Slim Williams

Alaska Highway Trailblazer


While his trip was sponsored by The International Highway Association of Alaska and the Yukon Territory, Williams still sold postcards such as this along his route. [Slim Williams Papers, UAF-207-59-17 University of Alaska Fairbanks]

Clyde “Slim” Williams arrived in Alaska in 1900 at the age of 18 and spent the next thirty years trapping, hunting, and blazing trails throughout the frontier. In the early 1930’s Williams became a strong proponent of the plan for a highway linking Alaska to the lower 48 states, and he boasted that he could drive his dog team along the proposed route and continue all the way to Chicago, Illinois, where the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition was planned as part of the World’s Fair, celebrating man’s innovations in architecture, science, technology and transportation. The Alaska Road Commissioner, Donald MacDonald, persuaded Williams that such a trip could be used to promote the building of an Alaska highway, and so in 1933 Slim traveled down the proposed route by dogsled, using only crude maps in what was previously unmapped territory.


Leaving the White Roadhouse on Indian River on the way to U.S., 1933 [Slim Williams Papers UAF-2007-59-11 University of Alaska Fairbanks]

    An article for the Uniontown News Standard reported on December 11, 1933, “He started from Copper Center, November 20, 1932, without stove, tent or compass and with only the stars, the trees and the sun to guide him. His route carried him through Dawson City, White Horse, Atlin and Telegraph Creek and after covering 1800 miles through the wildest sections of Alaska and British Columbia he reached civilization at Hazelton, B.C. On sections of this trip he traveled as far as 500 miles without seeing one human being. Cooking over an open fire and sleeping in his sled were part of the journey which was tinged with tragedy when the wolves along Forty Mile river killed one of his favorite dogs.”


Slim’s wheeled sled in the mud between Smithers and Prince George, B.C. [Slim Williams Papers UAF-2007-59-15 University of Alaska Fairbanks]

    It took Williams five months to reach the end of the then-existing highway system near Hazelton, British Columbia. When spring thawing made sledding impossible, he mounted four Model T Ford wheels on his dogsled in Smithers, B.C. and continued toward the Chicago World’s Fair. By the time he reached Seattle, Williams and his wolf-dog team had become celebrities. Articles about his overland trek appeared in Time magazine, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and many others.


Slim with his team at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition, 1933 [Slim Williams Papers UAF-2007-59-5 University of Alaska Fairbanks]

    In Chicago, Williams and his dogteam made a popular Alaskan exhibit at the Century of Progress Exposition. A Time magazine article (October 2, 1933) reported that when former President Herbert Hoover visited the fair he chatted with Williams, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt described her meeting with Slim Williams as the most enjoyable part of her visit. A lecture brochure noted: “upon returning to Washington she told newsmen that what she liked best was a tall young man with blue eyes that looked miles away, who had driven his dog team all the way from Alaska.”


Slim Williams with his leader “Rembrandt.” When asked about his name Slim replied, “Well, isn’t he a picture?” [Slim Williams Papers UAF-2007-59-16 Univ of AK Fairbanks]

    After the World’s Fair closed for the season, Slim and his team of half-bred wolf/dogs proceeded to Washington, D.C., bringing the total distance of his journey by dogteam to over 5,600 miles. He camped in a city park and spent the winter discussing Alaskan concerns with legislators, and even met with President Franklin Roosevelt to further promote the highway. Williams enjoyed a dinner with the President and the First Lady, still advocating for the proposed road. The President finally did set up a commission with Canada to explore building a highway to Alaska, but while the project was considered feasible it was deemed too costly and unnecessary at that time.
Later in life, Slim traveled around the country with his wife doing presentations and slideshows, and he enjoyed success as a popular lecturer, as described in the text of a lecture brochure: “The Adventurers Club of Chicago, where all famous explorers speak, say his talk is one of the most fascinating and thrilling they’ve had in years.”
In 1956 an authorized biography of Slim Williams’ adventures was published by Richard Morenus: Alaska Sourdough: The Story of Slim Williams. The book detailed Slim’s 1933 solo dogsled adventure, and also his 1939 trip from Fairbanks to Seattle by motorcycle with 25-year-old John Logan. Their goal was the New York World’s Fair, and just as with Slim’s 1933 trip, the purpose was to gain publicity for the need to build a road connecting Alaska to the rest of the United States. At that time, there still wasn’t even a crude trail to follow for over 1,000 miles of the journey, so the adventurers crossed the wide rivers and daunting mountains in whatever manner they could, and their much-publicized journey once again spotlighted Alaska’s need for a road to the 48 states.
In early 1942, when World War II made an overland route necessary, President Roosevelt signed the authorization, and on November 20, 1942, at Soldier’s Summit near  Kluane Lake, a ceremony marked completion of the first phase of construction. Today the road is a major artery to the north, and the Alaska Highway project is still heralded as one of the greatest engineering feats of the twentieth century.   ~•~

Excerpted from Along Alaskan Trails, Adventures in Sled Dog History, by Helen Hegener, published by Northern Light Media


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Northern Light Media Store

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 12.06.03 PMAll of the books we publish, including the newest title, Alaskan Roadhouses, and our 2008 Lance Mackey DVD Appetite & Attitude, can be ordered directly from the independent publishing source CreateSpace, which produces all of the titles for Northern Light Media and offers them for sale in this online storefront.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 12.04.01 PMIn addition to the overview featuring all of the books we publish, each book is spotlighted on its own ordering page, providing details about the publication date, page count, ISBN/EAN13, binding type, trim size, language and color.

Direct orders from this storefront provide the highest available royalties, helping us continue to bring great books about Alaska’s history and our exciting long-distance sled dog races to publication.

Click this link to visit the Northern Light Media Store at CreateSpace.


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New Address


We’ve moved!

Here’s our new postal mailing address:

Northern Light Media

Post Office Box 870515

Wasilla, Alaska 99687-0515

The physical mailing address is 401 N. Main St. #0515, Wasilla, Alaska 99687-0515.


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The First Iditarod

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

The First Iditarod shares the history of the first running of The Last Great Race, and most of the book is comprised of the verbatim words of mushers who made that first journey to Nome in 1973, captured through recorded and videotaped interviews conducted over a span of several years.

The book also delves into the history of the trail itself, and includes the colorful histories of mail carriers on the Iditarod Trail, the First Annual Iditarod Sweepstakes Race in 1910, the glory days of the trail when hundreds of thousands of dollars in gold traveled over it, the 1925 Serum Run to Nome on the northern section of the trail, the trail’s fall into disuse, the reclaiming of the trail by Joe Redington Sr. and the U.S. Army, and how Joe and Vi Redington helped the Iditarod Trail became a part of the National Historic Trails system.

