The Alaska Railroad 1902-1923

Matanuska River Bridge train

The book I’m currently working on covers the early history and construction of the Alaska Railroad and its predecessors, from 1902, when John Ballaine put in motion the actions which led to his Alaska Central Railroad; through 1923, when President Warren G. Harding drove the ceremonial golden spike in Nenana. I have a personal interest in this history, as my father worked for the Alaska Railroad in the 1970’s, programming the computers which kept operations flowing smoothly from Anchorage. A highlight of my childhood was one bright autumn day when Dad handed my brother and I tickets and sent us off alone, aboard the train, our first taste of adventuring through the wilderness of Alaska alone. To set the stage for the book, I’ve written this piece about railroads in the western states, and in Alaska:

Photo for page 20In the American west, during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the proliferation of railroads provided a rapid, versatile, and relatively low-cost means of transportation across the vast distances of the midwest and the Great Plains. But the railroads did not come easily, and they did not come without a large measure of doubt and ridicule. One prominent government official reportedly scoffed about the proposal of railroad travel, certain that it was not forthcoming anytime soon and pronouncing, “I would not buy a ticket on it for my grandchildren!”

websterDevelopment of the west was considered a fool’s errand in the early years, the land deemed fit only for cattle and the wild and reckless cowboys who tended them on long drives to market. The great statesman Daniel Webster had growled about the West in 1845, “What do we want with this region of savages and wild beasts, of deserts, of shifting sands and whirlwinds of dust, of cactus and prairie dogs?”

wild-west-bbcBy 1852 there was only a single five-mile track of rails west of the Mississippi River, belonging to the oddly-named Pacific Railroad of Missouri. On December 9, 1852 the P.R.R.M.’s single steam engine chugged into the St. Louis suburb of Cheltenham, marking the first passenger trip on the Pacific side of the mighty river. But within a single generation more than 116 million acres of land would be granted to the railroads, and only eighteen years later, in 1870, more than 72,000 miles of track would criss-cross the western territories.

1467083-bigthumbnailWhen the last spike was driven to complete the Great Northern Railway’s track in 1893, five railroads spanned the West: The Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, Northern Pacific, Great Northern, and the Atcheson, Topeka & Santa Fe. These five railroads would change the course of western history by advertising the potential of the Great American West to farmers in the eastern U.S. and in Europe. Their colorful and greatly exaggerated flyers, posters, and brochures brought an overwhelming influx of settlers and farmers, inspiring Congressman Charles E. Hooker to note, “We gave [the railroads] an empire composed of an arid desert unfit for the habitation of man,” and the railroads, through their intense promotional efforts, had returned “an empire of hardy and industrious citizens.”

KennicottTrain

Kennicott mine near McCarthy. P.S. Hunt

Those early western railroads had an impact on the development of Alaska, for wise men noted that what had worked to open the American West to pioneering settlement and sowing the seeds of progress might work as well in the frozen north. And so, in the history of Alaska, as in other parts of the world, railroads played a large role, and were a major influence. In the early part of the twentieth century there were almost two dozen railroads at various stages of operation in the territory, including the Alaska Anthracite Railroad, Alaska Central Railway, Alaska Home Railroad, Catalla and Carbon Mountain Railway, Copper River and Northwestern Railway, Council City and Solomon River Railroad, Golovin Bay Railroad, Nome Arctic Railway, Northern Alaska Railway, Tanana Valley Railroad, Valdez-Copper River and Tanana Railroad, Wild Goose Railroad, and the Yakutat and Southern Railway.

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First White Pass train, 1899

Many of these railroads were built and operated by various mining interests, others were funded by farsighted groups or individuals who understood the potential profitability of steel rails providing reliable access to a new and growing land. Of the many attempts and endeavors, only two remain in operation today, the White Pass and Yukon Railway from Skagway, Alaska to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory; and the Alaska Railroad from Seward to Fairbanks, the building of which is the subject of this book. Over the years all of the other railroads have either been absorbed by larger, more successful lines, gone bankrupt when funding ran out or resources were depleted, or simply outlived their usefulness as times changed and populations moved on.

Last Train

Last Train to Nowhere, near Nome

There are still many signs of the old railways across Alaska, and some have become almost iconic, such as the long-abandoned steam engines of the Council City & Solomon River Railroad, known as the “Last Train to Nowhere;” or the photogenic bridges and trestles of the Copper River and Northwestern Railway along the McCarthy Road. But colorful legacy or none, hundreds of miles of steel rails which opened the territory of Alaska to development now sit silent, unused, untraveled; mute reminders of a time when the forbidding terrain and harsh climate of Alaska yielded to the building of an Iron Trail.   ~•~

My forthcoming book, The Alaska Railroad: 1902-1923, will be published in June, 2017, and can be preordered for $24.00 plus $5.00 postage, by clicking here.

 

 

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Iditarod: The First Ten Years

BookCoverBluePlease click here to help put a copy of this book in every Alaskan school – even a $5.00 donation will help put more books into our schools!

Iditarod: The First Ten Years is a tremendous compilation of history from many of the mushers, friends, families, volunteers, news reporters, photographers, artists and others who helped make The Last Great Race a reality during those heady, wild, exciting, unforgettable early years, from 1973 to 1983. These are the stories of how the race began and then continued, the important foundational years when planning for and making the race happen was as exciting an event as the race itself.

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Joe Redington and Dick Mackey [photo courtesy of Iditarod The First Ten Years]

This beautifully illustrated book, compiled and edited by the folks who were there (who call themselves The Old Iditarod Gang), highlights the inaugural race in 1973, when Joe Redington Sr.’s dream became a reality, along with the next nine races which kept that dream alive. It shares the adventures of the volunteers who made the race possible, the pilots who created the Iditarod Air Force, and the veterinarians who kept the dogs healthy, or mended and healed them when the inevitable happened. It tells the story of the Alaskan Native mushers who brought their incredible wealth of dog lore and knowledge to bear and won the race, and placed well, and taught others how to care for and train and race dogs. It gives the background tales of checkpoints, landmarks, towns and villages, rivers and mountains along the way to Nome. It shares the sometimes harrowing, sometimes hilarious stories of the news reporters and photographers who were tasked with keeping up with it all, year after year, and whose images and reporting helped make the race what it is today, a worldwide phenomenon.

