Tag Archives: Leonhard Seppala

The Davidson Ditch

borderedThe January-February, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine featured an article about the Davidson Ditch, a combination pipeline and actual ditch or channel which winds through the hills northeast of Fairbanks. Built in the 1920s, it begins just below the confluence of Ruby Creek and Sourdough Creek, just north of the Chatanika River, and runs 90 miles to the old FE Gold mining operations, more or less paralleling today’s Steese Highway. Abandoned in the 1960’s, it was the first large-scale pipeline project in Alaska, and lessons learned in its construction were applied to building the 800-mile Trans-Alaska Pipeline System from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay half a century later. 

The entire system was gravity fed, utilizing no pumps or mechanics. A containment dam fed water into open ditches which gradually descended along ridge lines. Fifteen inverted siphons channeled the water down hillsides, across intersecting streams, and back up to the grade level. A 3,700-foot long tunnel was blasted though a ridge between Chatanika and Goldstream Valley.

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Mining engineer Norman C. Stines, an unusual man with an equally unusual history, had worked abroad with some of the preeminent mining engineers in the world. He had observed the success of the huge gold mining dredges near Nome, and he believed the same technique would prove profitable in the Fairbanks area, but the lack of available water presented a problem. 

Dredges, which work from barges, require tremendous amounts of water to float the barges, thaw the permafrost, and remove the overburden, exposing the gold-bearing ground. In their research document The Davidson Ditch, produced for the cultural resource consulting firm Northern Land Use Research, Inc. in 2005, Catherine Williams and Sarah McGowan wrote, “Only by moving millions of cubic yards of the muck overlying gold-bearing gravels …. could the low-grade placer gold deposits be mined profitably.”

Chatanika RiverIn the 1930s the famed musher Leonhard Seppala, who had braved blizzard conditions in the 1925 Serum Run to Nome, lived at Chatanika and patrolled the Davidson Ditch with his dogteam, ensuring the steady flow of water to the gold dredges was not interrupted. 

Today the rusty red pipeline is visible from several places along the Steese Highway, and a Davidson Ditch Historical Site at milepost 57.3 tells of the history and construction. Abandoned in the late 1960s, the remains of the conduit are partially protected by its inclusion in the White Mountains National Recreation Area. It is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, but to date it has not been listed. 

Resources:

Davidson Ditch: Huge aqueduct boosted Interior Alaska’s gold rush, maybe saved Fairbanks, article by Ned Rozell, Anch. Daily News, Sept. 27, 2013.  

Alaska Mining Hall of Fame  – Biography of James M. Davidson

• Wikipedia – A detailed history of the planning, surveying, construction, technical details, and more.

 Davison Ditch Pipeline Display, Pioneers of Alaska Fairbanks – photos of the pipeline display, related historic photos and history

 

Seppala’s Real Serum Run

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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Dogteam crossing Norton Sound.

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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First published on the site for Northern Light Media, which publishes Alaskan History Magazine.

 

Sled Dog Tales

 

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Tanana Flats, April, 1912 

The May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine included an article on the All Alaska Sweepstakes sled dog races, which ran from Nome to Candle and return from 1908 through 1917. The races spotlighted the hardy sled dogs which made travel in Alaska’s harsh winters possible, the ever-reliable dog teams being the primary mode of travel in territorial Alaska. It is to our good fortune that thousands of photographs of mushers and their teams were captured, such as the one above, showing a musher and his dog team crossing the Tanana Flats in 1912.

Ten Thousand MilesThe colorful history of dog team travel in the north country was surprisingly well documented, and to read the exploits of these early-day mushers is to venture back to a time when men depended on their dogs for their very lives. Driving a team of huskies for hundreds of miles through mountain ranges, across glaciers, over frozen lakes and rivers, and through vast unpeopled valleys required a caliber of strength and endurance almost unimaginable today. The mail drivers and freight haulers of old left civilization behind when they hit the trail, and they were on their own when trouble or tragedy struck, as it often did.

In the frozen north, the singular capabilities of a good sled dog often meant the difference between life and death. In the Nome Daily Nugget newspaper, April 2, 1917, a poem by Esther Birdsall Darling told the tale of a heroic rescue which had taken place only a few weeks before. Sled dog driver Bobby Brown, working at Dime Creek on the Seward Peninsula during the winter of 1916-17, was badly mangled in a sawmill accident. The man who would later become a legend in the north country, Leonhard Seppala, was nearby with his team, and he loaded the injured man onto his sled, wrapped him in wolf robes and set out for the nearest hospital, at Candle, over fifty miles away. With a dog named Russky in the lead, they made the hospital and delivered Bobby Brown to the doctors, but his injuries were too great and he died a few days later.

