Kaltag to Unalakleet and St. Michael, and from Eagle to Valdez and Fairbanks.
In 1900 the Post Office contracted for the first regular winter mail along the 1,600-mile route from Dawson to Nome, with weekly service. Most of the winter mail was brought over the newly completed White Pass and Yukon Railway from Skagway to Dawson City in Canada and then sent down the Yukon. The contractors were usually responsible for one or more 50- to 75-mile sections of route. Their teams normally shuttled back and forth within each section to link up with adjoining teams and keep up the schedule. The contractors also built shelter cabins every 25 to 30 miles on remote stretches of trail.
The Northern Commercial Company, which operated many stores and warehouses throughout Alaska, became the main mail contractor for the Yukon. The company's well-trained, reliable mail teams were fixtures on thousands of miles of Alaskan trails for 31 years. Most of the participants in the 1925 Serum Run from Nenana to Nome were Northern Commercial mail teams and drivers.
The "mail trail" became a mainstay of Alaska's fledgling transportation system. Most of the trails followed major rivers, and the Yukon became a highway for almost its entire length as soon as the ice was thick enough to chase the summer steamboats to their winter moorings and provide solid footing for the dog teams. Connecting trails and new mail routes opened up every year to serve new mining camps.
Travel along the growing network of trails was often heavy, usually by dog teams (and many foot travelers) but sometimes by horse-drawn bobsleds or double-enders and even reindeer sleighs in areas where trails were firm enough. By the turn of the century, roadhouses providing food and lodging for travelers (and their animals) had become fixtures along every trail. As each new mining district opened up, roadhouses sprang up along the trails to it. Often the roadhouses were initially nothing but tents or crude log cabins. Most had some kind of dog barn or stable for the teams.
Some of the start-up roadhouses stayed in business, many did not. In most areas roadhouses came to be spaced about a day's travel apart, roughly twenty miles, by a process of natural economic elimination. Those that survived the first year or two generally built more permanent buildings and remained open as long as traffic on the trails provided enough business to keep going. Some trails, however, had few if any roadhouses, and travelers were sometimes fortunate to have even simple shelter cabins.
Almost all winter travel was during the day, although miners' carbide headlamps were occasionally used, and bright moonlight or even northern lights sometimes made night mushing possible even without lamps. Most mushers, however, shut down their teams in the evening, at a roadhouse or cabin if possible.
Dogs were universally fed one meal a day, always in the evening. The usual ration was one dried salmon, but mushers frequently cooked a mixture of bacon and rolled oats or rice for their teams. Dogs were normally individually tied up at night or put into dog barns, but were sometimes let loose. Fights were frequent and some of the dogs were just as likely to attack a musher as each other once they were in the fighting frenzy.
Mail contractors and freighting companies, as well as roadhouse owners and even individuals, contracted with fishermen along the Yukon and other rivers for dried salmon to use as winter food for their dogs. The contractors were often required to deliver the fish to locations along the trails by boat before freezeup and by dog team after the snow fell. Usually the dried salmon was cached out of reach of bears and other marauding animals so as to be ready for use when needed.
In the summer many mushers put their dogs in boarding kennels while they worked their mines or fished or went about their summer business. The dog kennels were almost always located on rivers with a plentiful supply of salmon and the kennels owners were often fishermen themselves, which allowed the dogs to be boarded with a minimum of expense.
Sled dogs were legally considered valuable possessions and stealing a good sled dog was akin to stealing a horse in the Old West. Leaders in particular were highly prized and were usually brought inside the roadhouses to sleep with their drivers. Good leaders could be worth many thousands of dollars, and some drivers would not sell a favorite leader for any price.
By the turn of the century winter traffic along the trails had a well-established hierarchy. At the top were the mail drivers, the parka-clad Pony Express riders of the north.
They ran on schedules and usually had the biggest, fastest, best-trained teams, sometimes more than 20 dogs. They were highly respected, often opening trails after storms and pushing through hazardous conditions. More than a few mail drivers died when their sleds went through the ice or they were caught in avalanches or became trapped in blizzards.
By law, mail teams had the right of way on all trails. The drivers always received the best seats at roadhouse dinner tables, the first servings at meals, and the best bunks. In addition to the mail, they hauled some freight and passengers, and kept their loads to about 50 pounds per dog. For the most part, mail by dog team was limited to first class, meaning letters and small packages. Like most mushers of the day, they often spent more time walking or running alongside the sled than riding it, but mail drivers were usually able to ride the runners much more frequently than other teams on the trail.