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 8.37.18 PMNow the promoters of this excellent book would like to see a copy in every Alaskan school, so the children who will be carrying on the work and the traditions of the race- and perhaps racing their own team to Nome! – will have this inspiring and educational volume available to read. At their GoFundMe page they state: “It is generally a good and decent thing to be a part of the education of deserving young students, to help them along the way, to help them broaden their horizons and to enhance their awareness of the good things around them. “Reading is a Lifelong Journey” (and necessity) in the pursuit of knowledge! For anyone interested in investing in something meaningful, won’t you join us in our quest to place Iditarod The First Ten Years in every school library around the state?”

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Still Crazy After All These Years

Still Crazy After All These Years

by Helen Hegener with Rod Perry

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Rod Perry and leader Fat Albert, 1973

Adventure has been a way of life for Rod Perry of Chugiak, Alaska. Now seventy-four, an age when most are slowing way down if not sitting still, Rod has caught another gear and is speeding up.

Perry grew up in Oceanside, Oregon. With the surf pounding out his front door and thousand-year-old forests in back, and with a winter population of just 175 in the 1950s, the little village provided an idyllic setting for an outdoors-crazy kid like Rod to develop. Learning of woods lore was greatly enhanced by a father who never wore a pair of shoes until age twelve, only Sarcee moccasins, having grown up on a homestead and trapline in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies where his father’s hunting and trapping partners were of that First Nations people.

Rod attended Tillamook, Oregon schools, then Oregon State University. In 1967, with a wildlife management degree in his pocket, he put Oregon in his rear-view mirror and headed for Alaska. “Where else could I have gone for my kind of self-expression?”  reflects Perry. “Had I stayed out in America (as he calls the contiguous states) my life would have been dull as dishwater. God didn’t wire me that way.”

Through the years his employments have included work on a moose research project, guiding big game hunters, and operating his commercial fishing boat in the high-risk, high reward waters of Bristol Bay, the world’s richest salmon fishery.

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Rod Perry today

Rod conceived and filmed the iconic Alaska motion picture classic, ‘Sourdough,’ starring his late father, Gil Perry. With son rolling film, dad played an aged trapper and prospector attempting to live out a disappearing lifestyle amidst a dying old-time Alaska. Perhaps no other motion picture which toured the world’s theaters ever started with less. Gil had never acted, Rod had never produced a film, and they began with barely two nickels to rub together. Never hesitant to go where only fools dare to tread, Rod dove headlong into the several-year-long project without a hint of filmmaking experience. In its place was a humble confidence in his God-given artistic sense and a feel for how to craft a magnetically romantic tale of the Old North.

A rough draft version toured Alaska to record-breaking crowds and was shown in Rod’s former Oregon screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-11-46-06-pmhometown. Then Hollywood’s Albert S. Ruddy (‘The Godfather,’ ‘The Longest Yard,’ many others) engineered the final edit. Since 1977 ‘Sourdough’ has quite likely been seen by more theater goers, TV audiences, and home video watchers than any film ever made in Alaska.

Rod Perry once rode a wild moose, and he has weathered several close shaves with charging grizzlies. But he waves those off as topics unworthy of more than passing mention. What he really likes to recount are his wild adventures by dog team. He has freighted sled loads of supplies for climbers up onto the flanks of Denali. A memorable trip took him to visit Eskimo friends. Mushing north around the frozen shores of the Bering and Chukchi Seas, he stayed a day or two in each little village. On the way, from one high overlook at the tip of the Seward Peninsula, he could see the coast of Siberia across the Bering Straits. The trip ended far above the Arctic Circle.

His most daring trek was to bring twenty-two sled dogs out to the highway system from the remote cabin where he had been living. It would have cost the lives of the small group Perry led if they failed to make it through before their almost thousand pounds of dog and human food ran out.

“Once we traveled beyond a point of no return,” recalls Rod, “it was make it all the way through or die. Out there in that vast trackless country between Mount Denali and the Yukon River there was no trail; we had to make our own. If we had fallen, no one would have known where the wolves and ravens picked our bones.

“It was about 175 grueling miles to the highway system, route-finding by map and compass, cutting our way by axe and bow saw, and breaking trail by snowshoe in front of the dogs. Camps far below zero were made each night wherever darkness overtook us. Only two pieces of canvas comprised our shelter, but that’s enough if you know how.

“We reached the highway the morning of the eighteenth day. Our food had run out the night before.”

Almost eight hundred individuals have completed Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. Of their number, those who have taken such a lengthy wilderness trip as Rod’s, and have done it on their own outside of an organized race structure where trail and supplies are established, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

And so Rod was drawn like a moth to a flame to test drive what would go on to be known the world over as “The Last Great Race on Earth.”

“Recalling the moment I first learned of plans to stage such a stupendous thing as the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end,” says Rod. “I almost levitated. I could no more turn away from being among the intrepid band that pioneered it than turn down my next breath.

“It was an incredible departure from the standard sled dog racing model of short dashes over manicured trails near towns and villages. The plan was so audacious few thought it could be brought off. According to common opinion, for us to plunge headlong by dog team into a thousand-mile crossing of wild Alaska, in the dead of an arctic winter, was sure proof we were fools.”

With virtually zero belief on the streets in what sounded like a cockamamie goat-rope of an impossible dream, race founder Joe Redington and his few true believers found it impossible to raise adequate funding. But funded or not they were determined to go. With logistical help thin, emergency help non-existent, and organization barely enough to hold things together, Joe needed a seasoned field of veteran bush travelers used to going it alone in Alaska’s winter wilderness. And that’s exactly who came to the starting line—gold prospectors, trappers, big game guides, homesteaders, bush pilots, and, most notably, the final trailing edge of Alaska’s great (pre-snowmachine) Native dog men. Since that first race in 1973, no field of their likes has ever been assembled to run the Iditarod.

“Had we failed, we would have only proven the skeptics correct, erasing the thin amount of credibility we had. That would have made it impossible for even the slight funding Joe had scraped up to be gathered for a second try,” says Perry, “and the event would have died right there.”

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Rod Perry, 1973 Iditarod start  ©Anchorage Daily News

But those hard-to-kill trailsmen, with Iditarod’s very future riding precariously on their shoulders, did not fail. From their glorious success the race would grow to become Alaska’s most world-famous annual event. And although that trailblazing first run through to Nome would go down as the greatest Iditarod adventure of all time, no telling solely about their wild and crazy, sometimes bizarre passage has ever found its way to the screen.

A few years back, Rod was gripped by what a shame it is that the chance to tell the story in that powerful, ‘I was there, I did it’ dynamic is dying as one after the other of Iditarod’s original mushers slip away. With only a dozen of the original entrants left, Rod became more and more driven to do something about preserving the tale.

