The 51st running of the Iditarod begins tomorrow. As I sat down to write about the Iditarod, it occurred to me that I did not know where the name for the world’s most famous dog-mushing race originated. Sure, I knew there was an Iditarod Trail and the history of the 1925 diphtheria serum run to Nome, but where does the name come from and why was there an Iditarod Trail in the first place? So I did a little digging and here’s what I found.
The promise of gold brought many outsiders to Alaska in the late 1800s. Many of those gold rush towns have survived the test of time. Fairbanks, Nome, and Skagway come to mind. Others did not fare as well. The town of Iditarod (Athabascan meaning “distant place”) was one of those boom and bust towns. When gold was discovered along a tributary of the Iditarod River in 1908, word spread and by 1910 the town of Iditarod swelled to a population of over 3,000 people. Even though the area was remote, even by today’s standards, there were hotels, a mercantile, a bank, and even three newspapers. By 1940, the gold was gone and so were the people. Today, Iditarod is a ghost town with nothing left except dilapidated buildings, but the namesake remains a checkpoint where mushers pass through on the Iditarod.
With the gold rush, came the reality of the harsh winters and the difficulty of transporting people and goods. In warmer months, rivers and boats were used to bring supplies but after freeze-up, those methods were no longer a viable option.
Dog mushing has been a way of travel for people in the arctic for thousands of years. Native Alaskans bred dogs for sledding to traverse the unforgiving frozen tundra. In the early 1900s, the Iditarod Trail was formed as a way to connect Seward to Nome and gold rush towns, such as Iditarod, Knik, and McGrath in between. Much of the trail followed routes used by Native Alaskans to connect their villages. The Iditarod Trail was used to move supplies in and gold out. It also served as a mail route.
With the invention and more common use of the airplane and later the snowmachine, dog sledding as a mode of transportation fell out of favor. The Iditarod Trail was no longer needed. However, in 1925 the trail was famously used as a mushing route to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome. The weather was too unfavorable to safely use airplanes so a relay of dog sled teams got the supplies there just in time to avoid a deadly outbreak.
Many people believe the Iditarod plays homage to the famous diphtheria serum delivery to Nome, but that is not the case.
In the 1960s, Dorothy Page was head of a committee tasked with preserving the history of Alaska. She had an idea to create a commemorative sled dog race using the Iditarod Trail. The race would celebrate the centennial anniversary of Alaska becoming a US Territory. Joe Redington Sr., now known as the father of the Iditarod, championed her idea. He saw the race as a way to resurrect the sport of dog sledding and to have the Iditarod Trail recognized as a National Historic Trail. He accomplished both. The first Iditarod race from Anchorage to Nome was completed in 1973 and in 1978, the Iditarod Trail officially became Alaska’s only National Historic Trail.
The ceremonial start of each year’s race begins in Anchorage. If you happen to be visiting during that time you can attend in person or fly to Nome to see the finish. Volunteerism is a huge part of what makes the Iditarod a success so you could also volunteer to work during the race.
Most people’s Alaska vacation doesn’t coincide with the running of the race, so the Iditarod Headquarters in Wasilla is well worth a visit. During the summer, there are dog mushing demonstrations, videos, and memorabilia. Of course, they also have a gift shop so you can bring home an Iditarod t-shirt and a coffee mug (I am speaking from personal experience).
The official Iditarod website is a great resource to follow along with the race, getting information on the mushers and their dog teams, and a way to feel a part of the race even from outside Alaska. The website is a wealth of information (my source for a lot of this post) if you’re interested in learning more about the race and its history.