The importance of the mail teams cannot be overestimated. Sidney Huntington said it well in his book, Shadows on the Koyukuk, describing the Koyukuk mail run from Tanana to Wiseman, which lasted from 1906 until 1931:
"The monthly mail run was the sole contact with the outside world for miners and prospectors who lived in the Koyukuk in the early 1900s. There were no airplanes. Dog teams carried everything in winter….Letters from loved ones, magazines, and newspapers were treasures beyond value for these isolated men. In remote villages and mining camps, I've seen magazines with loose pages, the print worn from handling, treated as if they were valuable documents, as they were handed from man to man. Small wonder that mail drivers were considered special."
Freight drivers were major users of all trails. They used teams of six to sixteen or more big, strong dogs and pulled up to three sleds laden with as much as a ton of goods (or passengers or even gold). Freight drivers almost never rode their sleds and were lucky to average three or four miles an hour, often described as "too fast to walk and too slow to run". A good day's travel would often be only 15 to 20 miles, compared with 20 to 40 miles for mail teams.
Some freighters used a single sled up to 15 feet long, while others used up to three shorter sleds for better maneuverability on tight, twisting trails. The three-sled combination was commonly loaded with 600 pounds in the front sled, 400 in the middle, and 200 in the rear. The usual load averaged up to 150 pounds per dog.
Sleds varied widely. Many were based on traditional native designs using wood. Others resembled bobsleds or sledges. Dog sleds were in wide use in Canada and some areas of northern-tier Lower 48 states at this time as well, and many sleds were manufactured in the Lower 48 and shipped to Alaska. Some sleds used screws and nails to hold the pieces together, but many used babiche (rawhide cords soaked in water that shrank as they dried to make a tight but flexible fastening). Most runners were made of wood, but some had iron or steel bottoms. Metal runners became extremely difficult to slide in very cold temperatures, but wooden runners could be "iced up" to slip more easily.
Virtually every sled with a heavy load was equipped with a gee pole to help steer it. This was a stout pole lashed to the side of the sled and projecting in front of it, against which the musher could push or pull to lever the heavy sled around turns. Some mushers ran in front of the sled or alongside it to maneuver the gee pole, occasionally straddling the towline. Some mushers let themselves be pulled on skis to work the gee pole while others used a nefarious device called the "ouija board", a sort of early-day snowboard suspended by ropes from the towline behind the dogs on which the musher balanced while handling the gee pole.
Some freight sleds used two drivers, with the musher taking the gee pole not only to steer the sled but to manage the dogs, always with his voice, but sometimes also with a whip, mostly for noise or signaling directions. (Good mushers knew that order and discipline had to be maintained in the team, but they also understood that beating or whipping sled dogs was frequently counter-productive and the dogs would often as not lie down instead of moving.)
The second driver (or the passenger) would run or walk alongside the rear of the sled, climbing on the runners and using the handlebars to brake or stabilize the sled on downhills or rough trails. Passengers almost never rode in the sled unless the trail was very good, the load was light, and the dogs were well-rested.
Individual travelers comprised a large proportion of the traffic on the trails. Many of these used dog teams--sometimes a full team, sometimes only a couple of dogs to help pull a sled or even carry packs. There were many thousands of "personal" dog teams of varying size and quality in Alaska during the gold rush, and they were used exactly as automobiles and snowmachines and ATVs are today. Dog teams could even be rented, just like horses in the Old West, and dog-team rental businesses were called "dog liveries" or "dog barns." And of course, there were always foot travelers on the trails, usually with skis or snowshoes and often pulling small sleds.
In 1900 the primitive Alaskan court system was expanded to support the rapidly growing needs of the region, with a network of U.S. marshals in various communities. Three new judicial districts were created with one judge per district, based in Sitka (later moved to Juneau, which became the territorial capital in 1906), Nome, and Eagle (moved to Fairbanks in 1904). Judge James Wickersham of the far-flung Third District based in Eagle held court wherever needed, sometimes making month-long winter journeys on dog teams with his court records to hold sessions in various mining communities.
With Alaska quickly assuming an identity of its own, having to bring in the winter mail and many supplies through Canada was not a desirable solution for many Alaskans. Although the Yukon Territory was virtually an extension of Alaska (albeit with strict Canadian policing and proper British-Empire decorum), national pride was involved, as well as the great length of the winter route through Dawson. There was an ongoing push for an "All-American" mail route to Nome and other areas of interior Alaska.
The first such route was the Valdez-Eagle Trail, one of the lesser-used routes for prospectors to travel from the year-round deepwater port of Valdez to the Yukon gold fields. The Army scouted the route in 1898 and began construction on the initial trail the following year, with the first mail from Valdez to Eagle in 1901. By 1905 it had become the Trans-Alaska Military Road, opened by Army detachments under Captain William Abercrombie.
By 1902 the mail system in Alaska--with its requisite network of trails--had significantly expanded, including 650 miles of reindeer route, 400 miles of combination reindeer and dog route, 2,160 miles of dog route, 460 miles of dog and horse route, and 112 miles of railroad route along the White Pass and Yukon Railway. More routes were added every year as gold fever continued to flare across Alaska and new districts were opened.