Published in March, 2015 by Northern Light Media. 154 pages. ISBN-13 978-0-9843977-6-1 Format 6″ x 9″ perfect bound, text only, no photos. $20.00 plus $5.00 shipping and handling to U.S. addresses only. Additional postage required for foreign orders.

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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Alaskan Roadhouses

RoadhousesAlaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails’

“The Alaskan roadhouse …. deserves and has earned the high regard that all Alaskan and northern travelers have for the roadhouse.” ~William E. Gordon, in Icy Hell (Wm. Brendan & Son, 1937)

‘Alaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails,’ by Helen Hegener, is the newest book from Northern Light Media, publisher of acclaimed Alaskan history books, including ‘The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project,’ ‘The First Iditarod,’ and ‘Along Alaskan Trails.’ This long-anticipated 284-page book recounts the detailed histories of twenty-four roadhouses, and presents historic photos of two dozen more. Along with the colorful histories are first-hand accounts of those who stayed at the roadhouses while traveling the early trails and roads of Alaska, including the Reverend Samuel Hall Young, Frank G. Carpenter, Judge James Wickersham, Leonhard Seppala, Col. Walter L. Goodwin, and Matilda Clark Buller, who opened a roadhouse near Nome in 1901, at the height of the Nome Gold Rush.
“Alaskan 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.

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 Trail

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.

Northern Light Media books are all available through independent bookstores, click on this image to find your local bookstores:

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A Call for Sled Dogs

oie_9616117jY7WlEQWe’re looking for sled dogs (and their mushers) who would like to participate in a unique opportunity to tell the world about mushing and sled dog racing!

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is hosting the fourth annual “IditaChat” on Twitter, on January 20, 2016. “Sled Dog Tales: Talk with Alaska Sled Dogs,” will be a live Twitter conversation for youth, schoolchildren, and anyone interested in hearing about what sled dogs think and experience on the trail and at home in their kennels, as interpreted by their mushers.

oie_962049NMMW71xBMushers and their dogs are being selected at this time for an opportunity to appear “live and in fur” at the Federal Building and Courthouse in Anchorage for this event. Special access has been granted for a limited number of sled dogs, to be selected from the applicants. If you – and your favorite sled dog – would like to join us for this unique opportunity please contact Karen Laubenstein at


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Mother Martha White

First white child born in Cook Inlet, Martha White, and her mother, left, in Sunrise, Alaska in 1898. The child is wearing a hat and holding a cat. A man, several wooden buildings and a pile of logs are visible in the background. Photograph taken during the 1898 Cook's Inlet Exploring Expedition led by Edwin F. Glenn on behalf of the U.S. Army. The photographer is unidentified. Title taken from caption written on back of photograph. [Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage]

First white child born in Cook Inlet, Martha White, and her mother, left, in Sunrise, Alaska in 1898. The child is wearing a hat and holding a cat. Photograph taken during the 1898 Cook’s Inlet Exploring Expedition led by Edwin F. Glenn on behalf of the U.S. Army.  [Edwin F. Glenn papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage]

The world traveler and lecturer Frank G. Carpenter wrote widely of his travels in Alaska, and in the April 5, 1917 issue of Moderator-topics he wrote about several notable women of the territory, including the Anchorage pioneer, Mother Martha White:

“The first woman to establish a home on Cook inlet was Mother White, the wife of a whaler who made voyages to Bering sea and the Arctic ocean. He brought his wife with him, and she built a log cabin store and roadhouse on the shores, of Cook inlet, about 200 miles from the site of the new town of Anchorage. It was there that Miss Martha White was born. She was the first white child to see the light of day In that part of the world, and when the work began on the government railway she was chosen to drive the first spike.

Martha White driving the first spike in the construction of the Alaska Railroad, Ship Creek, April 29, 1915. [Photographer John E. Thwaites. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.]

Martha White driving the first spike in the construction of the Alaska Railroad, Ship Creek, April 29, 1915. [Photographer John E. Thwaites. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division.]

“It is more than 20 years since Mrs. White established her store and roadhouse. She dealt with the Indians and trappers, and later on started a fish cannery and saltery. In one year she put up 2.000 barrels of salted salmon. She made considerable money, which she invested in mining. She was a part of the gold stampede to Sunrise, on Turnagain arm, where she made so much that she might have retired in comfort. Then bad luck came. She put her winnings into unsuccessful properties and lost them. She went back to the roadhouse business and established little hotels at Hope City and Sunrise. These were a success and she gradually accumulated some property. In the meantime, her daughter was growing up and Mother White decided to leave Alaska and go to the states to educate her. She moved to Chicago and opened a little store there, which supported her until a few years ago, when Martha’s education was finished.

Mother Martha White standing in doorway, no date. [Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress)]

Mother Martha White standing in doorway, no date. [Frank and Frances Carpenter collection (Library of Congress)]

“And then came that longing to go back to Alaska that permeates the souls of all who have made their homes here for any length of time. It so obsessed Mrs. White that she left her daughter in Chicago and went alone to the north. With tears in her eyes, she told me how she came back to the mining camps of Hope and Sunrise and how they affected her. Many of the old prospectors whom she had known were still there, and she felt that here was her home and her friends. The result was that she came back to Alaska, bringing her daughter with her, and when the work on the railroad began she was one of the first on the ground at the new town of Anchorage. She came in with a stock of lumber and canvas, and before a rail was laid or any excavation made she had put up tents for eating and lodging down on the flats. Her sleeping tent was equipped with bunks one over the other like those of a sleeping car, and each bed brought her-a dollar a night. When the new site for Anchorage was chosen she built a frame hotel on the main street, and she is doing so well that she will probably have to put up a larger building in the near future.”

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Delta News Web Article

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 9.25.17 AMThe Delta News Web, which serves the communities of Delta Junction, Big Delta and the surrounding area in northeastern Alaska, at the junction of the Richardson Highway and the Alaska Highway, features an article about four roadhouses in that part of the state, with historic photos of Rika’s Landing, Sullivan’s Roadhouse, the Black Rapids Roadhouse and Yost’s Roadhouse.

The article quotes a 1944 booklet by the U.S. Department of the Interior: “Alaska roadhouses are functional necessities to travel through country populated sparsely or not at all. They are inns or taverns…. providing food and shelter for the traveler…. they often serve as trading posts…. sources of supply for pack trains, prospectors, and trappers…. and are post offices as well as general stores, often linking enough functions to become real communities in themselves.”

Roadhouses Buy NowAlso: “The roadhouse tales span the territory of Alaska, and include first-hand accounts of early travelers along the trails.”

Alaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener, published in October, 2015 by Northern Light Media. 284 pages, over 125 black/white photographs, 6″ x 9″ format. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping and handling from Northern Light Media.

