GOLD RUSH SLED DOGS
When gold was discovered in Alaska in the late 1890s, many thousands of people suddenly made enormous efforts to reach the remote territory. As they arrived, they quickly learned that it was nearly impossible to travel any distance without the help of sled dogs.
Native Alaskans had been using sled dogs for centuries. This ancient and esoteric tradition suddenly became the practical option for the many outsiders flocking to the frozen wilderness.
The popularity of using sled dogs during the gold rush, and the influx of dogs into Alaska, ultimately changed the culture of mushing. Various breeds were tried and tested. And talented mushers sought to achieve the perfect mix of strength, speed, and endurance.
The Alaska Gold Rush was an amazing episode in American history, and a fascinating part of the story was the role played by sled dogs.
THE LURE OF GOLD
Gold had been discovered occasionally in small amounts in Alaska in the years after the United States purchased Alaska in 1867. But it wasn’t until the mid-1890s that large deposits of the precious mineral began to be discovered.
An account in the New York Times on May 5, 1896 was headlined “Much Gold In Alaska.” By early 1897 stories about gold being discovered in Alaska were becoming more frequent.
At the same time, gold strikes in the Yukon, a remote region of Canada bordering Alaska, drew large numbers of potential prospectors.
In the summer of 1897, two steamships arrived in Seattle and San Francisco. The passengers on the ships included about five dozen ragged miners returning from the Klondike region.
A story in the Washington Evening Star on July 19, 1897, reported that miners aboard the steamship Portland had transported as much as $2 million in gold. The gold hadn’t all been stowed officially, in locked chests placed in the ship’s hold. The newspaper article claimed miners had hidden even more gold inside blankets and personal luggage.
In the 1890s, America was going through rough economic times following the Panic of 1893. And stories of miners becoming millionaires became a media sensation. Many young men decided to leave farms and factories and head north to find their fortune.
The first challenge was simply getting there. Trains carried men to the Pacific Northwest, and from ports it seemed that any ship that could sail was taking passengers and supplies northward.
Those arriving in Alaska soon found that transportation was a challenge. There were virtually no roads into the interior. A network of dog sled trails established centuries earlier by Native Alaskans became vitally important.
The Klondike Gold Rush in Canadian territory slowed down and essentially ended by 1899. The Alaska Gold Rush was just beginning.
In late 1898 gold was discovered near Nome, a tiny settlement in western Alaska on the coast of the Bering Sea. Many gold seekers left the Klondike and traveled for two months across Alaska to get to Nome. The men and their equipment mostly traveled by dog sled.
Within a few years Nome had attracted thousands more, many of whom had arrived by ship.
The gold rush in Nome was over by about 1905. But the little settlement had developed into a town with a newspaper, stores, and other businesses. The town was so remote that the only practical way to reach it by land was by dog sled.
THE ESSENTIAL ROLE OF SLED DOGS
It has been estimated that humans have used dogs to pull sleds for thousands of years. In Alaska, the traditional sled dogs, malamutes, were well adapted to handle bitter cold conditions. In the late 1800s sled dog teams were used by Native Alaskans and early settlers for transportation.
New arrivals sought dogs to move men and provisions, and demand for capable sled dogs greatly outpaced the supply.
The business of shipping dogs northward prompted a joke that appeared in an Alaska newspaper, the Stikeen River Journal, in August 1898: “It is claimed that there are 55 dogs in the United Kingdom to every 1,000 inhabitants. Here it is just the reverse.”
Useful information about dogs for transportation can be found in a book published in 1897 to give advice to those flocking to Alaska, Alaska and the Klondike Gold Fields. The book was billed as “Practical Instruction for Fortune Seekers.”
The book’s author, A.C. Harris, stressed the necessity of sled dogs in Native Alaskan culture: “Alaska is a land in which the steam train is not known, and it may safely be said that a large proportion of the people living in the country have never heard of such a thing as a railroad. Even horses and wagons are virtually things unknown. The country has too rigorous a climate for the successful use of any beasts of burden other than dogs. Hence, dogs as pack animals and as steeds for sledges have become one of the chief possessions of the people.”
Many of the non-northern breed dogs being shipped into Alaska were not well suited to the task and many were not well trained compared to their traditional counterparts.
Harris had been told that mastiffs and St. Bernards had the strength to pull sleds but the pads under their feet were not well adapted compared to those of Eskimo dogs, which "are of tougher skin.”
Harris also noted that Native Alaskans would tend their sled dogs carefully, to the point of putting moccasins on their feet if they became sore. And, he added, the native dogs “need no lines to guide them and are very intelligent, learning readily to obey a command to turn in any direction or to stop.”