In 1903 a Senate subcommittee visited Alaska, and the senators went home marveling not only at Alaska's vast size but also at the acute lack of a comprehensive transportation system. As a result, in 1904 Congress passed legislation creating a board of commissioners to oversee construction of roads and trails in Alaska. Two years later this became the Alaska Road Commission (ARC), under Army Major Wilds P. Richardson. The ARC rapidly became the main player in the development of Alaska's trails and roads, conducting formal surveys and constructing and marking thousands of miles of trails and roads over the next half century.
Funding for the ARC came partly from a road tax--all able-bodied males living outside incorporated cities were required to give two days of labor per year on roads and trails or to pay eight dollars in cash. This was later changed to a flat $4 per person tax when Alaska became a full-fledged Territory in 1912. Because the ARC was part of the War Department (the forerunner of today's Department of the Army) Congress supplemented the tax with significant yearly appropriations. Still, there was never enough money to create a proper transportation system for the huge territory, and Congress showed little interest in funding one.
With its limited resources, the ARC focused on linking mining districts with each other via winter trails and with water transportation (ports and steamboat landings) via summer trails and wagon roads. There were three levels of development. The trail was the lowest level, suitable mainly for dog teams but sometimes for horses or reindeer. Grades could be no steeper than four percent and the only work required was clearing trees and brush to a width of at least eight feet, flagging or marking the trail where it left the treeline, and perhaps building the occasional crude bridge. Some trails also had mileposts.
The sled (or bobsled) road was the next level, designed for horse-drawn sleds. More attention was paid to grades (but the limit was still four percent), the cleared path was wider than for a trail, and some grading and improvement of the roadbed was required in places. The highest level was the wagon road, intended for use in the summer (and generally in the winter as well) by wheeled vehicles.
By the time the Valdez-Eagle Trail was opened for general use, Fairbanks (started in 1902 following Felix Pedro's major gold strike there) had become the commercial and governmental center of interior Alaska. Almost immediately the Fairbanks-Valdez Military Road (the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail) was opened to Fairbanks, branching off the Valdez-Eagle Trail at the Gakona Roadhouse. The Valdez-Fairbanks Trail was quickly upgraded to a sled road and the first motor vehicle (an Army truck) struggled through the 922-mile round trip in the summer of 1913, taking 23 days. (Beginning in World War II the Tok Cut-Off and later the Taylor Highway were built along the route of the Valdez-Eagle Trail. A section of the old trail out of Gakona is still used in the Copper Basin 300 sled dog race every January.)
The sizable gold rushes in the Koyukuk in 1900-1901, at Fairbanks in 1902, and around Kantishna (north of Mt. McKinley) in 1905 were all north of the Alaska Range and relied on transport along the Yukon River. On the south side of the formidable Alaska Range, gold mining began in the 1890s on the Kenai Peninsula, around upper Cook Inlet, and later in the Susitna Valley.
This prompted the start of construction of the Alaska Central Railroad from the ice-free port of Seward toward Fairbanks and points west in 1903. The railroad went bust within several years but laid 72 miles of track, as far as the eastern end of Turnagain Arm. It was briefly reincarnated as the Alaska Northern in 1909, but never managed more than sporadic operation and the roadbed began to deteriorate.
The Alaska Central/Alaska Northern did, however, demonstrate the possibility of another route to the Yukon and to the interior of western Alaska. In 1913 the federal government authorized the purchase of the defunct Alaska Northern. Finally finished to Fairbanks in 1923, it became the Alaska Railroad.
Despite the initial failure of the railroad, traffic through the new port of Seward grew steadily, mostly to the gold fields of the northern Kenai Peninsula and upper Cook Inlet. While some ships could make it during the summer to the town of Knik, on the west side of Knik Arm opposite the future site of Anchorage, Seward became the main year-round deepwater port for the region.
From Seward, winter trails spread rapidly north and west. The main trail went north along the railroad right-of-way to Turnagain Arm, and then along the north side of the arm to Girdwood and over Crow Pass. Dropping into the Eagle River valley, it went past the present location of the city of Eagle River to the Indian village of Eklutna, and around the upper end of Knik Arm to Knik. By the mid-1900s the winter mail was already being carried by dog teams over 180 miles of trail between Seward and Susitna Station, a thriving steamboat stop on the lower Susitna River that served as the supply point for the dozens of mines in the foothills of the Alaska Range and the Talkeetna Mountains to the northwest and north.
In 1906 gold was discovered at Ganes Creek in largely unexplored country on the upper Innoko River about halfway between Seward and Nome. This spurred a minor rush to the area and by 1907 the new boom town of Ophir had a thousand inhabitants, served by supply points at the equally new settlements of Takotna and McGrath. This prompted a call for a new, more direct route to Nome from Seward by way of the Cook Inlet country and the new gold fields on the Innoko.