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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Roadhouse Videos

Alaskan roadhouses are a popular subject for video photographers, as shown in the three videos below. All of these roadhouses are included in the new book from Northern Light Media, Alaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener. You can click on the title for more information about ordering a copy of the book.

Talkeetna Roadhouse, Talkeetna

Rika’s Roadhouse, Big Delta

Alaska Nellie’s Kenai Lake Roadhouse

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Frank G. Carpenter

Frank G. Carpenter

Frank G. Carpenter

Frank George Carpenter (Mansfield, Ohio, May 8, 1855, – Nanking, June 18, 1924) was an author, photographer, lecturer, and a collector of photographs. Carpenter wrote standard geography textbooks and lectured on geography, and he wrote a series of books called Carpenter’s World Travels which were very popular between 1915 and 1930.

With his daughter Frances (1890-1972), Frank Carpenter photographed Alaska and collected the images of other Alaskan photographers between 1910 and 1924, and Carpenter’s works helped popularize cultural anthropology and geography in the early years of the twentieth century. A collection of over 5,000 images were donated to the Library of Congress by Frances at her death in 1972. The Frank G. Carpenter Collection at the Library of Congress totals approximately 16,800 photographs and about 7,000 negatives.

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New Book: Alaskan Roadhouses

Roadhouses Buy NowThe newest book from Northern Light Media, Alaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener, is now available!

This long-anticipated 284-page book presents historic photos of dozens of individual roadhouses, along with the colorful histories and first-hand accounts of travelers who stayed at the roadhouses while traveling the early trails and roads of Alaska.

The following description is from Jim Reardan’s book, Sam O. White, Alaskan: Tales of a Legendary Wildlife Agent and Bush Pilot [Graphic Arts Books, 2014]:

Teams at Tonsina Roadhouse on the Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail

Teams at Tonsina Roadhouse on the Valdez-to-Fairbanks Trail

“A man named Ohlson ran the Lone Star Roadhouse between Minchumina and McGrath. He had been a dog team driver, trapper, and prospector until old age caught up with him. He then settled down to winters in his roadhouse on the Fairbanks-McGrath trail, where he cooked and cared for overnight travelers. His supplies arrived in the spring to be put on the only boat that would take them to Lake Minchumina. There they remained at Minchumina until October when a dog team could freight them to Lone Star over the trail. Hotcakes, bacon, coffee and two eggs (if you were man enough to take ’em before they took you) was $2.50. There was also moose and caribou stew, which was always good. At $2.50 per meal this was not at all out of line when considering the distance and transportation involved in getting the supplies there.”

Order your copy of this history-filled book today!

Roadhouses Buy NowAlaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener, published by Northern Light Media, PO Box 870515, Wasilla, Alaska 99687-0515. 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!

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2016 BLM Iditachat


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The Stained Glass Dog Team


SGDT Buy Now“It dates from about 1910 and until some time in the 1980s it was part of the Alaskan Cigar Store in the building that was originally the old Arctic Club. Two companion stained glass pieces are still there, but they are less interesting.”

With that bit of information, sent via email in reply to an inquiry, the search was on for the history of the compelling image of a sled dog team created in stained glass which once graced the entryway to a renowned Seattle hotel. Over the span of several years, the author researched the era, received photos and information from the stained glass artist whose Seattle company rebuilt the antique piece of craftsmanship, visited the site and the museum where the stained glass dog team is now housed, and eventually pieced together a fascinating and little-known part of the history of Seattle, and of Alaska.

Klondike SledsThe story involves two social organizations, three hotels, and peripheral forays into the Klondike gold rush, the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, and Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry. With dozens of photographs and images, the patchwork history comes together to offer a fascinating look at the unique forces which helped shape the city of Seattle and the futures of Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

walrusThe Stained Glass Dog Team, by Helen Hegener, (Northern Light Media, 2014). 90 pages, full color, ISBN-13: 978-1500498443, ISBN-10: 1500498440. $16.00 plus $4.00 shipping.

• Order via PayPal or Credit Card: $16.00 plus $4.00 postage and handling (via USPS; U.S. addresses only). To order, click this image link: SGDT Buy Now

•  Available on Amazon 

• To order via check or money order, mail to Northern Light Media, PO Box 870515, Wasilla, Alaska 99687-0515. Please remember to include your mailing address.

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Matanuska Valley Books

The colorful history and the captivating beauty of today’s Matanuska Valley are captured in these four books from Northern Light Media, including three which address the history of the 1935 Matanuska Colony. Click on any book cover for more information and ordering details.

Matanuska Colony Project
Matanuska Colony Album
Matanuska Valley
Colony Barns

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Alaskan Roadhouses

Roadhouses Buy NowThe newest book from Northern Light Media is Alaskan Roadhouses: Shelter, Food and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener. Scheduled for publication November 1, 2015, this 277-page book recounts the fascinating histories of twenty-four roadhouses, and presents historic photos of two dozen more. Along with the individual roadhouse histories are writings by several early travelers who stayed and at the roadhouses and wrote about them, including the Reverend Samuel Hall Young, Frank G. Carpenter, Judge James Wickersham, Leonhard Seppala, and Matilda Clark Buller, who opened a roadhouse near Nome in 1901, at the height of the Nome Gold Rush.

oie_9213244BGYAOVJQThe network of roadhouses along Alaska’s far-flung trails was an interconnected lifeline which made travel possible, and the role they played in the history of the north cannot be overestimated. The roadhouses were a creation of the times in which they flourished, a time when men and women traveled slowly and laboriously over thin trails through an almost unimaginable wilderness, coping day after day with hostile weather, treacherous river crossings, and mountains which loomed and only grudgingly presented high passes through which to cross.

oie_921352GM2L01gIAt the end of a long day’s journey the lights of a roadhouse in the distance could only be a welcome sight. No matter how rough the accommodations, the roadhouse signaled warmth and food and a place to rest for a few hours. There would be a place for one’s team, be they dogs or horses, hopefully a shelter for them with good feed and fresh hay. The roadhouse proprietor would have news of the trail ahead, and he would be ready to listen to the travelers’ tales of the trail behind them, so he could pass the information along to the next ones who stopped there.

oie_921364811GvuT5DAlaskan Roadhouses captures the essence of an era when these trailside havens were hailed: “Under no circumstance should the Alaskan roadhouse be confused with the establishments scattered along the highways on the outside that call themselves ‘roadhouses.’ The Alaskan roadhouse is a trail or roadside hotel. It deserves and has earned the high regard that all Alaskan and northern travelers have for the ‘roadhouse.’ Many tales of heroism and bravery could be told of the daring rescue and relief parties that have been headed by the intrepid roadhouse keepers. Story has it that no stranded man or dog has ever been denied food or shelter by these landlords of the lonely northern trails.” ~William E. Gordon, in Icy Hell (Wm. Brendan & Son, 1937)

Roadhouses Buy NowPre-publication orders available now, books will be mailed November 1. Alaskan Roadhouses, Shelter, Food, and Lodging Along Alaska’s Roads and Trails, by Helen Hegener, published by Northern Light Media, PO Box 298023, Wasilla, Alaska 99629-8023. 6″ x 9″, over 100 black/white photographs, 277 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!

