The History of Seward by Hotel Seward: The Iditarod Trail

Jan 23, 2018

Historic Hotel Seward, Alaska’s premiere boutique hotel, is proud to be located in the quaint seaside town of Seward, Alaska, the gateway to Resurrection Bay and Kenai Fjords National Park. The history of our town is full of fascinating stories and we’re honored to share photos from our vast collection that is on display in the common spaces of our historic building.

The Iditarod Trail

Today’s Iditarod Trail, a symbol of frontier travel and once an important artery of Alaska’s winter commerce, served a string of mining camps, trading posts, and other settlements founded between 1880 and 1920, during Alaska’s Gold Rush Era. Alaska’s gold rushes were an extension of the American mining frontier that dates from colonial America and moved west to California with the gold discovery there in 1848. In each new territory, gold strikes had caused a surge in population, the establishment of a territorial government, and the development of a transportation system linking the goldfields with the rest of the nation. Alaska, too, followed through these same general stages. With the increase in gold production particularly in the later 1890s and early 1900s, the non-Native population boomed from 430 people in 1880 to some 36,400 in 1910. In 1912, President Taft signed the act creating the Territory of Alaska. At that time, the region’s transportation systems included a mixture of steamship and steamboat lines, railroads, wagon roads, and various cross-country trail including ones designed principally for winter time dogsled travel. Of the latter, the longest ran from Seward to Nome, and came to be called the Iditarod Trail.

The Iditarod trail, first commonly referred to as the Seward to Nome trail, was developed starting in 1908 in response to gold rush era needs. While marked off by an official government survey, in many places it followed preexisting Native trails of the Tanaina and Ingalik Indians in the Interior of Alaska. In parts of western Alaska east of Unalakleet and along the coast, it followed ancient routes traveled by the Inupiaq and Yupik Eskimos. Thus, Alaska Natives long used portions of what came to be today’s Iditarod Trail, and before the first non-natives came to Alaska had developed special winter modes of travel over it—the dogsled and snowshoe.

Most travelers on the Iditarod Trail did not go from trailhead to trailhead—Seward to Nome—as they did on the other trails of settlement in the American West. Instead, they mushed from the ice-free harbor of Seward to the various mining districts midway to Nome, or used the Trail segments while traveling between mining camps and trade centers. Thus, little traffic actually went the full distance of the Iditarod Trail, and even the winter mail route connecting Nome and Seward only used the Iditarod Trail for a few years in the 1910s before being routed through Fairbanks. In 1918, the last year mail followed the trail to Seward, carriers complained of the difficulties of travel. So little traffic was following the Trail from Iditarod to Seward by that time that they were constantly plagued with the hard and time-consuming task of breaking trail for the dogs.

Over the few years of its use, an assortment of travelers used the Trail. The majority were prospectors, trappers, or Natives, who traveled—often without dogs or with one or two to help pull a sledload of supplies—to isolated cabins. A surprising number walked along the Trail. The hero of the Trail, however, was the dogsled and driver.

These noteworthies earned nicknames befitting the men who raced along the Trail carrying fresh eggs or oranges, mail or express, or shipments of gold. Among them were Frank Tondreau, known from Belfast to Point Barrow as the Malemute Kid; John “Iron Man” Johnson, the famous racer and his indefatigable Siberians; Captain Ulysses Grant Norton, the tireless Trojan of the trails; the Eskimo “Split-the-Wind”; and the wandering Japanese Jujira Wada, associated with the Fairbanks strike. All were welcomed in the camps and became often interviewed celebrities.

One such person and event glorified in the press was Bob Griffis and his annual Iditarod gold train. Griffis, who had once driven stages during the Black Hills rush in the Dakotas, ran the mail from Unalakleet to Nome for a decade before the Miners and Merchants Bank of Iditarod acquired his services. In November 1910, he started from Iditarod for Seward with a quarter million dollars worth of gold lashed to his dogsled. While the scene was set for a spectacular robbery, the 63-year-old Griffis knew that the Alaska winter was deterrent enough to robbers. Consequently, 37 days later his three teams and their guards arrived unscathed in Seward. Until World War I, Griffis protected the Iditarod gold trains carrying up to one million dollars worth of gold on their annual trek to Seward. Popular postcard pictures were made for sale of such sled dog-hauled gold shipments arriving in Seward. It was to Griffis’s credit that the gold was never stolen. (Only later, in 1922, did such a theft occur. A shipment of $30,000 worth of gold was stolen by a roadhouse operator and his confederate, an Iditarod “lady of the evening.”)

 

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