Rod thought, “What are the chances that one of the elite group of first Iditaroders would be an author (‘TRAILBREAKERS—Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod,’ available at www.rodperry.com ) and a veteran filmmaker? And then what are the odds that an Academy Award nominated filmmaker, Buzz Rohlfing, would walk up out of the blue and suggest we collaborate on a First Iditarod film? God must be tapping me on the shoulder.”

Now Rod Perry has plunged headlong into filming, with Buzz Rohlfing, ‘TRAILBREAKERS—The Men of Seventy-Three.’

“It’s gonna blow people away!” exclaims Perry, excitement in his voice and glinting from his eyes. “That first race was so one-of-a-kind, there’s the 1973 Iditarod, and then there are the other forty-four. I’ve chuckled that it was about as foreign-sounding to today’s racers and as distant from today’s race as if it was the tale of Jason and the Argonauts’ voyage in quest of the Golden Fleece!”

There was very little media coverage of that first race, because there was so much skepticism that the 1973 event could be brought off. Once many of the racers returned to their remote homes and villages, most of their stories never saw print, much less the screen. But down through the decades, the hints and whispers that have seeped out from the backwoodsmen who ran it have clothed that incredible odyssey with an alluring aura of rich fables and untold mystery, tantalizingly dangling just beyond reach.

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Rod’s video for Kickstarter

Perry and Rohlfing’s campaign to raise essential funding is kicking off with the start of this 2017 Iditarod. Go to Kickstarter.com  for a view of Rod pitching the film. More information is available at the film’s website, www.menof73.com. Those who heed Rod Perry’s call to jump on his sled runners and ride along on the filming adventure are in for a wild, educational ride into the Iditarod’s glorious untold past.
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Great Trail Dogs

“For years, with great dogs, I toiled and often with them was in great perils. Much of my work was accomplished by their aid. So I believe in dogs, and here in this book I have written of some of them and their deeds.”
~Egerton Ryerson Young, in My Dogs In The Northland (1902)

 

Balto Central Park

The Central Park statue of Balto, one of many dog heroes of the 1925 Serum Run to Nome.

The BLM Alaska website is a trove of mushing history, with excellent articles on the Iditarod National Historic Trail and related topics. An addition to the site last year is a page on Famous Trail Dogs, a salute to some of the famous and not-so-famous sled dogs who traveled the Iditarod Trail and others in Alaska’s storied past. Edited by Helen Hegener, the page shares information about stalwart canines such as Togo, Fritz, Baldy, Kolyma, Wolf and others, whose lead-dog skills and great hearts helped shape the history of Alaska. Here are their photos, for their stories, click on the link to the BLM site above.

Baldy of Nome oval copy

Baldy of Nome

Fritz in Nome copy

Fritz

Gunnar_Kaasen_with_Balto copy

Balto, with Gunnar Kaasen

Wolf

Wolf

Slim and Rembrandt

Rembrandt, with Slim Williams

ironman[1]

Kolyma (left) with ‘Iron Man’ Johnson

Togo sitting

Togo

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The Men of ’73

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Rod Perry and leader, Fat Albert, 1973

In March of 1973, filmmaker, author, and Iditarod historian Rod Perry ran his dogteam in the very first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska. Now Rod is seeking to preserve the story of that very first race in a documentary film based on the inaugural running.

The First Iditarod: The Amazing Dogs and Their Mushers will be a collection of interviews with the men who ran the first Iditarod in 1973, sharing their memories of the first running of The Last Great Race.

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Rod Perry today

Adventure has been a way of life for Rod Perry. Now seventy-four, an age when most are slowing way down if not sitting still, Rod has caught another gear and is speeding up. Perry grew up in Oceanside, Oregon, with the surf pounding out his front door and thousand-year-old forests in back, providing an idyllic setting for an outdoors-crazy kid like Rod to develop. He went to Oregon State University, and in 1967, with a degree in wildlife management in his pocket, Rod headed for Alaska. “Where else could I have gone for my kind of self-expression?”  reflects Perry. “Had I stayed out in America (as he calls the contiguous states) my life would have been dull as dishwater, but God didn’t wire me that way.”

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-11-46-06-pmRod conceived, wrote, and filmed the iconic Alaska motion picture classic, Sourdough, starring his late father, Gil Perry. With the son roiling film, dad played an aged trapper and prospector attempting to live out a disappearing lifestyle amidst a dying old-time Alaska. Perhaps no other motion picture that toured the world’s theaters ever started with less, but since 1977 Sourdough has been seen by more theater goers, TV audiences, and home video watchers than any film ever made in Alaska.

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Rod Perry, 1973 Iditarod

And now Rod seeks to tell the story of the first Iditarod. From the inaugural running in 1973 the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race has grown to become Alaska’s most world-famous annual event. Although that trailblazing run to Nome would go down as the greatest Iditarod adventure of all time, the full story has never been told on film. Because there was so much skepticism that the 1973 event could even be brought off, there was very little media coverage, and once many of the racers returned to their remote villages, most of the stories never saw print, much less the screen. But down through the decades, the hints and whispers that have seeped out from the backwoodsmen who ran it have clothed that incredible odyssey with an alluring aura of untold mystery dangling just beyond reach. Rod notes, “That first race was so one-of-a-kind, there’s the 1973 Iditarod, and then there are the other forty-four. I’ve chuckled that it was about as foreign-sounding and distant from today’s race as if it was the tale of Jason and the Argonauts’ voyage in quest of the Golden Fleece.”

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-11-57-39-pm

Rod’s video for Kickstarter

Information about the fundraising effort for this documentary film can be found on Kickstarter.com, and at the film’s website, menof73.com. A film of this caliber needs funding and support from those who recognize the importance of preserving this unique sled dog history. Those who heed Rod Perry’s call to jump on his sled runners and ride along on this great filming adventure are in for a wild, educational ride into Iditarod’s untold past!
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The First Iditarod

New First IditarodThe First Iditarod: Mushers’ Tales from the 1973 Race, by Helen Hegener

“We got a storm back about Rainy Pass and the trail was covered over; we had no trail, so Victor Kotongan, Bud Smyth and I spent about three days walking, somewhere near the headwaters of the Rohn River…” -Ken Chase

“Herbie Nayokpuk and I were at Farewell Lake and it started snowing. I mean it was like a major snowstorm, and we were running down the trail and all of a sudden you couldn’t find the trail anymore! We got into this real thick brush and we stopped and turned around and we looked and we’d totally lost the trail.” -Bill Arpino

The First Iditarod shares the story of the first running of The Last Great Race through the words of mushers who made that first journey to Nome in 1973, captured in recorded and videotaped interviews conducted by the author over a span of several years.