In early 1908, at the direction of the ARC, William Goodwin (the ARC's Nome district supervisor) and a crew of three men scouted and blazed (but did not actually construct) a trail from Seward to Nome via Knik on Cook Inlet, using the existing mail trail from Seward to Susitna Station and the already established trails from Kaltag to Nome.
From the Susitna, Goodwin's new trail went west through Rainy Pass and across the Kuskokwim Valley to the Innoko Mining District (including the new towns of McGrath, Takotna, and Ophir). Then it angled northwest across the marshy lowlands of the Innoko Valley and connected with the Yukon trail at Kaltag. Goodwin's route was called the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail, although the initial mail contracts only went as far as Ophir. (Until 1914, mail to Nome went north from Valdez to Fairbanks and then down the Yukon.)
Goodwin felt the proposed main-line trail would not be viable in the long term without more mining activity in the Kuskokwim-Innoko area. However, even as his survey was being studied, John Beaton and Henry Dyckman (or Dikeman) hit a paystreak on Christmas Day, 1908, in the virtually unknown country along the upper Haiditarod (soon shortened to Iditarod) River, a tributary of the Innoko. On their way to Takotna to record their claims in the summer of 1909, they told a steamboat crew and the word was out.
Within a year, what would be the last full-scale, old-fashioned gold rush in American history roared into life in the Iditarod mining district, in the middle of some of the most impossibly remote country in Alaska. Within a year the new town of Iditarod, at the head of steamboat navigation on the Iditarod River, briefly became Alaska's biggest city. It teemed with as many as 4,000 people and sported hotels, newspapers, electricity, telephones, and automobiles, all served by the summer steamboats plying their way from the Bering Sea almost a thousand serpentine miles up the Yukon, Innoko, and finally the Iditarod Rivers. Other towns sprang up at Flat, Discovery, Otter, Willow Creek, and Dikeman (40 miles downstream from Iditarod at the low-water head of navigation).
In the winter, after the last steamer had headed downstream for St. Michael, Iditarod relied on dog teams. In late 1910, the Alaska Road Commission directed Goodwin to build a trail from Kaltag to Susitna Station (officially authorized as the Rainy Pass-Kaltag Trail) by way of Iditarod. He left Nome in early November with nine men and half a dozen seven-dog teams, following his 1908 Seward-to-Nome route. His crew marked and cleared new sections of the trail from Kaltag to Susitna Station and added a loop from the main line trail to Iditarod and Flat, the two principal towns in the new district.
The eastern leg of the Iditarod-Flat loop left the main trail at Takotna and went southwest along the arrow-straight valleys of the Takotna River, Fourth of July Creek, and Bonanza Creek to Flat and Iditarod. The western leg went from Iditarod north for 40 miles along the east side of the Iditarod River to Dikeman, then continued north across the lowlands to rejoin the main trail at Dishkakat, on the Innoko River.
Goodwin was also tasked to locate sites for roadhouses along the trail. He picked sites about every 20 miles all the way from Kaltag to Susitna Station. Some roadhouses were quickly built, others used different sites, and some remote sections of the trail never saw roadhouses. Goodwin's sleds had distance-measuring cyclometers attached to their sides and he kept a meticulous log of the trail. His crew reached Seward in late February, 1911, having made the first official trip along the 938 miles of what rapidly became known as the Iditarod Trail.
There were at least two alternate routes branching to Iditarod from Goodwin's 1908 main-line trail. The major alternate was the Hunter Trail, or Dikeman Cut-off. It departed the Seward-to-Nome Trail just west of Ophir and then cut southwest for 56 miles across Beaver Flats and the Dishna River. Then it ran along First Chance Creek to join the western leg of Goodwin's 1910-11 Iditarod loop about 20 miles north of Iditarod (and 23 miles south of Dikeman). The Hunter Trail became the main route to Iditarod for some years after about 1915, partly because of heavy snows which made it difficult to keep the eastern Takotna-Iditarod leg open.
The ARC also built a 72-mile summer trail to Iditarod along the ridges from Ganes Creek, on the Seward-to-Nome main line near Ophir. Like all summer trails, it kept to higher, drier ground, but was not usable in the winter because much of its route was on exposed ridges where winds and drifting snow (and often lack of snow) made sled travel difficult and often dangerous.
Yet another mining boom was occurring in 1910-11 in the region between Ophir and the Yukon River town of Ruby, spurred by a strike on Long Creek, about 25 miles south of Ruby. By 1913 the ARC had constructed a 58-mile trail south from Ruby on the Yukon River to the new towns of Long and Poorman, and an 82-mile winter trail from Poorman to Ophir by way of the thriving settlement of Cripple Landing on the Innoko River. An 87-mile summer trail from Ophir to Poorman via Folger Roadhouse was also built and later equipped with four shelter cabins.
