Story by Helen Hegener
Delivering the mail to Alaska has always presented a formidable challenge to the U.S. Postal Service. Letters, parcels, and supplies from the “Lower 48 states” often took weeks or months to reach their destinations. Steamships transported Alaska bound mail north from Puget Sound in Washington to southeastern coastal towns. After reaching these towns, mail was carried to some sections of Interior Alaska by river steamers and, later, by Alaska Railroad trains for delivery to smaller, outlying villages.
The harsh arctic weather and limited trail and road system also made mail delivery extremely difficult. In the more isolated sections, carrying the mail required methods far different than those traditionally used elsewhere in the United States. Dogs proved superior for the winter transport of mail. Dogs were capable of covering long distances, day or night, and could travel over frozen lakes and rivers and pass through dense forests.
The malamute and husky are the same type of breed and were the most valued for dog teams. These dogs were strong, with thick coats and furry paws, and thrived on dried salmon and needed no special housing. Newfoundlands, St. Bernards, setters, spaniels, and collies were also used. Horses were also used in Alaska, but they posed special problems. Feed was costly and hard to supply, and horses required special care in extreme cold.
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. The historic 2,300-mile Iditarod Trail was the main dog trail that carried mail from Seward to Nome. Overnight roadhouses served mail carriers, freighters, and other travelers who used dog sleds or horses.
Mail dog teams varied in size, with eight to ten dogs the most common number for pulling a sled. Typical of the dog teams that have carried Alaska’s mail is the string of Malamutes shown on the popular postcard, “Alaska Dog Team.” The dogs are working with a light racing sled, but on a mail run, they would haul a heavier, longer sled. On average, dog teams pulled sleds containing between 500 – 700 pounds of mail, which meant that each dog had a load of up to 100 pounds (although they hauled less on the more challenging trails). Mail sacks usually weighed 50 pounds each. Rubber-lined waterproof bags were used to protect precious mail from snow, rain, and mud. The dogs wore moosehide moccasins to protect their feet as much as possible from jagged pieces of ice.
In 1963, the U.S. Post Office Department honored Chester Noongwook of Savoonga, on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea, as the last driver to officially deliver the U.S. Mail via dog team. With his retirement, regular sled dog mail delivery ended in Alaska. A photo by early Alaskan photographer, Ward Wells, depicts fur trader Ed Shepherd and Nathan Noongwook shaking hands above a flag which reads “The Adventurers Club,” in front of a sled in the village of Gambell, on St. Lawrence Island. The sled is being prepared for last U.S. mail run by dogsled in Alaska, to be run by Chester Noongwook, son of Nathan Noongwook, from Gambell to Savoonga on St Lawrence Island. In January 1995, Chester Noongwook donated the mail-delivery sled he used to the National Postal Museum in Washington, D.C., where it hangs today. He passed away one month after making the delivery.
On January 2, 2009, the U.S. Postal Service issued a new stamp commemorating Alaska’s 50th anniversary as a U.S. State (Alaska became an official U.S. territory in 1912 and the 49th state on January 3, 1959). The image selected, taken by Alaska Stock owner Jeff Schultz, depicts veteran sled dog racer DeeDee Jonrowe on the Iditarod Trail at sunset, near Rainy Pass in the Alaska Range, during the 2000 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.
Award-winning Wasilla author Helen Hegener has written several books about Alaskan sled dog races and the history of mushing. She has also written four books of local interest about the Matanuska Valley and the 1935 Matanuska Colony Project, when the U.S. Government brought 200 families to settle near present-day Palmer. Her website is www.northernlightmedia.wordpress.com.