Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Special delivery — Dog mushers had treacherous job of Alaska’s first overland postal routes
By Clark Fair
When the price of sending a letter through the U.S. Postal Service rises to 44 cents in May, people will complain, even though that 44 cents can carry their letters all the way across country, often in just two or three days. A hundred years ago, when the price was about two or three cents per letter, the mail took much longer to reach distant destinations, traveling much more difficult routes.
This increase in difficulty was perhaps more true in Alaska than anywhere else.
For instance, a resident of the village of Kenai a century ago might receive mail occasionally by boat from Homer in the summertime, but seldom or not at all throughout the winter. When ice made boat traffic unsafe on Cook Inlet, any mail that actually reached Homer would have to be transported overland to Kenai, or held onto until better conditions existed.
According to Ruth Grueninger’s postal history in the book, “Once Upon the Kenai,” the beach and overland routes were used initially by Paddy Ryan, who toted the mail on foot to Kenai’s first postmaster, Eugene R. Bogart, who was appointed in 1899, and to Bogart’s many successors.
Ryan was followed by Gregory George Brown, who used a horse to make the trip, and by Nick Kalifornsky, who employed a dog team for the task.
According to Alan Boraas, anthropology professor at Kenai Peninsula College, many Dena’ina men other than Kalifornsky also ran the mail route. When any of these mail carriers encountered the wide swaths of water presented by the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, they most likely used a boat, left by canneries operating near the river mouths, to cross to the other side. When the boats were on the wrong side, he said, they probably hailed the cannery caretaker or winter watchman to bring them across in his dory.
At smaller streams, such as the Ninilchik River, Deep Creek or the Anchor River, they likely headed upstream to find a suitable crossing over the ice, he said.
When most of the mail began to channel through the “Gateway City” of Seward — arriving in the ice-free port via steamship, and then heading out from the southern terminus of the recently established Iditarod Trail — the challenge of hauling the mail to Kenai changed. In 1918, longtime Kenai resident Paul Wilson Sr. was awarded a Star Route contract to carry the mail by dog team to Kenai.
Star Routes were developed by the U.S. Congress in 1845 to provide the swiftest and most secure means of mail delivery possible at the lowest possible price. A contract, which typically lasted four years, was put out to bid, and the lowest bidder was usually awarded the deal.
In Alaska, over terrain that could change drastically with each passing storm or warming trend, the task of arriving on time and in one piece could be exceedingly difficult, according to Dr. Linda Chamberlain, a Homer-based sled-dog musher and epidemiologist who is currently writing a book on the historic use of dog sleds to deliver the mail.
The first Star Route in Alaska was awarded in 1894 to Tlingit musher Jimmie Jackson, who had the prodigious task of delivering mail from Juneau more than 1,000 miles to Circle, north of Fairbanks. He managed the feat a single time, traveling from Juneau by a canoe to Atlin Lake, British Columbia, and then on foot and by dog team the rest of the way.
On the trip, Jackson had to hunt and fish to feed himself and his team; however, the rigors were too much.
“Two dogs dropped dead in their tracks,” Chamberlain said. “He had to use the last one for food.”
Another tough Star Route pioneer was Ben Downing, who ran a mail sled between Dawson and Eagle, starting in 1899. In 1903, on the way to Dawson, Chamberlain said, Downing and his dog team went through the ice. He managed to extract himself from the water but the dogs did not survive. Alone and with his feet frozen, he walked the rest of the way — nearly 300 miles — to Dawson.
“When he arrived in town, the bloody footprints came all the way in,” Chamberlain said. Downing refused to allow his feet to be amputated, and he died two years later of complications resulting from his injuries.
Downing’s story is indicative of the toughness and perseverance of the pioneer sled-dog mail carriers, Chamberlain said. They were expected to be on time, and they knew they could lose money or even their contracts if they were late.
Star Routes were “a very important source of income for rural Alaskans. There were many, many Native carriers. The Star Routes created a whole economy,” Chamberlain said.
This economic boost became particularly evident when the Alaska Road Commission surveyed the Iditarod Trail, from Seward to Nome, in 1910, and when it became the official northern mail route in 1911. Roadhouses sprang up every 25 to 50 miles along the trail as people in the Bush found ways to tap into local travel, said Chamberlain, whose book, “Mushing the Mail,” she hopes to have ready for publication by the 100th anniversary of the Iditarod Trail in 2011.
The trail sprang up initially as a means for prospectors and fortune-seekers to reach the gold-mining towns of Iditarod and Nome.
“It was brutal out there,” Chamberlain said. “So the Iditarod Trail created a system of safety and support.”
Chamberlain recalled one particularly gruesome pretrail tale: “They found a mail carrier frozen (in 1907). He was buried in snow outside of Nome, and somebody saw a protruding hand and dug down and found him with his dogs wrapped around him. And the mail was dated 1901.”
From the main Iditarod Trail sprang up ancillary trails, such as Paul Wilson’s route to Kenai, which began in Cooper Landing or in Lawing, depending on which site had the official U.S. post office at the time.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service historian Gary Titus, who has researched and traced the Seward-to-Kenai mail run, the route varied somewhat from winter to winter because the conditions were so variable. In 1923, he said, the ARC performed a reconnaissance of the route and prompted some upgrades.
Those upgrades included new shelter cabins, some repairs to existing structures and widening of the trail in places. Eighteen miles of new trail was cut to a width of 9 feet, Titus said, and 27 miles of the old trail was widened to 5 feet.
In virtually all types of weather, carriers traveled with freight sleds, often packed with hundreds of pounds of mail. These sleds were longer than a modern racing sled and narrower and more sturdily built, usually of hickory or ash. Carriers rarely rode on the backs of their sleds, and travel could be very slow as they occasionally walked in snowshoes out in front of the dogs to break trail in heavy snow.
Generally, according to Titus, the carriers followed this route into Kenai: From the west (river outlet) end of Kenai Lake, they followed a light-duty wagon road along the southern bank of the Kenai River until they reached Schooner Bend, where a bridge had been constructed in 1920. Now on the river’s northern bank, they followed a continuation of the wagon road until they moved onto a higher bench for easier travel.
They followed the bench until they reached Jean Creek, which they followed up to Jean Lake. They crossed the length of the lake and climbed the low pass to Upper Jean Lake, from which they descended into a series of lowland lakes and swamps that led them to the Moose River. They followed the Moose River to its confluence with the Kenai River, and then followed a Native river trail on into Kenai.
The round trip could be made in seven to eight days under good conditions, but the carriers were given 30 days in which to do it.
In 1930, airplanes began to land on the Kenai beach once a month with the mail, and by 1934 an airstrip was created on the bluff. By 1940, the end of the mail-sled era was at hand. The bulk of the mail throughout Alaska was now being carried by airplanes, which could arrive every day on the airstrips carved next to some rural communities.
By 1940, Kenai had had 13 different postmasters and had moved its post office nearly a dozen times, usually from one person’s home to another, but the price of postage to send a letter across the country was still three cents.
The price rose to four cents in 1958. As usual, people complained.