Traffic was brisk along the new Iditarod Trail, and especially the eastern half of it. Beginning at freezeup in November and lasting until breakup in April, hundreds of teams (120 during one week in November of 1911) left Knik on Cook Inlet bound for the Kuskokwim, Innoko, Iditarod, and Ruby gold fields, and occasionally Nome. A trip to "the Iditarod" (as the district came to be known) required up to several weeks, while a journey all the way to Nome easily a month or more.
The travelers ranged from mail drivers to freighters to individual miners and Natives. Their enroute needs were catered to by a series of roadhouses of varying reputation, some of which stayed open until well into the 1920s (and a few even longer). Every musher came to know and appreciate (or dread) the various roadhouses--Cannon's, Little Susitna, Susitna Station, Keller's, Alexander's, Skwentna, Mountain Climber's, Happy River, Rainy Pass (or Anderson's), Dalzell, Rohn River, Pioneer (French Joe's), Morgan's, Peluk, Sullivan's, Bear Creek, Salmon River, Big River, McGrath, Takotna.
Beyond Takotna, on the trails to Iditarod, Ophir, Dishkakat, and Kaltag, they enjoyed the hospitality at roadhouses with names like Big Creek, Smith's Halfway, Lincoln Creek, Mrs. Perry's, Summit, Ruby Creek, Richmond's, Murray's, Schermeyer's Halfway, Yankee Creek, Fritz's, Boxcar, Big Aggie's, Mt. Hurst Summit, Del Thompson's, Evan's, Madison Creek, and All Right.
On the northern connecting routes through Ruby and down the Yukon to Kaltag ,roadhouses included Cripple Landing, Hogan's, Jessie's, Sulatna Crossing, Greenstone Creek, Midnight Dome, Big Dome, Hub, 14 Mile, New York Creek, 10 Mile, Boston, Ruby, Fisher's, Lakeshore, Slough, Capt. Dalquist's Lodge, and Adolph Muller's. From Kaltag to Unalakleet, travelers could stop at the Ten-Mile and Twenty-Two Mile Roadhouses.
On the Bering Sea coast were still more roadhouses, most going back to the original rush to Nome--Foothills, Shaktoolik, Bonanza, Isaac's, Big Sam's, Moses, Walla Walla, Portage, Dexter Trading Post, Bluff, Topkok, Taylor Lagoon, Solomon, Safety, and Cape Nome. Outbound cargo included mail and freight of all kinds. Anything that could be jammed into a sled--and for which someone could afford the shipping cost of a dollar a pound or more--was probably carried along the trail at one time or another. Passengers could also make the trip, although the cost was exorbitant: as much as $1,500 for the 30-day journey to Nome and $275 from Knik to McGrath (in the early 1920s). Even at these prices, the passengers often as not had to walk and help manhandle the sled much of the way.
The return trips to Knik and Seward carried not only mail but sometimes passengers and even gold. The Miners and Merchants Bank of Iditarod contracted in 1910 with Bob Griffiss, a veteran mail driver from the Nome area, to carry out much of the season's gold. Griffiss left Iditarod in November 1910 with a quarter million dollars in gold in his sled, arriving safely in Seward more than five weeks later.
Griffiss' annual Iditarod gold convoys ran without incident through 1918, and in some years there were multiple "gold trains". In 1912, four teams brought in 2,600 pounds of gold. On December 31, 1916, Griffiss' gold caravan reached Knik with 3,400 pounds of gold behind a total of 46 dogs. (For perspective, in the 1910s the fixed rate for gold was $20.67 per ounce and the dollar was worth perhaps 20 times more than it is today. The 1916 gold teams probably carried at least $15 million in 21st-century dollars.)
The only serious robbery of the mail or gold on the Iditarod occurred in 1922, and then it was a mail shipment of payroll cash. The proprietor of Schermeyer's Halfway Roadhouse north of Iditarod conspired with a lady of the evening from Iditarod to steal $30,000 from a mail driver. The 70-year-old Schermeyer closed his roadhouse and took his money to California to hide, but was caught two years later and confessed. His accomplice, whose red-light nickname was the "Black Bear", was also apprehended, but was finally acquitted at her second trial in Fairbanks, in 1927. (She eventually married the musher she had allegedly helped rob.)
The main boom in the Iditarod region lasted from 1910 to 1912, when gold production reached its peak and then began to drop. By 1912, big companies (including the fabled Guggenheims) moved in and acquired most of the best claims. With efficient, large-scale mining techniques, such as huge floating dredges, far fewer workers were needed and individual miners began to move on to other districts. Iditarod itself faded rapidly and Flat became the main town in the area, particularly when World War I siphoned off money, materiel, and most of all, manpower.