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Leonhard Seppala’s Serum Run

Leonhard Seppala and Togo

Leonhard Seppala and Togo

The 1925 serum run to Nome, also known as the Great Race of Mercy, was a 675 mile dog team relay of diphtheria antitoxin across the U.S. territory of Alaska, accomplished by 20 mushers and about 150 sled dogs in only five and a half days, saving the community of Nome from a deadly epidemic. The race became both the most famous event in the history of mushing and the last hurrah for a means of transportation which had opened the vast northern territory of Alaska.

The gold rush town of Nome was still the largest town in the northern half of Alaska in 1925, with a population of around 1,500 souls. When the Bering Sea froze over the only link to the rest of the world was the Iditarod Trail, which ran 938 miles from the port of Seward, across several mountain ranges and through the vast Interior of the territory before reaching Nome. Mail and supplies were customarily transported by train to Nenana, and then freighted by dog team 675 miles from Nenana to Nome, a journey which normally took 25 days.

Nome, Alaska, 1925

Nome, Alaska, 1925

In January, 1925, the town’s only doctor, Dr. Curtis Welch, witnessed a series of alarming deaths of his young patients, and on January 22 he sent the following telegram to Governor Bone in Juneau, and to all the major towns in Alaska: “An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already STOP There are about 3000 white natives in the district.”

"Togo" L. Seppala's Racing leader - Nome Serum Run

“Togo” L. Seppala’s Racing leader – Nome Serum Run

By January 24 there were two more fatalities, and at a meeting of the board of health that same day, superintendent Mark Summers of the Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields proposed a dogsled relay, using two fast teams. One would start at Nenana and the other at Nome, and they would meet at Nulato. The trip from Nulato to Nome normally took 30 days, although the record was nine. Welch calculated that the serum would only last six days under the brutal conditions of the trail. Summers’ employee, the Norwegian Leonhard Seppala, was chosen for the 630-mile round trip from Nome to Nulato and back. He had previously made the run from Nome to Nulato in a record-breaking four days, won the All-Alaska Sweepstakes three times, and had become something of a legend for his athletic ability and rapport with his Siberian huskies. His lead dog, the 12-year-old Togo, was equally famous for his leadership, intelligence, and ability to sense danger.

Nome Mayor Maynard proposed flying the antitoxin by aircraft, but the only planes operating in Alaska in 1925 were three vintage biplanes which were dismantled for the winter, had open cockpits, and had water-cooled engines that were unreliable in cold weather. While potentially quicker, the board of health rejected the aircraft option and voted unanimously for the dogsled relay. Seppala was notified that evening and immediately started preparations for the trip. While the first batch of serum was traveling to Nenana, Governor Bone gave final authorization to the dog relay, but ordered Edward Wetzler, the U.S. Post Office inspector, to arrange a relay of the best drivers and dogs across the Interior; the majority of the relay mushers selected were native Athabaskan U.S. mail carriers, widely acknowledged to be the best dog mushers in Alaska. The teams would travel day and night until they handed off the package to Seppala at Nulato.

Map of the Serum Run from The Cruelest Miles, by Gay and Laney Salisbury (W.W.Norton & Co., 2003)

Map of the Serum Run from The Cruelest Miles, by Gay and Laney Salisbury (W.W.Norton & Co., 2003)

The mail route from Nenana to Nome followed the Tanana River for 137 miles to the junction with the Yukon River, and then followed the Yukon for 230 miles to Kaltag. The route turned west, 90 miles over the Kaltag Portage to Unalakleet on the shore of Norton Sound, then continued for 208 miles northwest around the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula and 42 harrowing miles across the shifting ice of the Bering Sea.

The serum transfer points were Tolovana, Manley Hot Springs, Fish Lake, Tanana, Kallands, Nine Mile Cabin, Kokrines, Ruby, Whiskey Creek, Galena, Bishop Mountain, Nulato, Kaltag, Old Woman Shelter, Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Golovin, Bluff, and Nome. And all along the trail were roadhouses which gave the drivers brief opportunity to warm the serum and themselves: the Tolovana Roadhouse, the Minto roadhouse, the Manley Roadhouse, the Eskimo Roadhouse at Isaac’s Point, Shaktoolik Roadhouse, Dexter’s Roadhouse, the Olson Roadhouse, the Solomon Roadhouse, the Bluff Roadhouse, the Port Safety Roadhouse. Links in a thin chain winding across northwestern Alaska, providing brief intervals of safety and protection to the mushers and their dogs.

Leonhard Seppala's racing Siberian Husky team

Leonhard Seppala’s racing Siberian Husky team

The story of the 1925 Serum Run was detailed in a bestselling book by cousins Gay and Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles (W.W. Norton & Co., 2003), but the most compelling recounting was given in a book which had been written 73 years earlier, by the famous Alaskan musher Leonhard Seppala, who carried the serum over the treacherous ice of Norton Sound. This is an excerpt from the final chapter of Seppala: Alaskan Dog Driver, by Elizabeth Ricker (Little, Brown & Co., 1930), which Seppala wrote as a tribute to his intrepid lead dog, Togo:

The Commissioner had asked me to get off without delay. He explained that such serum as they had was several years old, and with the epidemic steadily increasing they were in dire need of a new supply. I singled the dogs out one by one; naturally not one wanted to be left behind. Twenty were chosen. I planned to drop some of them off along the way, to be cared for at Eskimo igloos until the return trip, when we could substitute the fresh dogs for the tired ones. Also, if any of them showed any signs of weakness or sore feet, they would have a chance to rest up and be in good condition for the home stretch. I intended to leave twelve dogs by the way, arriving in Nulato with a team of eight. I should hardly need more, as I was told the package containing the serum was very light. With fresh reinforcement on the way back I should be able to drive day and night. Thus I picked out the twenty best dogs, though at the time all were on their best behavior, raising their paws politely and pleading to be taken. A dog named Fox was left as leader for the cull team, which was to continue hauling supplies during our absence and was composed of dogs too slow to be of much use in a fast run.

