Mush! A Look at Sled Dog Racing in Alaska’s Historical Newspapers

Black and white photograph of a sled dog team of 7 dogs pulling a sled with one man seated and one man standing with text in the lower left hand corner that reads: "A crack dog team of Iditarod, Alaska"
Image credit: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Greetings, all!

Yesterday, musher Pete Kaiser of Bethel, Alaska won the 2019 Iditarod, with his dog team reaching Nome in 9 days, 12 hours, 39 minutes and 6 seconds. This was his 10th attempt, and is the 5th Alaska Native and very first Yupik musher to win the Iditarod, with last year’s winner, Norwegian musher Joar Ulsom, taking home second place.

Held annually starting the first Saturday in March, the Iditarod race consists of teams of mushers and their dogs from Anchorage to Nome- 1000 miles in total!

Its origins lie in the town of Iditarod itself, home to the last major Alaskan gold rush in 1909. To accommodate the population boom, the Federal government constructed a winter trail for year-round mail and shipping service to the miners from Seward to Nome in 1910 for use by dog sled teams. Thus a tradition was born, with races held each winter well into the 1920s.

Alaskan Surgeon Makes Long Trip: Doctor in U.S. Hospital Must Journey 838 Miles to His Patient. Anchorage, Alaska, Jan. 26.--Dr. J. B. Beeson, surgeon in the government hospital at Anchorage, was hurrying today to the end of the government railroad on the first leg of an 88-mile journey to Iditarod, where he was called by the serious illness of Claude E. Baker, a banker. At the end of Steel, Dr. Beeson will be met by Bill Cory and Harry Wanstad, famous "mushers," who will pilot him by dog sled to Iditarod. Relays of fast dog teams have been arranged for along the route and crews of men have started to break trail from the other end. Dr. Beeson estimated that the trip would require 14 days.
Image credit: Omaha daily bee. (Omaha [Neb.]), 27 Jan. 1921. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn99021999/1921-01-27/ed-1/seq-4/>
Teams of dog sleds helped save hundreds of lives in the wake of the deadly 1925 diphtheria epidemic, with heroic dogs, such as the world-famous Balto and lead dog Togo, led by world-renown musher Leonard Seppala, transport of life-saving serum to snow-bound Nome.

Color photograph with the text "1925 Serum Run To Nome" with a black and white photograph of dog musher Leonard Seppala and his team of dogs, with his lead dog Togo stuffed and mounted in front of the photograph and text.
Exhibit on the 1925 serum run with lead dog Togo stuffed and on display at the Carrie M. McClain Memorial Museum in Nome, Alaska. Photo courtesy of the author.

The advent of air travel signaled an end of the integral aspect of the dog sled team, but the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race tradition lives on each year, thanks to Joe Redington Sr., who sought to preserve the sled dog culture and the historical Iditarod Trail.

Today, an average of 65 teams participate, and it typically takes between 9-12 days for the winning dog sled team to reach the finish line.

Although the official Iditarod started a number of years after the span of Alaska newspapers available on Chronicling America, there are several accounts of other dog sled races in Alaska.

Many Dog Races Be Held Nome This Winter: With a lot of money already donated, Nome will have more dog races this winter than during any other season in the history of the Bering Sea, says the Seattle Times. The All-Alaska sweepstakes race, the great sporting classic of the north, will not receive individual attention for premiership honors this year, for a new contest, the dog race marathon, has been inaugurated, according to Charles Sanford, former editor of the Nome Nugget, who is in Seattle to spend the winter. John Borden, Chicago millionaire, who started north on a sporting expedition last summer that ended when the power schooner Great Bear piled up on St. Matthew island in Bearing sea, was the creator of the Marathon for dogs. Borden reached Nome after a wet and chilly experience in the surf of St. Matthew island and became interested in dog racing. He sent to Chicago for the handsomest silver cup that the silversmiths of that city could furnish, and donated it for a race over a Marathon course. The trophy weighs more than sixty pounds without the pedestal. Course 26 Miles 300 Yards. The Nome Kennel Club, with Borden's assistance, laid out the rules under which the trophy must be competed for. The course will be twenty six miles and three hundred yards. The event is to be run under the most favorable climactic conditions, it being the desire of both the club and the donor of the trophy to learn exactly how fast a team of dogs can cover this distance. The big cup must be won three times by the same team owner, but each winter will be given a smaller silver cup. It is likely that the Marathon race will be held a few days before Christmas, but the date is dependent on the weather. Eight teams were in training for the event when Sanford left the north. Perry Riley, Russ Downing, Grant Jackson, Fay Delzene, Charley Ross, John Erikson and Billy Webb were getting their animals in shape for the test. Only five teams will compete in the All-Alaska Sweepstakes race, from Nome to Candle Creek, and return a distance of 412 miles, and the contest is likely to simmer down to a battle between malamutes of the lop-eared variety. Leonard Seppala has acquired all the pointed ear Siberian dogs in the country and Fay Delzene has a monopoly on the best lop-eared dogs. Seppala and Delzene each has won a victory in this great event. Crossed Breed Animals to Run. Perry Riley is training a team of Missouri bird hounds, crossed with malamute, which may upset the genasid to be very fast , but there is a question as to their having the staying qualities as needed in a gruelling race of 412 miles. The Ladies' Amateur Race this year promises to bring out considerable rivalry. George Bokum, a Chicago sportsman and who accompanied Borden to Nome, donated a beautiful bronze and silver vase for the event, and already the women dog fanciers of Nome are arranging to borrow a few dogs from the crack racing teams. There will be about eight other races during the winter. Sanford says there will be more prospecting in Nome this winter than ever before, but he has never seen the time when miners wouldn't take a few days off to watch a dog race, no matter how much gold they were gathering from deep in the earth at the time. When a dog race starts all other activities are suspended.
Image credit: The Cordova daily times. (Cordova, Alaska), 02 Dec. 1916. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