By 1920 Iditarod had fewer than 50 residents, while Flat exceeded 300, with even more in the summer. Flat had become a relatively stable community supplying the entire district, taking over Iditarod's role as the central settlement in the area. Many of the buildings from Iditarod were moved to Flat. Even the Iditarod telephone system was dismantled and reassembled in Flat. The final blow occurred when the Iditarod River flooded in 1922 and changed its channel, leaving Iditarod marooned on a shallow oxbow slough. The Iditarod post office closed in 1929 and the once-booming town was disincorporated in 1931.
As the mining booms all along the Iditarod Trail faded in the mid-1910s, traffic dwindled, mail runs ended or were cut back, and many of the roadhouses closed. Faced with long stretches of empty trail, residents and travelers lobbied hard for protection from blizzards and cold weather. Among other measures, the territorial legislature required that remaining roadhouses keep a record of all travelers to aid search parties if necessary. With the aid of a newly created territorial road commission and some additional funds, the ARC in 1917 began to erect simple shelter cabins at strategic points along many trails and to improve markings.
The eastern end of the Iditarod, from Seward to Knik, underwent major changes beginning in 1913 as the Government Railroad built north from Seward along the route of the trail. The actual beginning of the Iditarod Trail was determined by the "end of steel" and the start of regular train service to a given point. In 1915 ships began stockpiling materials on Cook Inlet at the new construction camp of Ship Creek, soon to be renamed Anchorage. Until late 1919, when the railroad finished the final link to Seward along the steep shore of Turnagain Arm, Anchorage received its winter mail and supplies by dog teams via a spur trail from the Iditarod, and the yearly Iditarod gold teams regularly stopped through on their way to Seward. The main hotel in town even included dog kennels in the basement for visiting mushers.
As the tracks were completed north around Turnagain Arm and into the Matanuska-Susitna Valley in 1917-18, Knik was bypassed and the new railroad towns of Palmer, Wasilla, Houston, and Willow were created. By 1918, trains were running to Wasilla from Anchorage, and by late 1919 from Seward all the way north to Talkeetna. Wasilla almost instantly became the eastern terminus and outfitting point for the Iditarod Trail. Knik, no longer necessary as the tidewater connection and supply center for teams heading west, quickly withered and by 1920 most of its businesses had either closed or moved to Wasilla.
America's entry into World War I in 1917 had a stifling effect on almost all mining in Alaska. Because of the war effort, equipment was difficult to find, money was scarce for new construction and repairs, and shipping was erratic. More important, many young men left the territory to enlist, and many never returned after the war because of the general economic boom in the Lower 48. (One of the few Alaskan mining operations that actually prospered during the war was the Kennicott Mine at McCarthy, served by the Copper River and Northwestern Railway from the port of Cordova. The Kennicott provided much of the copper used in shell casings and other military materiel for the allied armies.)
On the government front, funds for most federal activities in Alaska during the war were sharply reduced. The war stalled construction on the Government Railroad (later named the Alaska Railroad). The Alaska Road Commission, which operated as part of the Department of War (forerunner to the Department of the Army), effectively went into hibernation for the duration. Its longtime and very effective director, Major Wilds P. Richardson, went to Europe, where he rose to the rank of brigadier general and commanded American forces in northern Russia in the ill-fated allied attempt to stop the Bolshevik Revolution.
By the end of the war, much of Alaska's trail system was in deplorable condition, even though traffic was beginning to increase again in many areas. The Alaska Road Commission received a new director, Colonel James Steese, who revitalized the moribund agency and began a campaign to build new trails, improve old ones, and build and refurbish shelter cabins. Some of these cabins were constructed on the sites of previous roadhouses, while others were new. (At least one of the shelter cabins on the current Iditarod race trail is an ARC cabin dating to the 1920s, and the remains of several others are readily visible.)
Also in the 1920s the ARC built a number of roads to mining areas from steamboat landings or ports for better access. Among these were a road from Sterling Landing on the Kuskokwim (just south of McGrath) to Takotna and Ophir; a road from Ruby 58 miles south to Poorman; more than 30 miles of roads in the Iditarod-Flat district; and a network of roads around Nome. These roads also served as first-class sled trails in the winter and became part of the Iditarod Trail network of main-line and connecting trails. (The current race trail uses parts of some of these roads, particularly from Takotna to Ophir, Sulatna Crossing to Ruby, and Solomon to Safety.)
The ARC built another winter trail to Iditarod in 1926, this time from the west. The 86-mile Iditarod-Anvik Trail, from Iditarod to Shageluk on the Innoko River and on to Anvik on the Yukon, was originally built to normal ARC standards but was widened to 12 feet within two years. Its main use was for reindeer herders to move their animals back and forth to grazing areas in the hills east of Iditarod. (The modern race more or less follows this trail from Iditarod to the Yukon.) By 1929 the ARC had constructed 1,623 miles of wagon road, 1,375 miles of sled road, and 7,044 miles of trail, and more would be built in the next decade.
With mining in the Iditarod, Ophir, and Ruby districts ticking along at steady but relatively low levels, some trail sections fell into disuse. The mail contract from Seward to Nome was stopped in 1918, which eliminated much traffic on the trail between Iditarod and Kaltag. The Hunter Trail (Dikeman Cut-off) continued to be the main mail route from McGrath to Iditarod and Flat. However, the only two roadhouses on the route closed in the early 1920s--Schermeyer's Halfway Roadhouse in 1922 after its proprietor departed the territory for warmer climes with the proceeds of his mail robbery, and Fritz's Roadhouse, 38 miles from Ophir, which burned in 1924. The ARC built two shelter cabins on the route to replace the roadhouses, but traffic was already rapidly diminishing.
Completion of the Alaska Railroad to Nenana in 1921-22 marked another significant decrease in use of the Iditarod. Many winter travelers found it easier to ride the train to Nenana (sometimes with their dogs and sleds) and then head to Nome or McGrath or even Iditarod down the easier--and shorter--river and inland trails. (Had the Serum Run of 1925 occurred a few years earlier, before the railroad was completed to Nenana, the relay would have been along the Iditarod Trail from Wasilla to Nome.)
A new mail route to McGrath and Flat was started in late 1922 from the new Kobe station on the railroad north of Healy, via Minchumina and Big River Roadhouse. This quickly led to the cessation of mail runs over the Rainy Pass part of the Iditarod, and most of the remaining roadhouses between Susitna Station and McGrath were abandoned in short order. In February of 1924 the Kobe-McGrath route had the distinction of being the first airmail route in Alaska, when Carl Ben Eielson (in a surplus World War I open-cockpit Jenny biplane on skis) made a series of experimental mail flights from Fairbanks to McGrath.
The Alaska Road Commission began building airports across Alaska in 1925, including landing fields at Wasilla and Flat. By the early 1930s most Alaskan towns, including Flat and McGrath, had regular air service for passengers, mail, and freight. The airport at Flat became a key link in the early Alaskan aviation system because of its location. Wiley Post landed there on his record-setting round-the-world flight in 1933 in the "Winnie Mae" but wrecked his plane and had to wait for parts to repair it to be flown in from Anchorage. (The "Winnie Mae" is now in the Smithsonian.)
By 1938, more than 100 territorial airports had been built and airplanes had captured virtually all long-haul mail contracts in Alaska. With the loss of the mail traffic, most of the remaining roadhouses on winter trails eventually closed and thousands of miles of trails were inevitably abandoned. (Many roadhouses on the road system continued to thrive, however, especially along the Richardson Highway.) In 1939 the Alaska Road Commission finally quit maintaining its shelter cabins, ending an era in Alaska transportation.
World War II was the death knell for many marginal mining operations in Alaska. Gold mining was declared "nonessential" to the war effort and miners had no way to get equipment or spare parts. Transportation was strictly controlled and gold miners were near the bottom of the priority list. More importantly, the huge needs for military manpower and the channeling of the remaining workforce into critical wartime industries meant mine operators could not find workers.
On the other hand, the war left Alaska with a superb system of air navigation facilities and hundreds of airports, many of them capable of handling heavy cargo aircraft. After the war many remote Alaskan mining operators simply bought their own planes from the huge stock of cheap war surplus machines and used their own heavy equipment to make landing strips.
Dog teams in Alaska experienced an unexpected temporary revival during the war as part of various search and rescue organizations and especially with the famous Eskimo Scouts of the Alaska Territorial Guard. Organized by colorful Major "Muktuk" Marston, this unique military group was composed mainly of Natives from Bush and coastal areas with particular knowledge of their own regions.
The Scouts' main purpose was reconnaissance, watching Alaska's endless coastlines for anything out of the ordinary. They used dogs extensively in their operations and reopened many trails in the western and southwestern parts of the territory (including western sections of the Iditarod) to make their movements easier. (The Alaska Scouts are still an elite, mostly-Native unit and form a significant part of the Alaska National Guard, with detachments in almost every town in western Alaska. Marston was one of the first inductees into the Mushing Hall of Fame at Knik, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race until his death in 1980.)
The Air Force's highly decorated 10th Rescue Squadron at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage used dog teams throughout Alaska from World War II until well into the 1960s. Several eventual Iditarod racers, including Joe (Joee) Redington, Jr., were among the squadron's military mushers, and descendants of the squadron's sled dogs were on more than a few Iditarod racing teams.
The river sternwheelers also got a brief reprieve from oblivion thanks to the military's critical need for their services in World War II. However, all were beached by the mid-1950s, victims of the airplane and newer, less glamorous diesel tugboats. Alaska literally went from the steamboat and dog sled to the airplane in a single generation, without the intervening growth of dense road and rail networks as in the Lower 48.
