Friday, May 6, 2011

Alaska's Dog Days On Show In Historic Photos

By Nancy Mattoon

Alaska Historical Collections
Irresistible Exhibit Logo.

(All Images Courtesy of Alaska State Library.)

Nowadays most of us think of the dog as a companion, a true friend, and a beloved pet. But less than 100 years ago many dogs were workers, performing important--and sometimes even life-saving--jobs. The Alaska State Library’s Historical Collections has created a new online exhibit to honor some of the heroic dogs brought to "The Last Frontier" in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From Working Dogs To Racing Dogs, reflects the changing role of the canine in Alaska through photographs dating from 1898 to 1939.

Working Dogs Pull A Bread Wagon, ca. 1912.

While the image of a sled dog conjures up a wolf-like creature, or at least the well known Siberian Husky or Alaskan Malamute, this exhibit notes that "There were not enough local dogs to fill the demand. Consequently, dogs of all kinds--Irish setters, Saint Bernards, German shepherds, pointers, retrievers and mutts--were brought north." Sled dogs were an essential part of a lifeline bringing food, water, mining gear, and mail to "prospectors [following] the gold rushes north to Dawson and Nome." Like the most famous literary sled dog, Buck of Jack London's Call of the Wild (1903), well-trained dogs were frequently stolen due to their high price and limited supply.

At The Finish: Driver Tommy Illayok,
Who Placed 6th In The
All Alaska Sweepstakes.

But the invaluable services of the sled dogs also inspired what began as a pastime and became a sport: sled dog racing. According to the exhibit, "Inevitably, with time on their hands during the long winters, people began to wager on which dogs could go the farthest and the fastest. The first official sled dog race, the All Alaska Sweepstakes, was organized in Nome in 1908." This race, from Nome to Candle, covered an astounding 408 miles, and took five days from start to finish. One of the race's early winners, "Scotty" Allan, noted in his 1931 autobiography, Gold, Men, and Dogs, it "was as big an event in Alaska as the Kentucky Derby is to the racing world. The betting was always very heavy. Sometimes there was as much as $130,000 on the books, with hundreds of side bets for lesser amounts."

Formal Portrait of Scotty Allan
And His
Famous Dog, Baldy, ca. 1912.

The Scotland born Allan Alexander Allan, dubbed "Scotty" when he hit the Yukon, was an adventurer, champion sled racer, and dog breeder, as well as a writer. He began his time in Alaska working as a teamster, first driving horses, then training dog teams to move supplies over the unforgiving, frozen landscape. Allan traveled frequently between Dawson and Nome, and began taking in stray and unwanted dogs, who were at the mercy of the elements.

"Wolf," At Center Lying Down,
Inspired A 1910 Book By
Frank Caldwell, Wolf The Storm Leader.

In 1910, Allan acquired an unpromising, scraggly mutt named Baldy, buying him for next to nothing from a young boy who could no longer afford to care for him. Amazingly, Baldy became lead dog of one of the most successful sled teams in Alaska's history. Baldy would take Scotty Allan across the finish line of the All-Alaska Sweepstakes Race in first place three years running, in 1910, 1911, and 1912. In five other races, they finished either second or third. The pair became famous across the United States, and their exploits were even followed and reported in The New York Times.

Portrait Photograph of Esther Birdsall Darling,
And Dogs From The Famed

Allan And Darling Kennel, ca.1913.

As Allan and Baldy gained fame, Allan partnered with his sponsor, Esther Birdsall Darling, to form the Allan and Darling Kennel. The kennel soon became known as one of the best sources for all types of working and racing dogs in Alaska. When the United States entered World War I, the government commissioned dogs from their kennel to haul supplies over the mountains between France and Germany. In Gold, Men, and Dogs, Allan proudly said that he trained over 450 sled dogs for the French military. Meanwhile, Esther Birdsall Darling wrote a best-selling children’s book about the kennel's most famous dog, Baldy of Nome. The book was first published in 1913, and demand kept it in print for the next forty years. Darling recounted the exploits of Baldy's descendants, Boris and Navarre, in later volumes of what became a popular series of canine tales for kids.

Esther Birdsall Darling's 1946 Book,
Navarre Of The North:
A Thrilling Story of The Grandson
Of Baldy Of Nome.

Like Allan and his unlikely all-star Baldy, the career of another stellar racing team, Leonhard Seppala and his Siberian dogs, began in a less than promising fashion. The Norwegian-born Seppala inherited a team of what were then known as "Chukchi huskies," in 1913. The dogs had been scheduled to take explorer Roald Amundsen to the North Pole, but the trip was cancelled due to the outbreak of World War I. The now-jobless dogs were unceremoniously left with Seppala. He recognized that although smaller in size than most sled dogs, the Siberians had the stamina and temperament to excel in long races. Seppala entered his first All Alaska Sweepstakes in 1914, but his inexperienced team had to withdraw in the middle of the race. But, mirroring Allan's victories, in the next three consecutive years--1915, 1916 and 1917--the All Alaska Sweepstakes was won by Seppala and his teams of what we know today as "Siberian Huskies."

Leonhard Seppala
And His Siberian Huskies, ca. 1932.

Seppala used the fame he gained by winning races to set up a breeding program to further refine the Siberian Huskies bloodlines. Today he is considered the founder of that popular breed. But his greatest fame came as part of the famous 1925 "diphtheria run," in which teams of sled dogs transported life-saving serum from the end of the rail line at Nenana to the site of the deadly outbreak in Nome. Air travel had become impossible due to 80 mph winds and temperatures as low as −50 °F, so the mushers and their dogs became the only option for delivering the desperately needed medicine to clinics. A non-stop relay of teams covered 674 miles in just five days. The team that finished the final leg, Gunnar Kaasen and his lead dog, Balto, gained the most publicity from the run. (A statue of Balto was erected in New York City's Central Park just 10 months after the heroic delivery.) But Seppala and his lead dog, Togo covered nearly twice as much ground as the other relay teams in what came to be known as the "Great Race of Mercy."



  1. Very interesting, thank you. My family and I read the story of the serum run and named our first Huskey Togo. In honor of Seppala and his his serum team, we are naming our second huskey Scotty which we have learned is the name of one of Togo's team mates. We're not sure though if Leonhard Seppala named his dog Scotty after Sctty Allen. At any rate, thanks for your stories.

  2. Dogs in Alaska are and were primarily descended from the native village dog both coastal and interior. Not siberian husky or malamute which was developed in the lower 48 on the east coast.


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