The All-Alaska Sweepstakes was among these many races. From 1908 until 1917, the Kennel Club of Nome held the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, a race spanning on the Seward peninsula from Nome to Candle. From the 1931 book Gold, Men and Dogs, well-renown  musher A. A. “Scotty” Allen described the route to Candle:

“It was selected because the trail to it from Nome goes over all kinds of country, from sea ice to high mountains, with rivers, tundra, timber, glaciers, and everything else in the way of mental and physical hardships en route. We knew there wouldn’t be any doubt about the excellence of a dog or driver that covered it.”

Black and white photograph of a crowd of people wearing fur coats and hats on a street in Nome surrounding a dog sled team of 15 dogs with the caption that reads: "Team no 1 starting in the 5th annual All Alaska Sweep Stake Race; G.H. Johnson Owner and Driver."
Image credit: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.
All-Alaska Sweepstakes Won By Scotty Allan: The fifth annual All Alaska Sweepstakes, run on Seward peninsula last week, was the biggest and last dog event of the season. The race started from Nome Thursday forenoon, April 4, and the course was to Candle and return, a total distance of 372 miles. The trail was heavy and the weather stormy part of the time. The purse was $3,000, divided into three parts as follows: First, $800; second, $750; third, $450. The winners were as follows: Allan and Darling, 14 dogs, Scotty Allan driver...Running Time: 53 h. 43 min.; Resting Time: 33 h, 44 m.; Finishing Time 87 h. 27 m.; John Johnston, 16 dogs, Aleck Holmson driver...63 h. 35 min; 24 h. 23 m.; 87 h. 58 m.; Charles Johnson, 16 dogs, self driver...64 h., 16 min.; 24 h. 39 m.; 88 h.; 55 m.; Oliver Blatchford also started, with twelve dogs, but was reported hopelessly out of the race at the 372d mile. He was lost in Death Valley for three hours. Holmson lost a dog in Death Valley, where it was storming, and was two hours finding him. In 1910 the race was run in 74 hours 14 minutes 22 seconds, which is high-record time.
Image credit: Iditarod pioneer. (Iditarod, Alaska), 13 April 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.
Black and white photograph of Esther Birdsall Darling wearing a fur coat and hat holding the leash of three dogs, one of which is seated in the middle.
Esther Birdsall Darling. Image credit: Alaska State Library Historical Collections.

Esther Birdsall Darling, Allen’s partner and co-owner of his dog teams in the All-Alaska Sweepstakes between 1908-1915, stands out as one of the notable women actively involved in sled dog racing in Alaska. In 1916 she wrote a book titled Baldy of Nome that chronicled the rescue story of Baldy, pictured below, who led Allen’s team to victory. The text of this book can be read online in its entirety.

Black and white photograph of a dog lying down looking up at the photographer with the writing: "Baldy of Nome"; "Scotty" Allen's famous leader, Winner of $25,000 in Sweepstake prizes." From the Winter& Pond company, Juneau, Alaska.
Image credit: Courtesy of the Alaska State Library Historical Collections.
Color photograph of All Alaska Sweepstakes Memorabilia at the Carrie M. McClain Memorial Museum in Nome Alaska featuring a fur coat, 4 silver trophies, patches, a hat, a program guide, and a sled banner belonging to Leonard Seppala.
All Alaska Sweepstakes memorabilia on display at the Carrie M. McClain Memorial Museum in Nome, Alaska. Photo courtesy of the author.

Click here for more information on the Iditarod and its history. To learn more about the All-Alaska Sweepstakes, click here.

Congratulations to Pete Kaiser, and to all those who participated in the Iditarod this year!

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