In 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.
For 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).
In 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.
Joseph 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.
This 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.