The people of Nome gave us a great send-off. They knew it was a long, hazardous trip, and they realized what a word of encouragement would mean. The first day we made about thirty-three miles, and from then on the team warmed up to the work and averaged fifty miles and over every day. We passed two villages where there were government schools for Eskimo children, and I told the teachers about the epidemic, advising them to close the school, to keep the children in quarantine, and away from people passing from Nome.

We were lucky in having favorable weather, and the trails were at their best. According to plan, some of the dogs were left along the way to be cared for while the rest of us pushed on. On the third day we arrived at Isaac’s Point, where we stopped with an Eskimo family, having covered a hundred and thirty miles since leaving Nome. The next day we started off for Shaktoolik, a native village on the south side of the Bay. It was late by the time we set out over the ice of Norton Bay. We could see it was blowing hard out on the Bay, and with the north wind at our backs we were sure to make good time. The team would deserve a good rest at the end of the day, and surely I should welcome it as well as the dogs. Having crossed the ice, and being just in sight of our destination for the day, we scented another dog team and struck out with a great spurt. As we came up I could see that the driver was busy refereeing a dog fight. With a word of greeting to the man, I was about to pass by when he called to me. In the wind, and with my parka hood up over my ears, I got only three words” “serum–turn back.” I thought I must have misunderstood, but when I looked back over my shoulder I saw the other driver waving his arm. I called to Togo to “gee,” but he couldn’t. The other dogs were still on the spurt, and I had to run about a mile further on before I could slow the team down and turn them. We came to a stretch of hard snow, where I was able to get the dogs under control. Though they hated to, they followed Togo. When we reached the other team a package was tossed into my sled and the stranger handed me a paper which proved to be the instructions accompanying the serum. The young dogs in my team began acting disgracefully, wanting to pick a quarrel with the strange team. Their driver explained that after I had passed out of telephone communication the epidemic had increased so alarmingly that the officials had decided to speed the serum by short relays running night and day. Thus I had reached the serum after traveling only a hundred and seventy miles, instead of the three hundred for which I had originally planned.

We had had a hard day, covering forty-three miles with the wind at our backs. But the return was even harder. The gale was in our faces, the temperature was thirty below, and we had the forty-three miles to do over again in the dark. There was nothing for it but to face the music. The dogs did their best, and I drove as if we were in a race. The ice of Norton Sound is notoriously treacherous: it has a habit of shifting and breaking up, so that before travelers know it they have gone for miles on a loose ice-cake with open water on all sides, slowly but surely being blown out into the Bering Sea.

In spite of these unpleasant prospects, we managed to reach Isaac’s Point, and after a drive of nearly ninety miles the team were grateful for a brief rest in a comfortable kennel. They were wild for their rations of salmon and seal blubber. After they were fed I went into the igloo and read over the instructions. They called for the serum to be warmed up at each station. Accordingly I pulled the sled inside, and undid the fur and canvas wrapped around the package. I found the serum was sealed up in paper cartons, and as I saw nothing about breaking the seals I instructed the Eskimo to make the igloo good and hot and left the package exposed to the heat. As I looked it over and felt of it I was convinced that if it was a liquid it must have been frozen in the severe cold, though we had protected it as well as possible. I doubted if the heat could penetrate the paper cartons, but I had taken off the last wrapping which I was authorized to touch.

When I had allowed as much time as we could spare I came out to the dogs and began putting them back on the line. An old Eskimo stood by as we hitched up, and observing the increase in the wind he cautioned me: “Maybe ice not much good. Maybe breaking off and go out. Old trail plenty no good. Maybe you go more closer shore.” I thanked him and followed his suggestion, taking a trail further in. At that, we came within a few feet of open water, as the trail over which we had traveled only the day before had broken off and drifted far out into the Bering Sea.

During the afternoon we pulled into Cheenik Village, where another driver was waiting with his relay team. We had traveled in all three hundred and forty miles in the interest of the serum. No other relay made more than fifty-three miles. After delivering the package to the driver at Cheenik, a tired driver and dogs all had a good rest until the next day, when we drove to Solomon and then on into Nome. When we arrived there the whole town seemed to be out to meet us. It was like the winner’s reception after a Sweepstakes race.

News of the diptheria had found its way to the outside papers, and in the States the teams were being followed from day to day by the press. They had become heroes while they were peacefully going on their way, totally unconscious that they were headliners in the press. The last relay team landed the serum in Nome at six o-clock on the morning of the second of February, 1925.

The Serum Drive was Togo’s last long run. In that drive he had worked the hardest and best. I appreciated this, and tried to take the best possible care of the old dog. Togo, in his sixteenth year, seemed content to rest on his laurels. He even posed without fuss for a photograph with his cups and trophies, perhaps imagining himself as he was in the old days. It seemed best to leave him where he could be pensioned and enjoy a well-earned rest. But it was a sad parting on a cold gray March morning when Togo raised a small paw to my knee as if questioning why he was not going along with me. For the first time in twelve years I hit the trail without Togo.



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2015 Alaska Book Week

ability_logoNorthern Light Media will be participating in Alaska Book Week again this year, with a book-signing at our favorite bookstore, Fireside Books in Palmer, on Saturday, October 3, from 1:00 to 3:00 pm! We’ll be focusing on our mushing books, including Along Alaskan Trails, The First Iditarod, The All Alaska Sweepstakes, The Yukon Quest Trail and others, but we will also have our Matanuska series available, including The Beautiful Matanuska Valley, The 1935 Matanuska Colony Project and the companion book of photos, and The Matanuska Colony Barns. Come visit us, and be sure to check out some of the other wonderful events happening during the 2015 Alaska Book Week!

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Woodchopper Roadhouse

North elevation from northwest – Woodchopper Roadhouse, Yukon River [Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)]

North elevation from northwest – Woodchopper Roadhouse, Yukon River [Historic American Buildings Survey (Library of Congress)]

The Circle Mining District records a list of 320 individuals whose names appear connected to claims on Coal Creek, Woodchopper Creek and their various tributaries. Coal claims were the first claims staked in the drainages. Steamboats plying the Yukon River between St. Michael on the Bering Sea and Dawson City and Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory relied on firewood cut during the winter by individuals working as woodchoppers. Steamboats traveling upriver would burn upwards of a cord of wood each hour, and the transportation companies saw coal as a potential alternative to wood, provided it could be located in sufficient deposits, mined and transported to the riverbank.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 1.45.54 PMThe first placer gold mining claim was filed on Coal Creek in mid-November 1901, by one Daniel T. Noonan, of Delamar, Nevada. Noonan located his 20-acre claim on the right limit of Coal Creek on August 23, 1901. The same day, Daniel M. Callahan also located a 20 acre mining claim in the vicinity of Noonan’s claim. Over the next 48 years there were 565 claims filed on Coal and Woodchopper Creeks. According to the 2003 publication, The World Turned Upside Down: A History of Mining on Coal Creek and Woodchopper Creek, Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, Alaska, by historian Douglas Beckstead (U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service), “During 1905, L.M. Prindle, of the USGS, reported that Coal Creek, Woodchopper Creek, Washington Creek and Fourth of July Creek produced at least $15,000. According to several unsubstantiated reports, the figure had a potential to rise as high as $30,000. Alfred H. Brooks, also of the USGS, reported the same year that the majority of this production came from Woodchopper Creek.”

