Alaska: Iditarod National Historic Trail Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Iditarod Trail is a 2,450-mile historic trail and the site of the famous annual dogsled race.

Site Offices:

Iditarod Trail Headquarters

Mile 2.2 Knik Road

Wasilla, AK 99654

ph.:(907) 376-5155

Iditarod Trail Committee

P.O. Box 870800

Wasilla, AK 99687

Web site: www.iditarod.com/

e-mail: iditarod@iditarod.com

The Iditarod National Historic Trail is a 2,450-mile trail across south-central Alaska. Visitors use the trail for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowmobiling, but it is most famous as the site of the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. The Iditarod race celebrates the 1925 “serum run” which brought life-saving diphtheria antitoxin to residents of Nome, but the Iditarod’s importance as a key transportation route dates back much further.

Early Beginnings

The Iditarod National Historic Trail runs from Seward on the southern coast of Alaska north to Nome on Alaska’s west coast. Centuries ago, portions of what would become the Iditarod Trail were initially blazed by caribou and other wildlife migrating from one part of the territory to another. They were followed by Athabaskan, Inuit, and northwest coastal Native Americans as they hunted and traded in the area. Native Alaskans improved transportation on the trail by introducing snowshoes and dogsleds.

In 1741, Russian explorers arrived on Alaskan shores from across the Bering Sea. Finding abundant supplies of natural resources there, they built forts and established settlements for trade. Russians dominated a profitable fur trade with local native Alaskans for over a century during which the Iditarod Trail was frequently used as a trade and transportation line. However, Russian interests dwindled when the fur trade became less lucrative, and Russia sold Alaskan territory to the United States in 1867.

Few Americans traveled to the remote new territory until gold was discovered in 1896 along the Yukon River. Word of the discovery spread quickly through the American press, and within months tens of thousands of hopeful miners flocked to Alaska seeking fortune and adventure. Alaska became the gateway to the Klondike and Yukon gold fields. The Iditarod Trail, then only a series of smaller connecting trails, became a vital and busy transportation and supply route.

Boomtowns such as Hope, Iditarod, and Ruby sprang up and grew quickly along sections of the Iditarod Trail. Travelers used horses, wagons, and snowshoes, but the most popular form of transportation was the dogsled. Teams of one to twenty-five dogs were leashed together to pull a sled and musher over the snow. In good weather, sled dogs could travel twenty to thirty miles per day. During the height of the gold rush, the United States Postal Service used dogsleds to establish and maintain weekly mail service. Roadhouses were built one day’s ride from one another to provide food and warm shelter for the night. These shelters, spaced approximately twenty miles apart, frequently made the difference between life and death in a region where nighttime temperatures could fall to minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Roadhouses kept lists of visitors so their positions could be tracked over the trail. Though the most popular form of transportation, dogsledding was still a difficult and expensive way to send parcels.

Mushers, their lead dogs, and teams became well known among boomtown residents, and a healthy competition rose among them. During the long, cold winter months when the mines closed down, mushers began racing their dogs to determine which team was the fastest. Residents cheered their favorite lead dogs and mushers, and sled dog racing became a very popular form of entertainment. The ten thousand-dollar Nome All-Alaska Sweepstakes was the most prestigious and profitable race. The All-Alaska began in 1908 to settle a bet over who had the best lead sled dog. The course was 408 miles and encompassed a large portion of the Iditarod Trail. The All-Alaska did not survive World War I, but dogsled racing remained popular and became Alaska’s official sport.

Nome, situated at the end of the Iditarod Trail, was a village of a few hundred people in 1890. Gold was discovered in the region in 1898. Within two years the village was a booming town of thirty thousand residents. When gold supplies dwindled a few years later, most of the miners left. Nome’s population dropped to fewer than five thousand people by 1905, but the town survived and became one of Alaska’s most popular trade centers. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Iditarod Trail–the only land route from Nome to the southern coast–facilitated transportation and communication. When the Bering Sea froze over between October and June, the Iditarod Trail was the only way in or out of Nome and residents’ only access to the outside world.

In the early 1900’s, Congress established the Alaska Road Commission to build and improve road systems connecting military outposts with local villages. The commission hired workers who marked and improved the Iditarod Trail during the winter of 1910-1911. The refurbished trail provided quicker access to outlying areas and less hazardous traveling conditions for local residents, the military, and suppliers.

Race for Life

The most famous “race” in the Iditarod Trail’s history was the famous serum run of 1925, also known as the Great Race of Mercy. In January of that year, two young children died in Nome. Dr. Curtis Welch, Nome’s only physician, identifying the disease as diphtheria, realized the threat it posed to the local population. An epidemic of diphtheria could kill hundreds or thousands of Alaskans if left untreated. Local native Alaskans were particularly susceptible because they had developed little resistance to European or American diseases. Dr. Curtis’s scant five-year-old supply of antitoxin would inoculate only a few people, and its effectiveness was in question due to its age. After establishing a quarantine of the area, Curtis issued an emergency call for more serum.