Published in March, 2015 by Northern Light Media. 154 pages. $20.00 plus $5.00 shipping and handling to U.S. addresses only (foreign readers please order via Amazon). Click on the book title or the link above to order via PayPal or with a credit card. Also available at Amazon, eBay, and your local independent bookstores. Postal orders can be mailed to Northern Light Media, Post Office Box 870515, Wasilla, Alaska 99687-0515.

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The Yukon Quest

YQ Front CoverThe Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race spans some of the harshest and most beautiful winter territory anywhere: 1,000 miles between Fairbanks, Alaska and the city of Whitehorse in Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Known as ‘The World’s Toughest Sled Dog Race,’ it’s an event like no other. Run every February, the race is phenomenally challenging, crossing four mountain ranges, including the dangerous and intimidating 3,685-foot Eagle Summit, as it loosely follows the course of the mighty Yukon River.

Dyan Bergan's lead dog at the finish in Fairbanks, 2013. [Eric Vercammen/Northern Light Media]

[Eric Vercammen/Northern Light Media]

The Yukon Quest Trail, by Helen Hegener, takes readers checkpoint by checkpoint from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, an extraordinary journey in which the author shares insights and details of the trail, along with the incredible history of both the race and the wild and beautiful land it crosses. Over 180 photographs by the author and by photographers Eric Vercammen and Scott Chesney provide an unparalleled look at the trail, the mushers, the dogs and more. Also included are Trail Notes for Mushers, detailing the route in both directions, compiled by two-time Yukon Quest Champion John Schandelmeier.

YQ Front CoverThe Yukon Quest Trail: 1,000 Miles Across Northern Alaska and the Yukon Territory, text and photographs by Helen Hegener, additional photos by Eric Vercammen and Scott Chesney; with Trail Notes for Mushers, by two-time Yukon Quest Champion John Schandelmeier. Published December, 2014 by Northern Light Media. 151 pages, 8.5″ x 11″ full color format, bibliography, maps, indexed. $29.00 (plus $5.00 shipping and handling). Click on the image to order.

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2017 Sled Dog Race Calendar

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• January 6 – Gin Gin 200 – Paxson, Alaska

• January 7 – Tahquamenon Country – Newberry, Michigan

• January 7 – Knik 200 (Joe Redington Sr. Memorial) – Knik, Alaska

• January 7 – La Grande Odyssée Savoie Mont BlancLes Carroz, France

• January 8 – Knik 100 (Bruce Braden) – Knik, Alaska

• January 9 – Gunflint Mail Run – Grand Marais, Minnesota

• January 14 – Copper Basin 300 – Glennallen, Alaska

• January 14 – Darby Dog Derby – Darby, Montana

• January 18 – Eagle Cap Extreme – Joseph, Oregon

• January 20 – Kuskokwim 300 – Bethel, Alaska

• January 20 – Two Rivers 200/100 – Two Rivers, Alaska

• January 21 – Gold Rush Trail Sled Dog Mail Run – Quesnel, British Columbia

• January 27 – Northern Lights 300 – Big Lake, Alaska

• January 27 – Wyoming Stage Stop – Jackson, Wyoming

• January 28 – Tustumena 200 – Kasilof, Alaska

• January 29 – John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon – Duluth, Minnesota

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• February 3 – Willow 300 – Willow, Alaska

• February 4 – Wilderness – Greenville, Maine

• February 4 – Yukon Quest International – Whitehorse, Yukon

• February 4 – Yukon Quest 300 – Whitehorse, Yukon

• February 10 – Willow Jr. 100 – Willow, Alaska

• February 11 – Race to the Sky – Seeley Lake, Montana

• February 11 – Knik-Goose Bay 150 – Knik, Alaska

• February 16 – American Dog Derby – Ashton, Idaho

• February 17 – UP200 – Marquette, Michigan

• February 18 – International North Hope – Neya, Kostroma region, Russia

• February 21 – Canadian Challenge – Prince Albert, Saskachewan

• February 25 – Jr. Iditarod – Willow, Alaska

• February 26 – Caledonia Classic – Fort St. James, British Columbia

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• March 4 – Iditarod Trail – Anchorage, Alaska

• March 4 – Can-Am Crown International – Fort Kent, Maine

• March 11 – Finnmarkslopet – Alta, Norway

• March 18 – Hudson Bay Quest – Churchill, Manitoba

• March 23 – Percy DeWolfe Memorial Mail Race – Dawson City, Yukon

• March 24 – Nome-Council 200 – Nome, Alaska

• March 25 – Tobacco Trail – Kiruna, Sweden

• March 25 – Canadian Championship Dog Derby – Yellowknife, NWT

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• April 6 – Kobuk 440 – Kotzebue, Alaska

Please send changes, additions or updates to helenhegener@gmail.com

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A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon

Dog-PuncherPeople sometimes ask me which musher in history is my favorite, and it’s a tough choice, as there have been some truly amazing mushers (and I write about many of them in my book Alaskan Sled Dog Tales), but one which is always near the top of my list is Arthur Treadwell Walden, author of “A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon.” Walden is rarely mentioned without reference to his great sled dog Chinook, for the dog helped cement Walden’s reputation and renown as a musher, breeder, and trainer of the highest caliber.

Arthur and his wife Kate bred and raised the magnificent Chinook, born in January, 1917, at Walden’s Wonalancet Farm near Tamworth, New Hampshire. Chinook, for which the breed was named, made headlines around the world with victories in the first international sled dog race in 1922, and the breed was later hailed as the freighting dogs on Admiral Byrd’s 1928-29 expedition to Antarctica. Much has been written about Arthur Walden and his dogs, and several online articles are linked below this photo.

Walden and Chinook

“Adventurer Arthur T. Walden with his sled dog Chinook at the Winter Carnival in Portland, Maine. This photograph was published on the front page of the Portland Evening Express on February 11, 1922, the same year Chinook led Walden’s team to victory in the first Eastern International Dog Derby, on his way to becoming the most famous dog in America.” 

Read more:

Northern Light Media: Biography of Arthur Treadwell Walden

Wikipedia: Arthur Treadwell Walden

New England Historical Society: Arthur Walden and A Dog’s Life of Adventure

Cowhampshire Blog: Walden Biographical details

Seppala Kennels: Arthur T. Walden

The Chinook Owners Association: Arthur Walden history

The Laconia Daily Sun (3-part history): The Most Famous Dog in the World

Intervale Chinooks: History of the Chinook Dog

 Downeast Magazine: Leader of the Pack

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Looking for Lizzy

lizzy

Elizabeth “Lizzy” Geady

As an author of books on the history of Alaska, I often receive inquiries from people seeking information about long-lost relatives, and I’m always happy to help whenever I can. Family connections are important, and helping someone piece together clues to a lost relative is a fringe benefit of my work which brings happiness and often new friends.