Dog-Puncher on YukonThe mail drivers, freight haulers, and other early mushers faced danger on a regular basis, but it was just part and parcel of their job. 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. Adolph “Ed” Biederman was a contract mail carrier between the towns of Eagle and Circle. Delivering the mail on the Yukon River by dog team over the 160-mile section took six days one way, then a day’s rest, and six days back. Biederman ran this route thirteen times over the course of each winter, with loads of mail often exceeding 500 pounds, following a string of roadhouses located at intervals along the river.

“I spent almost the entire winter freighting with my dogs to the outlying creeks, and so was away from civilization most of the time. There was more money in it than in ordinary freighting to the mines, and the life suited me better. I had to camp out, but this was less difficult now than formerly, as by this time we all had tents and stoves.” — Arthur Treadwell Walden, ‘A Dog-Puncher on the Yukon’ (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1928)

Baldy of NomeDog teams were indispensable to Arctic explorers, missionaries, lawmen, doctors, gold seekers, mail drivers, and anyone who needed to travel the winter trails in Alaska, leading the venerable Judge James Wickersham to state in 1938, “He who gives his time to the study of the history of Alaska, learns that the dog, next to man, has been the most important factor in its past and present development.”

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Many stories of early Alaskan mushers and their dog teams are featured in the book, Alaskan Sled Dog Tales: True Stories of the Steadfast Companions of the North Country, by Helen Hegener, published in 2016 by Northern Light Media. $24.95 plus $5.00 shipping & handling. 320 pages, 6′ x 9″ b/w format, includes maps, charts, bibliography, indexed. Click this link to order. A wonderful gift for any dog-lover!

Sled Dog Tales“These trustworthy creatures could be relied upon to do the heavy work, while remaining—as Hegener eloquently reminds us—our most treasured friends. Relying upon material written from the late 1890s through the early ‘30s, [Hegener] catalogues how sled dogs provided Alaskan residents the ability to traverse enormous distances, deliver critical supplies and maintain communication from within and outside Alaska. The episodes she recounts are stirring, filled with human and animal bravery. Some are simply mind-boggling, filling the reader with awe and enormous respect for dog and driver alike.” David Fox, in the Anchorage Press

AAHP Most Endangered List

Screen Shot 2019-06-03 at 8.58.55 PMThe Alaska Association for Historic Preservation has released its annual list of the ten most endangered historic properties in the state, and included this year are the 4th Avenue Theatre in Anchorage, the Jesse Lee Home in Seward, and the photogenic Eldred Rock Lighthouse near Haines. The Alaska Association for Historic Preservation annually helps several of the properties on the list get started with preservation work and leverage funding from other sources.

The sternwheeler Nenana was selected for inclusion. Patricia De Nardo Schmidt is President of the Friends of the SS Nenana, one of only three steam-powered passenger sternwheelers of any kind left in the U.S., and the only large wooden sternwheeler.

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Sternwheeler Nenana

Built in Nenana in 1933 for the Alaska Railroad, for service on the Yukon, Nenana, and Tanana Rivers, the Nenana opened up much of the territory of interior Alaska long before roads could be built. The Nenana carried military cargoes during World War II including lend-lease aircraft on the way to Russia. Retired in 1955, the SS Nenana now resides at Pioneer Park in Fairbanks. It was designated a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1989.

The most endangered historic properties program started in 1991 and helps get public attention of cultural and architectural properties that are threatened. The complete list for 2019 includes:

Nenana Sternwheeler, Fairbanks
Eldred Rock Lighthouse, Haines vicinity
Coastal Archaeological Sites
Stevenson Hall (Sheldon Jackson School), Sitka
Leonhard Seppala House, Nome
4th Avenue Theatre, Anchorage
Government Hill Community Center, Anchorage
Pioneer School House, Anchorage
Bristol Bay Sailboats, Naknek, King Salmon, Egegik
Jesse Lee Home, Seward

To donate or learn more about the Alaska Association for Historic Preservation, contact Amber Sawyer at 907.929.9870 / akpreservation@gmail.com / http://www.aahp-online.net/

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The Bristol Bay salmon fleet circa 1948. (Ward Wells collection / Anchorage Museum)

All Alaska Sweepstakes

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FROM OUR PAGES:

The May-June issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article on the All Alaska Sweepstakes, founded in Nome:

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.

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Front Street, 5th race, 1912

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.

 

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Scotty Allan and Baldy

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” JohnsonJohnson 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.

trophy_aasAlaska’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.”

nkcpatch52004 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. •~•

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John Hegness driving Albert Fink’s team, 1st race, 1st winner, in 1908.

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“Scotty” Allan driving J. Berger team, winner of 2nd race, 1909.

 

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John “Iron Man” Johnson driving Col. Ramsay’s team, winners of 3rd race, 1910.

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Leonhard Seppala, owner and driver, winning the 1916 race. He also won in 1915 and 1917.

All Alaska Sweepstakes at Wikipedia

Nome Kennel Club History

Anchorage Daily News article by Helen Hegener, 2009

Biography of “Scotty” Allan at LitSite Alaska