Although the old far-ranging ARC trail system was almost completely abandoned after the war, some of the winter trails continued to be used occasionally by "cat trains", consisting of caterpillar tractors pulling up to half a dozen big freight sleds over the frozen countryside. These trains became a favorite method of hauling bulk fuel and heavy equipment into remote mines and are still used today in some areas.
When the Iditarod race committee decided to inaugurate the southern route through Iditarod for 1977, the Hunter Trail from Ophir was chosen over the original trail through Moore's Creek. Part of this was because the Hunter Trail was used off and on after World War II for cat trains and thus had a conveniently cleared pathway for dog teams and snowmachines. (Many dog sled and snowmachine trails in Alaska follow so-called "cat trails" or "tractor trails.")
Mining in the old Iditarod, Innoko, and Ruby gold districts slowly restarted after the war, but never reached its previous level of activity. Gold mining continues to the present day in these areas, but mostly by small operators in the summer. The vast region from Ruby south to Iditarod is now almost completely deserted in the winter, although signs of former civilization can be found even in some of the most remote areas.
The great irony of the wholesale abandonment of the old ARC trail system is that the advent of snowmachines (not to mention the revival in long-distance mushing) beginning in the 1970s has created an immense and rapidly growing new demand for a statewide trail network. Unfortunately, the years since World War II have seen the splintering of the ownership of the land under the old trails. Many key rights-of-way have been lost and even the Iditarod Trail crosses a bewildering patchwork of federal, state, borough, Native, and private lands, each with its own set of rules and land-use policies. Portions of the old trails are in daily winter use as local and village-to-village trails, but there is no comprehensive, marked, and maintained system as under the ARC.
Designation of the Iditarod as a National Historic Trail in 1978 (and more recently as a Millennium Trail) has allowed better oversight. The federal Bureau of Land Management has been designated as the single manager for the historic Iditarod Trail network, which includes almost 2,400 miles of mainline and connecting trails. With the help an advisory council (which included Joe Redington, Sr.) the BLM published a comprehensive management plan in 1986. In 1999 the Iditarod National Historic Trail (INHT), Inc., a private non-profit organization, replaced the advisory council. The INHT's purpose is to help the BLM and specifically to promote the historical aspects of the Iditarod.
The overall goal of the BLM and the INHT, Inc., is to preserve the history of the trail and the buildings and sites along its route, while at the same time making it available for public use. Numerous projects are already underway to restore sections of the original trail not still in use and to improve other sections. It is hoped that eventually the entire original trail will be re-opened for public use, marked with interpretive signs, provided with shelter cabins, and accurately mapped.
The Iditarod Trail Committee (ITC) is a private non-profit organization, separate from the BLM and INHT. Inc., formed in 1973 to stage the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The Iditarod race essentially recreates the Iditarod of the mail drivers, freight drivers, and individual mushers. The checkpoints are the modern equivalents of roadhouses and the mushers' pre-race food shipments substitute for the food for people and dogs that would have been available at the various stops. For practical reasons, the race from Wasilla to Old Skwentna Roadhouse uses only a few portions of the original trail, although west of Skwentna most of the race follows (albeit sometimes loosely) either the main-line Iditarod Trail or its various connecting historic trails.
Olaus Murie (a former president of the Wilderness Society) ran dog teams throughout Alaska in his 31 years as a federal wildlife biologist. He began in 1914, the glory days of the Iditarod and long-distance mushing, and continued through the twilight of the long-haul dog teams. In his book Journeys to the Far North, one chapter describes a mushing trip through Rainy Pass in early 1922 along the Iditarod Trail. Murie was probably one of the last mushers to use this part of the trail before it was abandoned, and he looked back on the trip--and on mushing Alaska's trails in general--as a special experience:
"Why do we look back to those days as something precious? Perhaps there was something there we do not yet understand. On those long dog trails, leading through miles of scrubby spruce forest, across lowland flats, over rolling hills, every traveler I met was a friend. We would maneuver our respective dogteams past each other in the narrow trail, plant a foot on the brake, and talk….Nothing weighty, these conversations. We were complete strangers, but in a sparsely settled land each person has more value. You're glad to see each other. When you release your brake and your dogs perk up and yank the sled loose, you wave a mittened hand to your departing acquaintance with the warm feeling of a few shared moments…."
The Iditarod Trail--and long-distance travel by dog sled--will never again be as it was in its heyday. The trail was a lifeline and an artery of commerce, and was woven into the fabric of daily life for those who lived and worked along its route and those who traveled it. Today long stretches are deserted and the once-well-worn trail is in many areas a wilderness trace that belies its original, very practical purpose. Perhaps the best we can hope is to use the Iditarod Trail as a reminder of a unique and vibrant past even as we appreciate its present-day solitude and beauty.
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