I received one such letter recently which provides a fascinating glimpse into the life of a young roadhouse keeper along the Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail, which would later become the Richardson Highway, in the early years of the 20th century, when travel was slow and arduous, whether by dogteam, horse-drawn wagon or sleigh, or most often, by foot.

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“Lizzy at Gulkana.” [UAF Archives}

The letter came from my friend Julie Stricker, the online content editor at the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Julie had received the letter from a woman named Lorne Brown who’d read Ray Bonnell’s article about the Sourdough Roadhouse in the News-Miner, and she queried: “I am looking for any information you might be able to offer regarding the woman who purchased the Roadhouse from C.L. Hoyt in 1916. We have an old family letter from my G-G Aunt Elizabeth Geady — she married a Kerr and a Stevens, but we believe was divorced from both before arriving in Alaska — in which she writes about the trading post, she refers to it as a store, that she owns in Gulkana, at least that is where the letter is postmarked from. The letter is dated January 30, 1915.”

There was more to Lorne’s letter to Julie, describing her great-great aunt’s 1915 letter, and she ended with this plea: “Any assistance you can offer would be greatly appreciated. She’s our lost Klondiker.”

Young Elizabeth Geady wrote this letter to her mother from Gulkana in January, 1915. I’ve transcribed it for easier reading and the text of the letter is below the photos.

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Gulkana P.O

Alaska

Jan 30, 1915

Dear Mother,

I received both your letters and was so glad to hear that you are well and liked the goods I sent you. I am glad that you sold some of them. I will send you some more things before long, I can write to the store keepers in Chicago or Toronto if I know their name it would not cost any duty from there.

Tell Mr. Randsom I said Thank you for sending his regards to me (?) tell him I have in mind very clearly the time I worked for them.

They were such nice clean people. Tell him that I said that I remember of his father (Old Mr. Randsom) he wanted to light his pipe and he had no match so I run and lighted his pipe with a sliver of wood and old Mr. Randsom said someday you will be very rich lady. I asked him how he could tell and he said oh it is a sure sign when a child saves a match that they will get rich. What a nice lady Mrs. Randsom was, and also her sister. I hope they are all well. The last time I saw Mrs. Randsom she had a little baby girl and I had lots of fun with Leslie.

Mr. Randsom might be able to give you the address of some wholesale stores in Toronto, ask him and send me the address and I will send you some things from there.

I have a store here and am doing well. I have 3 black foxes and 9 cross foxes alive. I sold a black live fox this summer for $1000 for breeding purposes. I caught him myself in a trap and I sent to the States and got a lot of goods. I got 1 ton of flour, 200 lb bacon, 500 lbs sugar and everything in proportion and lots of clothing. I sell them to the Indians. Flour is $16 a hundred, sugar $20 a hundred, tea $1.50 a lb, bacon 60¢ a lb, socks $1.50 pair (can’t decipher). Everything is high here. I have a horse and I send 150 miles for the goods after they land in Alaska.

Oh how I wish you were here with me. I am so comfortable and contented. If you were here you could get my breakfast for me. I hate to cook and do housework. I have a saddle horse to ride all over the country. I have a shotgun and shoot partridges and grouse. They are so good to eat.

I am living on the bank of the Tolsona River. The trout and greyling are so thick one can get them by the thousand

Mother, did you get my letter where I told you to give Teany my hand painted things, there are a few things

Lizzy’s letter ends there. Lorne explained “The Teany she mentions at the end is my Great Grandma Brown, Christianna (nee Geady) Brown.”

If you have any information about Elizabeth “Lizzy” Geady (possibly Kerr or Stevens) from around 1915, please get in touch with me at helenhegener@gmail.com and I will forward your information and contact details to Lizzy’s great-great niece, Lorne Brown.

 

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“A Mighty Nice Place”

“The valley looks great. It looks fine, fine. You got a mighty nice place here.”     ~American humorist and commentator Will Rogers, Palmer, Alaska, August, 1935

a-nice-place-coverThe newest book from Northern Light Media combines the history of the Matanuska Valley with the photographs of A.R.R.C. photographer Willis T. Geisman, who was charged with recording the events surrounding the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project. This book combines two earlier titles into one comprehensive history of this important era in Alaska, when the federal government took a direct hand in the future of the territory.

The Matanuska Colony Project was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal for America, an unprecedented series of economic programs designed to provide aid to people reeling from the Great Depression. Nearly one hundred new communities were designed and developed by Roosevelt’s planners, but the largest, most expensive, and most audacious of them all was to build a government-sponsored farming community in Alaska’s Matanuska Valley.

“A Mighty Nice Place,” The History of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, by Helen Hegener, explains how a few visionary men convinced the planners in Washington, D.C. to extend their community-building efforts north to Alaska, and tells the complex story of this important chapter in Alaska’s history.

Photo by Willis T. Geisman, A.R.R.C. 1935

Photo by Willis T. Geisman, A.R.R.C. 1935

The remarkable photos of official A.R.R.C. photographer Willis T. Geisman documented every aspect of the venture, and his compelling images tell the true stories, moments in time captured and preserved, brought together here with the detailed history of the Matanuska Colony Project.

“A Mighty Nice Place,” The History of the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, by Helen Hegener. Published in November, 2016 by Northern Light Media. 276 pages, 120 photos, 6″ x 9″ b/w format. $24.00 plus $5.00 shipping. Click here to order now via PayPal.

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Ordering Books

Ordering books from Northern Light Media is simple, and I offer four convenient ways for you to order my titles online:

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Northern Light Media You can order every title I’ve published directly through my website, just click on the title you’re interested in for complete details about the book and a link for ordering through PayPal, which also accepts credit and debit card orders.

CSCreateSpace CreateSpace publishes all of my books and makes it very easy to order them from the CreateSpace Store. Each title is listed and clicking on the title takes you to a descriptive page for that book, with complete details and ordering through the convenient CreateSpace shopping cart.

IndieBoundIndieBound I support independent bookstores and encourage ordering my books through your local favorite! There are two ways to purchase books through IndieBound.org: (1) The “Buy Now” button on every book page allows you to purchase the book immediately, and the sale will support the entire network of independent bookstores. (2) By entering a zip code in the “Shop Local” box, you will be able to choose from among the websites for a list of independent bookstores near you. You will then be transferred to the selected store’s website to complete the purchase.