fig5-1Woodchopper Creek was known by its name in 1898, probably derived from the woodchopping which occurred in the area to provide fuel for the 75 to 100 steamboats plying the nearby Yukon River at that time. The steamship companies contracted with woodchoppers to have the wood ready, and various woodyards were established along the Yukon River. On one upriver trip in 1905, a steamer stopped three times between Circle and Eagle to take on a total of 54 cords of wood. The cordwood piled on the bank in a 1926 photograph of Woodchopper Roadhouse indicated that Woodchopper was a regular stop on the steamboats’ route.

South elevation - Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

South elevation – Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Woodchopper Roadhouse, built ca. 1910, was the oldest and largest log structure on the Yukon between Eagle and Circle. Located halfway between the two towns, on the left bank of the Yukon, approximately one mile upriver from Woodchopper Creek and 55 miles upriver from Circle, the roadhouse housed winter travelers and served as a wood stop for steamboats in the summer. In addition, the roadhouse functioned as post office and town center for the mining community on Woodchopper Creek from the early 20th century until the 1930s. No exact date can be attached to this structure, but it is thought that this building was built at about the time the mining on Woodchopper Creek began to thrive.

Northeast elevation - Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Northeast elevation – Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

The two-story building is constructed of round logs, saddlenotched. The second floor was partitioned into four rooms. The interior walls and ceiling were covered with a canvas or linen material, and the board floor was covered with linoleum, which has been destroyed by flooding. Moss chinking between the logs was covered with cement sometime after construction. Outbuildings appearing in a 1926 photograph include a gable-roofed shed west of the roadhouse, a cabin west of the shed which appeared to be for residential use, dog barns west of the cabin, and a shed northeast of the roadhouse which had lapjointed corners.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 2.01.29 PMIn the 1917-18 Polk’s Directory, Valentine Smith, a miner, was listed as running a roadhouse on Woodchopper Creek, which was probably this building. This is the last mention of him in any records, and it is assumed he left the area around that time.

Born in Germany in 1861, Valentine Smith immigrated to the U.S. in 1883, first staking a gold claim on Colorado Creek, a tributary of Coal Creek, in 1905. He later staked more claims in association with Frank Slaven and others, and in 1910 he staked his first claim on Woodchopper Creek. It is not known exactly when he began running the roadhouse, but on July 20, 1915, Art Reynolds, on a trip upriver from Circle, “stopt at Mr. Smith’s awhile. He gave us a salmon. Came about four miles above his place, camped for night.”

In 1919 Valentine Smith turned the running of the roadhouse over to Fred Brentlinger, also a miner, who, with his wife Flora, owned a number of lots in Circle, including the Tanana Hotel and Restaurant that they operated in 1911-12. They continued to become increasingly involved in the business community in Circle with Fred Brentlinger serving as a notary public. Between 1919 and 1929 the Brentlingers left Circle and ran the Woodchopper Roadhouse while staking claims on Caribou, Coal, and Woodchopper Creeks.

“U.S. mail leaving Woodchopper Creek, Alaska. January (?), 1912. Beiderman, driver.”

When Fred Brentlinger passed away in 1930, Jack Welch and his wife Kate purchased the Woodchopper Roadhouse from Flora Brentlinger. She went to Manley Hot Springs where, along with C.M. “Tex” Browning, she purchased the Manley Hot Springs farm from Frank Manley. They retained the farm until 1950 when Bob Byers, operator of Byers Airways, bought it from them.

Miner George McGregor wrote to his former partner, Frank Rossbach, in July, 1933: “A fellow by name of Jack Welch and his wife runs the roadhouse now, or at least she runs it, she is certainly the boss. Welch himself is a pretty good fellow. But different with her. She also has the post office.”

It is unclear how long the Welchs had lived in the North Country, as no record was ever located for when they arrived. Jack held the winter mail contract between Woodchopper and Eagle, and he would run his dogteam through the roughest weather to see that the mail got through. But Jack lost the mail contract sometime around the late 1930s, as airplanes were replacing dog teams for carrying mail. Undaunted, the Welchs stayed on at the roadhouse.

Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

Woodchopper Roadhouse [HABS, LoC]

One spring a huge ice dam piled up in Woodchopper Canyon, five miles below Coal Creek. Miners Ernest Patty and Jim McDonald were spending the night in a cabin located at the mouth of Coal Creek, and in his book, North Country Challenge, Patty described the breakup: “At about three o’clock in the morning, loud crashing sounds woke us up and we jumped out of bed. The river had gone wild with the crushing force of the breakup. Normally the Yukon, at this point, is less than a quarter-mile wide. While we slept, the water level had risen fifteen feet. Rushing, swirling ice cakes were flooding the lowland on the opposite bank, crushing the forest of spruce and birch like a giant bulldozer. Before long ice cakes were being rafted up Coal Creek and dumped near our cabin.
“Then at the same moment we both turned and look at each other. The rapid rise of the river could only come from a gigantic ice dam in Woodchopper Canyon, some five miles downstream. Jack Welsh and his wife lived in that canyon. Their cabin must be flooded and probably it had been swept away. There is no way of knowing if they had been warned in time to reach the nearest hill, half a mile from their cabin. No outside help could possibly get to them now.”

Satellite image showing the site of Woodchopper Roadhouse.

Satellite image showing the site of Woodchopper Roadhouse in relation to the Yukon River.

The entire tragic tale of Jack and Kate Welch is told in chapter two of The World Turned Upside Down, and author Douglas Beckstead continues the story: “As it turned out, the howling of their dogs awakened the Welchs. They found ice water covering the floor of the roadhouse. Jack ran outside and cut the dogs loose allowing them to reach higher ground on their own. Some made it. Some did not. Jack returned with his boat intending to take his wife and make a run for higher ground himself At that point, the bottom floor of the roadhouse was under water and the second floor already awash. As huge cakes of ice slammed against the outside walls, Welch tied the boat to a second story window deciding that it would be better to stay with the cabin until the very last moment because the ice could crush his boat. Jack used a pole in an attempt to deflect ice cakes from hitting the cabin.