An Anchorage physician who could send a million units of serum answered the call. How would it be transported, however, to far-off Nome in the middle of a forbidding Alaskan winter? Though railway transportation existed in some areas, the closest railhead to Nome was in Nenana, almost five hundred miles away. Airplane travel had been established but was extremely hazardous in winter weather: No one wanted to risk loss of both pilot and serum. It was decided the least risky way to get the serum to Nome was by dogsled.

Alaska’s governor, Scott Bone, called for volunteer mushers to participate in a five hundred-mile dogsled relay. On January 26, 1925, a heavily insulated twenty-pound package of serum was loaded onto a train in Anchorage and transported 298 miles to Nanana. It arrived on January 27 and was passed to the first musher. Twenty dogsled teams transported the antitoxin 465 miles over harsh terrain and through frigid temperatures to Nome in only seventy-two hours, a trip that normally took at least a week to complete. Relay teams stopped at roadhouses along the trail to rest dogs, switch mushers, and warm the serum. The antitoxin arrived at 5:30 a.m. of February 2. With the serum in hand, Dr. Curtis was able to cure those already stricken and to prevent further spread of the disease. No additional deaths from diphtheria were reported. The twenty mushers who participated in the serum run were each awarded medals and certificates for their valiant efforts.

Over the next few decades, other faster forms of transportation replaced dogsledding as the primary source of conveyance over the Iditarod. In 1914, the Alaska Railroad built a line between Seward and Nenana, shortening the dogsled mail route by four hundred miles. Airplanes were added to the mail delivery service in 1920. By the 1930’s, air service had replaced dogsleds on the trail, but the popularity of sled dog racing continued. In 1967, Alaska prepared for a centennial celebration of its purchase by America. As part of the celebration, local centennial committee chairperson Dorothy Page and kennel owner Joe Redington, Sr., proposed a fifty-six-mile dogsled race over the old Iditarod Trail. The idea was accepted, and the first Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race was held in February, 1967, with a purse of twenty-five thousand dollars divided among the top winners. The first winner of the two-day, fifty-six-mile event was Isaac Okleasik from Teller, Alaska. The race was so popular it became an annual event.

Support of and participation in the Iditarod race waned over the next few years. In 1973, Joe Redington, Sr., proposed that the Iditarod race go all the way to Nome, a distance of over eleven hundred miles. A year earlier, the United States Army had cleared and marked the trail all the way to Nome. Though organizers were unsure mushers would sign up for such a grueling race, thirty-four of them lined up to participate. Twenty-two made it all the way to Nome and shared a fifty thousand dollar prize. Dick Wilmarth won the race, completing the course in twenty days.

Visiting the Iditarod Trail

In 1978, Congress made the Iditarod part of the National Historic Trail system. At the Iditarod Trail headquarters and visitors’ center, visitors can view historical displays and videos and see an example of an Iditarod musher and dog team. The center houses a gift shop and offers a sample wheeled dogsled for visitor rides. Sections of the trail are open for hiking, skiing, and snowmobiling. The Iditarod Trail includes a large variety of changeable terrain. Thick forests, iced-over sections of lakes and rivers, open fields, and remote wildernesses offer beautiful scenery, but it is a difficult trail to traverse no matter what the season. Portions of the trail are very difficult to hike because of thick growths of tundra. In addition to below-freezing temperatures and chilling winds, there are hills, sea ice, and heavy snowfalls to conquer in winter. Tours and tour guides are available and a number of historic sites can be viewed along the trail, including prehistoric Native American, Inuit, and Athabaskan and villages, gold rush towns, and Russian Orthodox missions. The trail is divided into three sections. Each offers opportunities to view local wildlife including moose, wolves, walruses, caribou, beavers, foxes, bald eagles, and grizzly, polar, and black bears.

Travelers trekking the Iditarod Trail find it much the same as it was in the early part of the twentieth century. The trail can be viewed by airplane if visitors wish. The popularity of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race continues to grow. The race runs annually in March from downtown Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod race attracts mushers and spectators from around the world.

For Further Information
  • Cordes, Kathleen Ann. America’s National Historic Trails. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999. Lists and extensively describes each trail in the National Historic Trail system.
  • Jones, Tim. The Last Great Race: The Iditarod Sled Dog Race. Seattle: Madrona, 1982. Details the entire history of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
  • Paulsen, Gary. Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1994. Takes the reader along as Paulsen participates in the Iditarod race.
  • Riddles, Libby, and Tim Jones. Race Across Alaska: First Woman to Win the Iditarod Tells Her Story. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1988. The first female winner of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race recounts her adventures.
  • Sherwonit, Bill. Iditarod: The Great Race to Nome. Anchorage: Alaska Northwest Books, 1991. Documents the history of the race and trail through text and photography.
Categories: History Content