Harris noted that good sled dogs in Alaska were “worth from $100 up, $200 for a fine brute not being an unusual price.” That would be between $3500-$7000 in today's dollars.
EXTENSIVE TRAILS FOR SLEDS
To accommodate the increased numbers of people and sled dogs in Alaska, the network of mushing trails expanded. Supplies for miners were routinely unloaded from ships docked in Cook Inlet. Dog sledding trails from that area spread northward into the Alaskan interior.
In 1905 Congress created the Alaska Road Commission to improve road and trail building in the territory. Within a few years the federal government, responding to a need for a reliable mushing trail from Nome eastward across Alaska, developed what today is known as the Iditarod Trail.
The sled dog trails which were improved by the Alaska Road Commission were often those used by Native Alaskans for centuries. But they were generally improved to meet a new set of standards.
For example, the trails were "required" to be eight-feet wide and no grade should be steeper than four percent (although many Iditarod mushers today can attest to much steeper grades in reality). Roadhouses were constructed along trails about every 20 miles to give drivers and dogs a place to get warm and rest after a day’s travel.
DOG SLEDDING REFINED AFTER THE GOLD RUSH
The Alaska Gold Rush wound down in the early years of the 20th century, and many transplants returned to warmer regions. Of course, the use of sled dogs for transportation in Alaska continued. In the town of Nome, many local residents kept their own team of dogs.
Some men who arrived in Alaska during the Gold Rush stayed on. While they hadn’t found a fortune in gold, some of them became experts at raising, training, and driving dogs.
Scotty Allan, who had been born in Scotland, made his way to Nome hoping to find gold. He took a job in a hardware store and became fascinated with training dogs. In 1907, Allan was one of the founding members of the Nome Kennel Club, an organization devoted to the care and breeding of sled dogs.
The club organized a long-distance race of roughly 400 miles called the All Alaska Sweepstakes. The first race was held in April 1908, and it continued as a lively annual festival in Nome until 1917, when economic conditions caused by the World War ended it. Many of the early races were won by Scotty Allan and his team of dogs.
Allan’s skill with sled dogs was so widely known that the French military hired him during World War I to train dogs to use in mountainous regions of Europe.
Another skilled competitor was Leonhard Seppala, a native of Norway who came to Nome to work for a friend’s mining company. He became a dog sled driver, ferrying men and provisions to company outposts.
Seppala became known as a highly skilled driver as well as a thoughtful breeder of dogs. In 1913 he had been hired to train Siberian Husky puppies which had been brought to Alaska to join an expedition to the Arctic. When the expedition was canceled, Seppala was given the dogs.
The local malamutes were large and strong, and had been the most desirable dog during the Gold Rush years. But Seppala recognized that the smaller “Siberians” might make better sled dogs. Though smaller than malamutes, they exhibited astounding endurance and were very intelligent in how they reacted to conditions on the trail.
During the famous dog sled relay that delivered precious diphtheria serum to Nome in 1925, Seppala and his lead dog Togo, a husky he had trained, played a vital role.
Seppala is credited with developing the bloodlines of huskies that came to be a dominant breed of sled dog in Alaska. The breed was recognized as the Siberian Husky by the American Kennel Club in 1930.
MAIL CARRIED BY SLED DOGS
In the late 1890s, as settlements in Alaska popped up during the Gold Rush, the U.S. Post Office Department contracted with experienced mushers to deliver mail by dog sled to far-flung outposts. It became a point of pride that mail from home could reach men laboring in remote regions of Alaska.
The Gold Rush brought dog sled mail delivery to Alaska, but the service continued after the Gold Rush had waned. Regular mail routes by sled continued until the 1940s, when most of the long distance deliveries could be accomplished by airplanes.
Remarkably, the last mail route serviced by a dog team in Alaska did not officially end until June 13, 1963. A ceremony held in Fairbanks that day honored Chester Noongwook, the last contract mail carrier by dogsled, whose weekly route covered 100 miles on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea.
The tradition of mail pulled by teams of sled dogs is honored today at the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C. In the museum’s collection is a wooden dog sled used by a mushing mail carrier in the 1920s.
The importance of sled dogs to the Gold Rush also lives on in popular imagination. Thanks to Jack London’s adventure tale The Call of the Wild, generations of young readers have learned the story of Buck, the St. Bernard-Collie mix transplanted from California to Alaska. London’s classic adventure tale has been adapted for film several times, from a silent version in 1923 to a version starring Harrison Ford in 2020.
And the annual Iditarod Race, held every March, serves as a reminder of the refinement of sled dog racing inspired by the Gold Rush. The race, in which mushers drive teams of dogs more than 900 miles from Anchorage to Nome, follows an ancient trail made popular by teams of sled dogs during the Gold Rush years.