“As they waited, the water and ice continued to rise higher and higher until it finally stopped and slowly began to drop. This meant the ice dam was beginning to break. Now the ice cakes were coming with increased frequency and force. In the end, both the roadhouse and the Welchs survived. Years later, Ernest Patty noted that ‘perhaps it would have been more merciful if they had been swept away.’”

Beckstead explains why: “The terror these two elderly people experienced left deep scars. Neither fully recovered from this night of rising floodwaters and crashing ice. Consequently, Mrs. Welch became bedridden. As time passed, people began to comment that Jack was ‘getting strange.’”
Due to the terrors experienced that awful night, and perhaps exacerbated by his penchant for drinking to excess, Jack Welch began suffering from nightmares, and one night he awoke trembling, in a cold sweat, believing that the German Army was marching down the frozen Yukon River, coming for him. He decided that he was losing his mind and would be better off dead, and so attempted suicide with his .22 rifle, but only managed to wound himself. Although crippled with rheumatism, Kate hobbled two miles over the winter trail through the snow to seek help from their nearest neighbor, George McGregor.

Beckstead continues the story: “McGregor hitched up his dogs, placing Mrs. Welch in the sled they returned to help Jack. After giving him first aid, McGregor loaded Jack into the sled making a run up Woodchopper Creek to the mining camp where the winter watchman sent a radio message to Fairbanks. Several hours later a plane arrived and took Jack to the hospital in Fairbanks. Within a month Jack was up and around again. Nevertheless, the shock was too much for Mrs. Welch. She lingered on for a short time after Jack left the hospital until her tired, old heart finally gave out.”
Kate’s death further unhinged Jack’s mind. Unable to accept that she was gone, he returned to the Woodchopper Roadhouse, expecting to find her waiting for him. When she wasn’t there Jack became distraught, and his concerned friends and neighbors radioed the U.S. Marshal’s office in Fairbanks requesting that they come and take him back to the hospital.

Screen Shot 2015-09-13 at 2.26.25 PMBut it wasn’t to be. Before the authorities could arrive Jack disappeared down the Yukon River in his boat. Some time later reports filtered back from villages along the lower Yukon of a mysterious elderly white man drifting down the river in a small boat, unresponsive to attempts at communication. Eventually reports came back from some Natives hunting on the Yukon delta of a man standing in a boat, shielding his eyes against the harsh western sun while looking out to sea. Jack and his boat floated out into the Bering Sea and were never seen again.

After the Welches were gone the roadhouse was abandoned to the elements. The history of the roadhouse continues in outdoorsman Dan O’Neill’s book, A Land Gone Lonesome: An Inland Voyage Along the Yukon River (Basic Books, 2008): “The Woodchopper Roadhouse was salvageable when Melody Webb surveyed it for the Park Service in 1976. As the largest structure in the preserve to still have its roof on, she recommended it be restored ‘if a lodge is ever needed for the Park. A National Register would give added protection.’ But by 2003, the roadhouse lay ‘in ruins, the roof caved and the upper story fallen in,’ according to a Park Service pamphlet.”

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Judge James Wickersham

Judge James Wickersham

Judge James Wickersham

James Wickersham’s classic book, Old Yukon: Tales, Trails, and Trials (Washington, D.C. : Washington Law Book Co., 1938), is an account of his years as a pioneer District Court Judge in Alaska.

Judge Wickersham was appointed by President McKinley in the summer of 1900 to head the newly created Third Judicial District of the Alaska territorial court. He brought the first law to interior Alaska, a district that covered 300,000 square miles.

After building a modest log home in Eagle City, on the Yukon River, Wickersham began settling mining claim disputes, collecting saloon license fees, and presiding over judicial proceedings across a vast area, traveling by foot, steamer, dog team and revenue cutter.
During the forty years he spent in Alaska, from his public battle against the corporate power of J. P. Morgan and the Guggenheims, who were trying to dominate mining and transportation in Alaska, to the statehood foundations which he helped to lay–he  introduced the first statehood bill in Congress in March 1916, the 49th anniversary of the 1867 Purchase of Alaska–Judge James Wickersham’s work transformed the territory from a lawless frontier to a shining northern star on our nation’s flag.

The courthouse in Eagle

The courthouse in Eagle

In his travels across the broad northern land the Judge kept detailed diaries, explaining why in chapter five of his book, titled Riding the Arctic Circuit: “It was my practice to keep a dairy of my journeys on the Alaska trails, in the hope that the details of daily travel, trails, temperature, weather conditions, and lodgings may be of interest.”

Wickersham begins chapter five by explaining, “Due to the lack of litigation in Eagle in the winter of 1900-1901, I determined to make a winter trip down the Yukon River to hold court at Rampart. Mine owners there were aroused because alleged jumpers had intruded upon placer claims and threatened expensive litigation over their ownership.”

Wickersham around the time of his 1901 trip

Wickersham near the time of his trip

The trip downriver would be made by dogteam, stopping at the roadhouses spaced along the route. Wickersham’s writing gives us not only a good accounting of the Yukon River roadhouses, but an excellent look at typical dog team travel of the day.

“Every dog in our team was quivering with excitement and plunging in the collar anxious to be gone. With a highly developed dog team sense they knew that another journey over snowy trails was to be taken and they were ready to start. On the trail there is change and exercise, long and exciting races with other teams along the icy surfaces of the river trails, bells jingling sweet music in the clear and frosty air, warm rations of rice and bacon deliciously boiled over the evening campfire, with every canine eye on the cook and the steaming kettle. Mouths water while waiting for the savory supper served hot in separate pans at the evening meal–the one meal of the day. Then, too, there are the friendly meetings with strange teams and sometimes jolly good fighting at the overnight roadhouses, and more often with passing teams crowding in narrow trails. Dogs and boys, be they young or old, love Alaskan winter snow trails and the joy of their travel.

“Our friends gathered round the official sled to wish us a safe journey and a dry trail. Many of them looked upon the trip as hard and unpleasant, not without danger from overflow and freezing. Often a deep carpet of snow is insidiously invaded from underneath by the constantly flowing water, and the unwary traveler may find himself suddenly floundering knee-deep in water, far from fire or fuel, in a temperature of thirty degrees below zero, or lower. Unless he can quickly start a fire and change his footwear he will freeze, and he will be helpless to save himself. Most of the cases resulting in the death of travelers in this region are caused by accidents of this kind. We carried on our sled a dozen or more flour sacks of heavy drilling, and when we saw indications of water under the snow or crossing the trail, we pulled a sack over each foot and tied them closely about our feet and legs. This enabled us to wade water for a reasonable distance in safety.