AmazonAmazon Amazon.com, the largest Internet-based bookstore retailer in the U.S., carries all of my titles, simply enter the title you’re interested in and use Amazon’s easy online ordering system!

 

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Golden Places

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Golden Places: The History of Alaska-Yukon Mining, With Particular Reference to Alaska’s National Parks, was written in 1990 by William R. Hunt, prepared as a special theme study to assist in the assessment of cultural resources associated with metal mining in Alaska’s national parks. Designed to focus on mineral discovery and development in the national parks, its first chapters explore the earliest prospecting efforts in the north country, through the Klondike Gold Rush years. From the first Cassiar discovery in the Stikine River country in 1862, through gold discoveries at Sitka, Juneau, Yakutat, the Fortymile country, the Circle Mining District, the stampede to Nome, the Nabesna and Nizina gold strikes, strikes at Kantishna, Kuskokwim, and the stampede to Iditarod, the complete history of gold in Alaska and the Yukon is presented clearly with a gold mining chronology.

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Teams freighting to Chisana

The book, which is available free to read online, is divided into 18 chapters which detail the history with in-depth descriptions and fascinating details, such as this from chapter 12: “In February 1914 Chisana folks argued that their community had more log cabins than Circle, Fairbanks, or Dawson and deserved to be called ‘the largest log cabin town in the world.’ Four hundred cabins was one estimate, including seven general stores, a saloon, two restaurants, a clothing store, and ‘roadhouses galore.'”

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Iditarod

There is a brief but good description of the history of the Iditarod Trail, shared here in full: “The Seward-Nome Trail, famed today as the Iditarod Trail because of annual dog-sled races from Anchorage to Nome, was never a major long-distance route. It consisted of a number of winter trails that had developed in the early prospecting days that were linked in 1910. When the upper Innoko strike attracted miners from Cook Inlet and elsewhere in 1906, a trail to tidewater appeared beneficial. In February 1908 the Alaska Road Commission began a survey of a new trail from Seward to Nome. After a Christmas strike on Otter Creek by prospectors W.A. Dikeman and John Beaton, the boom town of Iditarod developed. Over the winter of 1910 the Alaska Road Commission marked and cleared 1,000 miles of trail from Kern Creek, on the Alaska Northern railroad 71 miles north of Seward, to Nome. Some portions of the trail were new and some had been used by prospectors or natives earlier. The Seward-Knik section became a mail and supply route until the railroad was extended, and the Knik-Kaltag section was much used from 1910-20. Other portions of the wide winter trail network were used as needed, then abandoned when conditions changed.”

Detailed maps, charts, photographs and extensive notes and bibliographies at the end of each chapter make this book an outstanding online research tool, but also an enjoyable contribution to the history of Alaska for the more casual reader. An observation from the last chapter: “Alaska’s hunters, trappers, dog mushers, and hikers have a certain respect for those early miners. It required travel skills and a spirit of adaptation that is generally admired by Alaskans who have a particular sensitivity to their natural environment.”

 

 

 

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Gakona Roadhouse

Alaskan Roadhouses

This article is an excerpt from the book by Helen Hegener,  Alaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, published in 2015 by Northern Light Media. Ordering information below.

 

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Gakona Roadhouse, 1984. Photograph by Jet Lowe. [HABS AK-27-1]

The Gakona roadhouse at milepost 205 on the Glenn Highway, dating from the first buildings constructed on the site in 1902, is the oldest still-operating roadhouse in Alaska.

 

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Mile 2, Gulkana-Chisana Road, Gakona River and Roadhouse, Copper River in distance. Photo by Walter W. Hodge, 1930. [UAF-2003-63-278]

Originally called Doyle’s Ranch, the Gakona Roadhouse was constructed by Jim Doyle, who homesteaded a site on the banks of the fast-flowing Gakona River, which joins the mighty Copper River a few hundred yards downstream. His homestead was at mile 132 of the Trans-Alaska Military Road, which was the name of the then-new Valdez-to-Eagle Trail, built by the U.S. Army to link its post at Fort Liscum, near Valdez, with Fort Egbert, at Eagle on the Yukon River. The Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail also ran north from the site, making the junction of the two trails an excellent location for a roadhouse.

 

Gakona Roadhouse, by P. S. Hunt. [AMRC-b62-1-a-151 Crary-Henderson Collection]

Gakona Roadhouse, by P.S. Hunt. [AMRC-b62-1-a-151 Crary-Henderson Collection]

The original roadhouse was built of six- to ten-inch saddle-notched round logs, approximately 20′ by 50′, with with a 15′ by 30′ shed-roofed addition. The building included living quarters, a kitchen and dining room, a few private rooms, an upstairs dormitory and a store. A low shed which could accommodate dog teams was built, and a military telegraph station was installed nearby. In 1910, the roadhouse become the main stop for the Orr Stage Company, and Doyle added a blacksmith shop and a barn that could hold up to a dozen horses. He also raised oats and hay on over sixty acres of fields.

 

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Henra Sundt

Jim Doyle sold the roadhouse in 1912, and the property went through several owners, including the Slate Creek Mining Company. In 1926 Arne N. Sundt, a director of the Nabesna Mining Company, discovered that the manager of the Slate Creek mine, a fellow named Elmer, was sidetracking the gold which should be going to the mine owners. In a 1993 interview for the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Oral History Program, Arne N. Sundt’s widow, Henra Sundt, explained what happened next: “Arne put on the only suit that he ever owned,” and traveled to the offices of the mining company and told them what was transpiring. They told Arne he “could just take over the place as Elmer hadn’t sent them one ounce of gold in years!”

 

Arne made an agreement to mine the company’s holdings on Slate Creek and send them a percentage, and they sold the roadhouse to him as part of the deal. When Arne got back to Gakona and confronted Elmer with the news, “Elmer got pretty upset and pulled a gun on him, but Arne just reached out and took the gun away from him.” Henra explained, “[Elmer] was just a little guy, but my husband was six feet tall! So Elmer left, but he stayed around the country, mining his own claims on Slate Creek.”

32. Gakona_Roadhouse_from_front copyIn her book, Sisters, Coming of Age and Living Dangerously in the Wild Copper River Valley [Epicenter Press, 2004], Aileen Gallaher described stopping at the roadhouse on her way north from Valdez in 1926: “Our next stop was Gakona, about thirty miles north of Copper Center. The Gakona Roadhouse there was a huge log building, which really could not be called a cabin. It had a second story and a high-pitched roof. The Gakona River flowed swiftly about fifty feet in front of it. The lobby was a large room without any decoration and only a few wooden benches for furniture. In one corner, a staircase led to the bedrooms upstairs, and the other corner was occupied by the Post Office. Across the front next to the lobby were the dining room and the kitchen, and behind were the owners’ quarters. The two men who lived there and operated Gakona Roadhouse were Arne Sundt from Norway and Herb Hyland, from Sweden. Both welcomed me warmly to Alaska, and made me feel at home in this new, amazing world.”

In 1929 Arne Sundt built a new roadhouse, much larger than its predecessor, in an L-shaped, gable-roofed plan, with 9 private rooms, a bunkhouse on the upper floor, two bathrooms, a general store, and a post office. He also built a separate owner’s residence, two cabins, a wagon repair shop, and other buildings. Arne and Henra, who had traveled to Alaska from Norway in 1928 to marry Arne, ran the roadhouse together for 22 years, until Arne’s untimely death from a heart attack in 1949. When he died, her friends said Henra should sell the roadhouse, but she felt running the roadhouse would provide a good living for her and her children, and she prospered, raising two sons and a daughter, finally selling the roadhouse in 1979.

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A dogteam in front of the Gakona Roadhouse during the 2014 Copper Basin 300. [Photo: Helen Hegener/NLM]

All of the buildings on the site – all but two of them made of logs – have been subsequently added to the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years, the roadhouse and its cabins have known many famous guests, including the venerable Judge James Wickersham, the first federal judge from Interior Alaska, who waded through overflow water to reach the roadhouse in 1905. Alaskan artists Ted Lambert, Eustace Ziegler, and Josephine Crumrine, with her artist-mother, rented cabins one summer, and each presented Henra Sundt with an original piece of their artwork. Bill Egan, the first governor of Alaska, stayed at the roadhouse often during his years in office, and the arctic explorer Hurbert Wilkins was a guest. Perhaps the most well-known guest is a pipe-smoking ghost, said to have a preference for Room 5, whose appearances have been written about in many newspaper and magazine articles over the years.

 

~•~

Excerpted from:

Roadhouses Buy NowAlaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener, published by Northern Light Media. 6″ x 9″, over 100 black/white photographs, 284 pages. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping and handling.

Alaskan Roadhouses

$24.95 plus $5.00 S&H

Click on the book image to order your copy!

Available at Amazon, eBay, and your local independent bookstores.

Postal orders can be mailed to Northern Light Media, Post Office Box 870515, Wasilla, Alaska 99687-0515.

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1912 All Alaska Sweepstakes

Screen Shot 2016-06-12 at 5.19.22 PMAn old friend, Robert Lutz, sent me the link to an article which appeared in the March 27, 1912 issue of the newspaper, The San Francisco Call, which noted entries for the 1912 All Alaska Sweepstakes race. The article read, in full:

Berkeley Woman’s Dogs To Race in Alaska

NOME, Alaska, March 27.—Few entries have been received for the 1912 All Alaska sweepstakes, the great dog race of the north, which will be run next month over the 412 mile course from Nome to Candle and return. The only contestants in sight are A A. (Scotty) Allen, driver of the dogs owned by Mrs. Charles E. Darling of Berkeley, Cal.; Charles Johnson, Alex Holmsen and possibly Bleechford. Holmsen will drive Colonel Sir James Ramsey’s team of Siberian wolfhounds, taking the place of John Johnson, the famous dog team driver, who has always handled the wolves and who is marooned on the Siberian coast. Johnson went to Siberia late last fall to get dogs for the race and was left stranded when the ice moving down from the Arctic drove his schooner back to the American shore.

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Charles Johnson’s team starting the April 4, 1912 All Alaska Sweepstakes

I have written about the All Alaska Sweepstakes race many times, most recently in my newest book, Alaskan Sled Dog Tales. In that book I included an article about the great racer, John “Iron Man” Johnson, who is mentioned in the 1912 article. I also included a booklet written by Mrs. Charles E. Darling, also known as Esther Birdsall Darling, the author of the classic children’s book, Baldy of Nome. That booklet, The Dog Races of Nome, detailed the results of the fifth All Alaska Sweepstakes race in 1912:

 

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Seppala Kennels Advertising Card

I often stumble across interesting websites in my research, and one I’ve returned to a number of times over the years is the Alaskan Heritage Bookshop website, which sells Alaskan books, Alaskan art, vintage Alaskan memorabilia and photographs, and much more. Based in Juneau, the site bills itself as “The Museum of Alaska History Where Everything is for Sale.” I shared some fascinating horse snowshoes in my last post, and there are lots of other interesting items to be found at the Alaskan Heritage Bookshop.

One such item is an advertising card from Leonhard Seppala’s kennels in Nome, Alaska. This business card was apparently mailed to Carl Lomen, known as the “Reindeer King of Alaska” and one of the famous Lomen Brothers whose numerous photographs recorded early Alaskan history. The card features Seppala’s favorite lead dog, Togo, described as “the champion trophy winner of Alaska.”

Price for this historic gem is $750.00, plus $12.00 shipping.

Togo Card

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Horse Snowshoes

The photos and information here are borrowed from the Alaskan Heritage Bookshop website, which sells Alaskan books, Alaskan art, vintage Alaskan memorabilia and photographs, and much more. Based in Juneau, the site bills itself “The Museum of Alaska History Where Everything is for Sale.”

One item no longer for sale is an interesting pair of snowshoes for a horse. The screenshots below tell the story – remember these are no longer for sale, but there’s a limitless supply of interesting items at the Alaskan Heritage Bookshop website.

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Crow Creek Pass, Iditarod Trail

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Trail up to Crow Creek Pass (by Frank Kovelchek, Wikimedia Commons)

Crow Creek Pass is a popular summer destination with hikers and backpackers, crossing a scenic pass high in the great Chugach Range of mountains which overlooks Anchorage and separates the Matanuska Valley from Prince William Sound. Crow Creek pass, or Crow Pass as it is often referred to, is also a significant point on the Iditarod Trail, made famous by the similarly-named 1,049-mile sled dog race held annually since 1973.

The Iditarod Trail historically began  in the mountains of the Kenai Peninsula, threaded along the tidal waters of Turnagain Arm, and then turned up Glacier Creek and climbed mapover Crow Pass before dropping down into the Eagle River Valley. From there the trail turned north and wound around Knik Arm, through the trading post of Knik and over the Alaska Range to the gold rush town of Iditarod, just south and west of Denali (Mt. McKinley), and continued on to another gold rush town on the edge of the Bering Sea called Nome.

The trail was about 1,150 miles long and incorporated the long-traveled native trails of the Dena’ina and Deg Hit’an Athabaskan Indians on the southern and middle sections, and the Inupiaq and Yup’ik Eskimos on the northern end.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 2.15.16 PMOne of the early travelers over the Iditarod Trail was a hearty adventuring Presbyterian minister known as ‘the Mushing Parson.’ The Reverend Samuel Hall Young had spent time traveling in southeastern Alaska with none other than the great naturalist John Muir, who would come to be known as the “Father of the National Parks” and founder of the Sierra Club. The story of their friendship is chronicled elsewhere on this website.

In 1913 Rev. Young wrote an article for the church publication The Continent in which he shared his story of a journey via dogteam from Iditarod to Seward over the Iditarod Trail, crossing Crow Creek Pass in March. He wrote from Knik, “The worst mountain pass of all is before us–Crow Creek Pass over the high Alaska range. Fearsome tales are told me of this pass, but there is nothing to do but to try it.”

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S. Hall Young photo: “My start from Iditarod to the coast.” [UAF-2001-38-64a]

The Reverend, who suffered from a bad back, hired a young prospector named Fred Taulman to take him over the trail, writing, “Were it not for my lame back I would go alone, but they all say that the pass is too dangerous to be traveled singly even by a strong and vigorous person. So on March 21 we hitched up our eager dogs, whose three days rest has put them in high spirits, and hit the trail again around the head of Knik Arm.”

An overnight stop at a roadhouse near present-day Eklutna and the travelers were ready to start the arduous part of their journey the next day. Crossing the Eklutna River and Peter’s Creek, along the shore of Fire Lake and up the valley of the glacial Eagle River, the mountains on either side closing in and narrowing above them.

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Rev. Young and his team at Iditarod, 1913. [UAF-2001-38-3]

“Now hard climbing up a steep road to the base of the pass at Raven Creek roadhouse. A storm is blowing. The snow banners on the mountains that overlook the pass and the fast falling snow make it impossible for us to go on, so we spend a day at this fine roadhouse, kept by three men who are hunters, prospectors and hotel keepers as occasion requires. The second day they hitch up four big dogs as big as Shetland ponies to supplement our smaller ones, and a sturdy mountaineer with ‘creepers’ on his feet comes to pilot us over the summit. From daylight until noon we struggle before reaching the summit, making only five miles in six hours. The descent from the summit is almost sheer for 2,000 feet.”

One of the rarest historic Alaskan photos is S. Hall Young’s image of his dogteams at the summit of Crow Creek Pass in March, 1913. It is the only photograph of dog teams in the pass this historian and author has ever found, and at least two historic societies have verified the scarcity of such historically important photos. This one (below) is part of the Rev. S. Hall Young Album in the collections of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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Rev. S. Hall Young photo: “Summit Crow Creek Pass, Alaska. One of the passes on my trip to the coast. [UAF-2001-38-104]

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Joe Redington’s Iditarod Booklet

Redington 0A slim little booklet came to my attention at the Palmer library recently; if memory serves me it was tucked into their collection which cannot be checked out of the library but must remain in the building. Titled Iditarod Trail, The Old and The New, published by Alladin Publishing in Palmer, Alaska around 1990, the booklet was apparently authored by M. Carter; across the bottom of the front cover are the words “Story by Joe Redington.”

The book has some interesting charts and tables, such as a listing of the original 1907 route with the stopping points named, and a list of the roadhouses on the trail. There are a number of old photographs, but the most interesting part is that written by old Joe. I’ll share some photos I took at the library with my cellphone, hope they’re readable.

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Dog Team Doctor

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 9.42.28 AMIn 1896 Dr. Joseph  H. Romig traveled to Bethel, Alaska, and opened the first doctor’s office and hospital west of Sitka, at a time when there were very few non-native people living in remote southwest Alaska. Four decades later a book would be written about the good doctor’s adventurous and life-saving exploits across the vast northern territory.

Joseph Herman Romig was born in Illinois in 1872. His parents were descendants of Moravian immigrants, and in exchange for his pledge to serve for seven years as a doctor at a mission, the Moravian Church sponsored his medical training. In 1896, Joseph married a nursing student he met at school, and the couple moved to Bethel to join Joseph’s older sister and her husband as missionaries to the Yup’ik people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Bethel was barely a village at that time, consisting of only four houses, a chapel, an old Russian-style bath house and a small store. The Romig home was a simple two-room structure, and included the first hospital: one room with two homemade beds.

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 9.40.55 AMFor a time, Dr. Romig was one of the only physicians in Alaska, and he became expert at dog mushing, as his practice stretched for hundreds of miles. He became known as the “dog team doctor” for traveling by dog sled throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the course of his work.

When his term of missionary service was complete Dr. Romig left Bethel, and in the following decades he played an eventful and important role in the growth of Alaska. In the 1920’s Dr. Romig set up a hospital in Nenana for the Alaska Railroad. In 1930, he was asked to head the Alaska Railroad Hospital in Anchorage. He would eventually be, in addition to a missionary and a doctor, a superintendent of schools, U.S. Commissioner, mayor of Anchorage (1937-38).

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 9.50.37 AMIn 1939, Dr. Romig was appointed chief surgeon at Anchorage’s newly constructed state-of-the-art Providence Hospital, but he retired shortly thereafter, and purchased land on what would later be called Romig Hill. From his log cabin on the property, he started a “Board of Directors” club which eventually provided the founding members of the Anchorage Rotary Club. In the 1950’s and ’60’s Romig Ski Hill was a popular recreation area for Anchorage and provided a tow rope, lighted trails, a regulation jump, Quonset hut for warming up, and an intercom system which played polka music for the skiers.

dtdJoseph and Emily Romig moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Joseph died in 1951. Although he was originally buried in Colorado, his remains were later disinterred and moved to Alaska to be buried in the family plot in Anchorage Memorial Park. J. H. Romig Junior High School, named in his honor for his dedication to youth and education and later renamed Romig Middle School, was built on Romig Hill in 1964.

Dr. Romig’s life story and his adventures in southwest Alaska became the subject of a book, Dog-Team Doctor: The Story of Dr. Romig, by Eva Greenslit Anderson, published in 1940.

Sled Dog TalesThis story is excerpted from the new book Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, which will be published May 14, 2016; advance orders are available now. All advance ordered copies will be signed by the author, Helen Hegener; after May 14 books will be shipped directly from the publisher and will not be signed. Alaskan Sled Dog Tales, by Helen Hegener. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping & handling. 320 pages, 6′ x 9″ b/w format, includes maps, charts, bibliography, indexed. Click this link to order.

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