The May-June, 2019 issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article on the All Alaska Sweepstakes, founded in Nome more than one hundred years ago:
In the winter of 1907, a group of friends in Nome, Alaska set about developing a kennel club and formalizing the rules for racing dogs, founded on the same principles as the jockey clubs which oversaw the famed horse races of the bluegrass country in the south. There were many impromptu sled dog races all over the territory, but the men who started the Sweepstakes race were seeking a way to track and trace the mushers, their dogs, and the results, with an eye toward improving the sport and breeding better dogs.
In the spring of 1908 they held their first race, a 408-mile run to mining town of Candle and return, following the telegraph lines which linked camps, villages and gold mining settlements on the Peninsula. This route’s established communication lines allowed those betting on the outcome to track the race more easily from the comfort of saloons like the famed Board of Trade in Nome, and the betting was lively and spirited!
The winner of the first race was musher John Hegness, who was driving the team of Nome Kennel Club President Albert Fink. Twenty years later Hegness, who was a trapper and ranged widely over northern Alaska, would be credited with finding the bush pilot Russel Merrill after his plane crash-landed near Barrow. Merrill was transported to the Barrow hospital by dog team and treated for snow-blindness, exhaustion, and malnutrition.
The All Alaska Sweepstakes made household names of two illustrious mushers: Allan Alexander “Scotty” Allan and Leonhard Seppala, who each won the race three times. Another musher who gained widespread fame was the 1910 champion, John “Iron Man” Johnson. Johnson drove a team for the Scottish nobleman, Fox Maule Ramsay, who had traveled to the Anadyr River area of Siberia and brought back a load of “swift little foxy-looking dogs” which became the distant forerunners of today’s Siberian husky. Driving a team of these fast little huskies, Johnson set a record in the 1910 race of 74 hours, 14 minutes, and 37 seconds, which stood until 2008.
The All Alaska Sweepstakes was an eagerly anticipated annual event until the gold mining dropped off and the First World War took a large percentage of the men away to fight on foreign shores. Nome’s population dwindled, along with local interest in sled dog racing. In 1983 the Nome Kennel Club sponsored the 75th Anniversary race, and Rick Swenson took home the $25,000.00 purse. Then, in 2008, for the 100th Anniversary of the event, the Nome Kennel Club offered the richest purse ever for a sled dog race: $100,000.00, winner take all.
Alaska’s best-known mushers entered the Centennial race, including Lance Mackey, Jeff King, Mitch Seavey, Sonny Lindner, Ramy Brooks, Jim Lanier, Cim Smyth, Aaron Burmeister, Ed Iten, Hugh Neff, and Mike Santos. And then there were the mushers who entered simply to be a part of the history of the race: Kirsten Bey, Cari Miller, Fred Moe Napoka, Connor Thomas, and Jeff Darling, whose musher profile noted that he’d entered “for the historical value and a chance to see some countryside he might not otherwise be able to see by dogteam.”
2004 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey won the $100,000 purse for the 2008 race, and organizers and the Nome Kennel Club announced that would be the final running of the epic race, an event now consigned to the pages of Alaska’s colorful mushing history. In 2013 Northern Light Media published The All Alaska Sweepstakes, History of the Great Sled Dog Race, which told the story of the race and the sixteen Alaskan mushers who entered their teams in the Centennial running, each hoping to have their name engraved on the Sweepstakes trophy beside the great mushing legends John ‘Iron Man Johnson, ‘Scotty’ Allan and Leonhard Seppala. •~•
• Anchorage Daily News article by Helen Hegener, 2009
All Alaska Sweepstakes
"All Alaska Sweepstakes, History of the Great Sled Dog Race," by Helen Hegener. Softcover 8.5″x 11″, published in 2013 by Northern Light Media. ISBN 978-0-9843977-0-9 • 160 pages, over 350 photos. $29.00 plus $5.00 for First Class shipping