Ed Crouch's dogteam

Ed Crouch’s dogteam

“Our long, Indian-made spruce-basket sled was filled with dunnage bags, and dog feed, generally rice and bacon, sometimes dried fish; with blankets, dry socks, and warm clothing; with Alaska Code and blank court records for law and order purposes; with a well-stuffed grub box, extra dog harness, and soft caribou-skin moccasins for trail-sore dog feet. The load was well wrapped in waterproof tarpaulin and lashed down with the diamond hitch. The dogs were hitched tandem, with the wise old leader ahead. On the right side of the front end of the sled the gee-pole extended forward; the driver ran astride the low hanging rope which attached the dogs to the sled; he guided the team with his whip and voice, and the sled with the gee-pole. At the rear of the sled a pair of handlebars, similar to those of a common plow, enabled the rear guide to manage the sled and keep it in an upright position on sloping ice ways.

“Our lead dog was a heavily-thewed female husky, with fine team sense, and a faculty for finding the hard and beaten trail even when covered with many inches of new-fallen snow. Neither a strong wind carrying clouds of snow or sand, nor water, nor hidden under overflow could drive her astray. When the danger of overflow and water was met she dragged the team through to dry snow and immediately stopped and lay down, as every native dog will do. An inexperienced outside dog under such conditions will stand and shiver while the wet snow freezes around its feet and legs, but the native or husky dog will instantly lie down in the snow and apply first aid to its feet by licking the snow and ice off, and then drying them with his tongue, as his cousins the timber wolves do, thereby escaping all harmful effects.

“All Ready! At this warning the leader sprang into her collar and started the load; every dog barked a joyful farewell. Ed Crouch, the manipulator of the gee-pole, guided the heavy equipage down the steep riverbank and lined it up along the northbound trail on the icy bosom of the mighty Yukon River, and I, the wilderness magistrate, clad overall in blue denim parka, ran behind, hanging to the handlebars.”

Rough accommodations on the trail

Rough accommodations on the trail

Judge Wickersham then gives a day-by-day report of his party’s travels down the Yukon River, naming each roadhouse they stopped at:

  • February 9, 1901. Reached the Star roadhouse at four PM, five dogs with three hundred pounds on the sled. I had a bad fall when the sled turned over on broken ice near Star. Ed Jesson keeps the roadhouse, good meals; distance covered twenty miles; forty below zero tonight.
  • February 10. Fifty-two below zero when we left Star roadhouse…. Bad trail today. Distance to Montauk roadhouse twenty miles.
  • February 11. Nation River roadhouse. Trail is very bad, fifty-two below.
  • February 13. Forty below when we came into the Charley River Indian roadhouse.
  • February 14. Forty below tonight. Good trail today. Coal Creek roadhouse.
  • February 15. Fifty below zero. Came to Webber’s roadhouse.
  • February 16. We could have reached Circle tonight. We stopped at Johnson’s roadhouse–twenty-two miles out of Circle. Weather tonight much warmer–only twenty-two below.
  • February 17. Reached Circle City an hour after noon–distance twenty-two miles.
  • February 18. Left Circle this morning early, 20 Mile roadhouse for lunch and reached the Half-Way roadhouse after six o’clock, distance traveled forty-five miles.

And at this point Wickersham reports an unusual phenomenon:

February 19. Thirty-five below zero this morning. Left Half-Way roadhouse at seven o’clock and came to Seventeen Mile Cabin at two o’clock. We have seen wonderful mirages to the westward both yesterday and today. Yesterday the objects seemed to be houses, churches and mills, high, square, and upright. Today the reverse–the objects are elongated–a long flat bridge-like structure with wide arches standing on low piers, a low flat battleship with cannons thrust out at each deck end, and other similar objects. They were so astonishingly like the objects mentioned that we stood gazing at them in amazement. They seemed miles away, and yet connected with the nearby foreground. We passed much open water in the river today, the main river channel is open, running fast and deep; the ice is breaking and falling in and crossings are dangerous. Twenty below tonight.

Fort Yukon, 1900

Fort Yukon, 1900

February 20. We reached Fort Yukon… The travelers continue making their way down the Yukon River, from shelter cabin to shelter cabin, and then a rough night’s accommodations:

March 1. We remained last night in an old abandoned cabin, minus doors and windows, at a place called Salt Creek–a fitting name for the frightfully cold and uncomfortable place it was. No landlord, no stove, no bed–we slept in the most sheltered corner on the packs and dog harness, while the dogs huddled on our feet and at our sides for such comfort as our bodily heat gave them. Left there early ahead of the team to get warm by exercise.

The NAT&T store in Rampart (North American Transportation and Trading Company)

The NAT&T store in Rampart (North American Transportation and Trading Company)

And finally, on March 2: We came into Rampart early in the afternoon; “people are surprised to see me–say that they had no idea I would come–that I made a very quick trip, & etc. Secured a room in the rear of the NAT&T Co. store, while Ed and his dogs got into an outside cabin.”

March 3. A day of rest, in bed until noon; swollen ankles and blistered heels afflict us both. The dogs’ feet are equally sore but there is nothing the matter with our trail appetites.

March 4. Pursuant to public notice, a special term of the United States District Court convened at eleven o’clock today–the first court ever held in Rampart.

James Wickersham described the legal proceedings of his Rampart court, and then detailed the trip back up the Yukon River to his home in Eagle, noting “Met many stampeders from Dawson en route to Nome passing down the river with dog teams.”
Also notable was this comment at Nation River roadhouse: “The roadhouse keeper reports a rich strike on Fourth of July Creek; exhibited a glass jar with fifty ounces, about eight hundred dollars, in coarse gold dust which he says came from that creek. Ran into Montauk roadhouse for the night, thirty-four miles. The dogs know we are getting home and travel better.”

Mr. and Mrs. Wickersham (right) and woman friend in front of the Eagle cabin built by Judge Wickersham in 1900. [Alaska State Library P277-019-022]

Mr. and Mrs. Wickersham (right) and woman friend in front of the Eagle cabin, 1901.

And the final entry in this chapter: “Left Montauk early; had lunch at Star at the mouth of Seventy-Mile River. Bought a handsome Navajo Indian blanket from Mrs. Matthews; reached Eagle and home at three o’clock; distance thirty-six miles. We were twenty-two days in going from Eagle to Rampart, less than one day and two half days not traveling–full time twenty days, a distance of 520 miles one way and an average of twenty-six miles per day. Returning in 17 days, one day at Nunivak, and one at Circle, which left us fifteen days for the return trip–an average of thirty-four miles per traveling day. We were gone forty-five days and traveled more than one thousand miles. The total expense of the trip for dog team, driver, roadhouse expenses, meals, and beds, amounted to $705. Paid driver and sent my vouchers to Washington with report, paid. Found everyone at home well and happy.”

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