The legendary Alaskan dog musher Leonhard Seppala, who won the All Alaska Sweepstakes three times and played a key role in delivering the life-saving serum to Nome in 1925, lived in many places, from Norway to Nome, Maine, and Seattle, and, for a time in the 1930’s and ’40’s, in a log cabin on a hillside in Chatanika, northeast of Fairbanks.
Fascinated by this bit of information, my friend Albert Marquez and I spent a long time searching and researching the location of this cabin, and Albert communicated with the noted artist and writer Ray Bonnell, who writes a history column for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
“According to ‘Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough,’ the Seppalas built a small 16-by-16-foot log cabin in the early 1930s just east of the newly established FE Company camp at Chatanika. They expanded the cabin over time. Photos from the 1940s show the cabin with a shed addition to the rear, along with a white picket fence and a huge flower garden. Later another small cabin was tacked onto the addition’s east end.”
Ray was kind enough to share the location with Albert, and on our way to the Yukon Quest checkpoints of Central and Circle we stopped to take a look and get some photos of the F.E. Gold Camp and Seppala’s cabin. As Ray noted in his article, there have been additions made to the original small cabin, but there is no mistaking the structure, which sits on a rise above the old road, with beautiful old birch and spruce trees in front of it.
The Historic Fairbanks Exploration Company Gold Camp, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is about 23.5 miles out of town on the Old Steese Highway. It was built between 1923-25 as the original bunkhouse and dining hall for the men who worked on Chatanika’s old Gold Dredge 3.
The gold dredge is still there, and so are lots of mining equipment. It has been estimated that $70 million dollars was removed by the FE Gold Co. there between 1926 and 1957. At that time, the camp was larger than Fairbanks with over 10,000 residents.
A Wikipedia listing details the gold camp today: “The Chatanika Gold Camp is a historic gold mining camp at Mile 27 3/4 of the Steese Highway in Chatanika, Alaska. The camp is set on about 49 acres (20 ha) over looking Cleary Creek, and consists of thirteen buildings as well as a scattering of old mining tools and equipment. The largest of the buildings are two bunkhouses, finished in corrugated metal. The camp was built in 1925 by the Fairbanks Exploration Company (FEC), which also dug the nearby Davidson Ditch to supply water for the operation of the gold dredges. The Chatanika Camp was the largest of the FEC’s mining camps in the Fairbanks area. Five of the surviving buildings date to the initial construction period. The camp was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979.”
Also at the Wikipedia site is an article about the Davidson Ditch, a 90 mile conduit built in the 1920s to supply water to gold mining dredges in central Alaska. It was the first large-scale pipeline construction project in Alaska, designed to divert water from the Chatanika River at a point below the junction of Faith and McManus Creeks to hydraulic sluicing/stripping operations at Cleary and Goldstream, just north of Fairbanks. Ray Bonnell wrote a very interesting article about the pipeline.
Within the lengthy Wikipedia history of its construction is this note about the famous musher: “In the first year after the ditch’s opening in May 1928, it was beset by problems. Numerous leaks and breakages occurred, often causing work stoppages at the dredges and mining operations that relied on its water. Eventually, FE Co. managers instituted a 24-hour watch of Davidson Ditch. Watchmen were employed to patrol its length, perpetually examining it for leaks and problems. In the winter, it was patrolled by dog team. Famed musher Leonhard Seppala was employed in this capacity by FE Co. and was named the chief watchman of the ditch. Seppala had telephone lines laid between watch cabins stationed every 15 to 20 miles along the route. These allowed for quick repairs in the event of damage or for quick reaction if the water level became too high.”
Seppala’s cabin was located just east of the F.E. Gold Camp, along the old Chatanika Highway. It is privately owned.
Leonhard Seppala mushing dogs near Chatanika, circa 1947: