Delivering the mail to Alaska has always presented a formidable challenge to the U.S. Postal Service. Letters, parcels, and supplies from the Lower 48 states often took weeks or months to reach their destinations. Steamships transported Alaska-bound mail north from the west coast to Alaska’s coastal towns. The harsh Arctic weather and limited trail and road system made mail delivery difficult, and in the more isolated sections, dogs proved superior for the winter transport of mail.
Dogs were capable of covering long distances, day or night, and could travel over frozen lakes and rivers and pass through dense forests. By 1901, a network of mail trails throughout Alaska was in use, including a system that followed almost the entire length of the Yukon River. The historic 2,300-mile Iditarod Trail was the main dog trail that carried mail from Seward to Nome. Overnight roadhouses served mail carriers, freighters, and other travelers who used dog sleds or horses.
On average, dog teams pulled sleds containing between 500 – 700 pounds of mail, which meant that each dog had a load of up to 100 pounds (although they hauled less on the more challenging trails). Mail sacks usually weighed 50 pounds each. Rubber-lined waterproof bags were used to protect precious mail from snow, rain, and mud. The dogs wore moosehide moccasins to protect their feet as much as possible from jagged pieces of ice.
In 1963, the U.S. Post Office Department honored Chester Noongwook of Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea. He was the last mail driver and with his retirement, regular sled dog mail delivery ended in Alaska.
On January 2, 2009 the U.S. Postal Service issued a new stamp commemorating Alaska’s 50th anniversary as a U.S. State (Alaska became an official U.S. territory in 1912 and the 49th state on January 3, 1959). The image selected was created by official Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race photographer Jeff Schultz, and depicts veteran sled dog racer DeeDee Jonrowe on the Iditarod trail.