To Build a Historic Sled, Part V

Unexpectedly, selectors turned down our Anchorage Centennial Celebration grant proposal to build a historic sled and run a reenactment of the dog team mail pulling out of Anchorage a century ago. Of course, we were disappointed, but not defeated.

My friend Jonn Norman (a powerful Alaskan who took over Sarah Palin’s post on the Alaska Oil and Gas Commission and who performed first as attorney for the Iditarod Race, then for the past thirty-plus years has headed the Iditarod Foundation.  Along with my friend of some 45 years, Greg Bill, (with Iditarod since the 1973 beginning and its Development Director since the 1980s) joined me in a new thrust. Our plan was to instead approach Wells Fargo about funding the building of the sled and running a reenactment of the Wells Fargo Gold Train mushing the gold out of Iditarod.

John had me sign and dedicate a copy of Volume I of my book, TRAILBREAKERS Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod to Mr. Joe Everhart, President of Wells Fargo here in Alaska. Accompanying that book, I wrote Mr. Everhart an opening letter, which follows:



Dear Mr. Everhart:

Gold opened up Alaska and Wells Fargo played a prominent part in transporting it.

Harvest of furs, forests, and fisheries around Alaska’s coastline came first, but after a century of exploitation around its rim almost no change was evidenced within the greater part of Alaska, the vast Interior. It was not until the fabulous gold strikes of the late 1800s and early 1900s triggered mass immigration that Alaska’s main land body began to be settled and developed. (TrailBreakers, pp 30-33)

The final great old-fashioned gold rush on the North American continent burst upon the scene when John Beaton and William Dikeman struck gold in remote Iditarod country on Christmas Day, 1908. (See TrailBreakers, the first three pages following the fly leaf). The rich discovery needed a way to connect to the outside world once winter locked the Interior in ice, ending the brief (four-month) summer river transport season. That need precipitated building of the legendary Iditarod Trail.

Gold by the millions of dollars was mushed over the trail. Intrepid dog drivers and their valiant sled dogs played daring, heroic roles, battling hundreds of miles through blinding blizzards, numbing cold, treacherous ice, deep snows, and the crossing of the mightiest mountain range on the continent.

Beginning in 1910 Well Fargo established as many as forty offices around Alaska. Miners and Merchants Bank of Iditarod, co-owned by Iditarod discoverer John Beaton, contracted with Wells Fargo to mush Iditarod gold over the long trail to Seward for shipment to Wells Fargo vaults on the West Coast. Bob Griffis, former Black Hills stagecoach driver and later respected Nome mail team driver was hired to take the gold out. (See TrailBreakers, mid-page 441 and bottom of page 479 and 480.)

Since becoming established in Alaska, Wells Fargo Bank has been wonderfully responsive and supportive to Alaska’s causes, weaving itself into our fabric. Nowhere is this more evident than Wells Fargo’s ties to the Iditarod Race. Now following a thread, there would have never been an Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race had there not been gold at Iditarod and the old Iditarod Trail. Still following the thread, the story of gold shipment and Wells Fargo’s part in it, though dripping with rich history and legend and stirring Old North romance, has never been widely told and is almost unknown even among Alaskans.

To continue following the thread, now during 2014 and 2015, Anchorage will be celebrating its centennial. It does not take connecting of that many dots for an able historian to show that gold created Anchorage. It was gold booms that established the Interior as Alaska’s population center and Fairbanks as the territory’s commercial hub and governmental seat. The Alaska Railroad was constructed in a large part to open up Interior gold country and provide Fairbanks an all-season connection to the Industrialized World outside. Anchorage began as a construction camp set up to build the railroad.

During summers, ocean shipping readily brought men, materials, and communication into the tent city at the mouth of Ship Creek. But when ice blocked Cook Inlet for almost half the year there was only one way in or out for the movement of travelers, freight, and communication—the Iditarod Trail. And it came right through town (TrailBreakers, photo p. 516). Without it, Anchorage would have spent its first winters imprisoned within its edges with absolutely no touch with the outside world or rest of Alaska.

The thread continues – – -Bob Griffis and his Wells Fargo “gold train” was a major spectacle each of Anchorage’s first four winters. An intriguing idea for Wells Fargo as a way to connect to our city’s centennial celebrations would be to take part in a Gold Train reenactment during Iditarod Race and Fur Rondy festivities. The performance, complete with period costuming and historically-accurate freight sled, would be of Bob Griffis driving the Wells Fargo gold shipment, leading the Ceremonial Start of the Iditarod out of downtown Anchorage and before the Running of the Reindeer held during Fur Rondy. The great 16-foot-long sled could be loaded with old-fashioned-looking wooden shipping boxes with Miners and Merchants Bank of Iditarod and Wells Fargo prominently stenciled on the sides.

This reenactment could not only be run during the two years of the centennial, but each year after that as part of a planned “Show Before the Show,” where a grand reenactment featuring a half dozen or so historic trail users—a trapper, a freighter, a mail driver, Bob Griffis’ Wells Fargo Gold Train, an Athabascan family on its way to a potlatch, and the inimitable Eskimo, “Split-the-Wind” all take to the trail in the hour preceding the Ceremonial Start with authentically replicated costumes, sleds, and gear.

During the two centennial summers I could display the laden sled at my 4th Avenue and E Street kiosk where I annually put in over a thousand hours talking Iditarod to thousands of Alaska’s visitors.

Replications of two of the giant oaken sleds of yesteryear are desired—one to be finished in time for this year’s Ceremonial Start and the other to be purposely left a somewhat-finished work in progress on its building form to provide a dynamic conversation piece display of a dying art being practiced.

Were Wells Fargo to provide the financial wherewithal to help in the building of these sleds, I could make them available—along with my commentary—during the centennial years for local corporate functions, publicity, and other furthering of Wells Fargo purposes.

Lastly (at the risk of overloading you with creative ideas) here’s a grand aside: Long before possible participation in Anchorage’s centennial came to my attention, I had come to me a wonderful idea for a major, History Channel-quality documentary featuring Wells Fargo and two prominent Alaska gold and banking families. Please see the accompanying, Historic Connections. The gold-rush-era sleds I propose to build would provide necessary props for such filming.

As can be seen, the sleds would see a lot of display and other use over the years as I employ them in other projects showcasing and benefitting the Iditarod Trail and Race. But it all hinges on being able to construct the sleds, which take expensive materials and some five hundred man-hours to complete.

Wells Fargo help would be a great enabler and provide not only Iditarod fans, Alaskans in general, and summer visitors with educational and entertaining displays, but could provide Wells Fargo interesting and rewarding public relations/publicity dividends.


Interested in more about building of this historic sled, the legendary Wells Fargo Gold Train of the Iditarod gold rush, and Rod’s Reenactment of those famous Gold Train passages over the Iditarod Trail and through early-day Anchorage? During the Iditarod Race we will be putting up a number of posts, so keep revisiting Rod’s Blog.

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