Journey into Alaska’s Past with BLM-Alaska Archaeologist Robert King

Centennial Milestones

Postcard showing four dog sled teams or “gold trains” bringing $500,000 worth of gold to Seward from Iditarod gold fields. Courtesy of Robert KingWhile most 100th anniversary commemorations focus only on a single date, the Iditarod National Historic Trail Centennial Celebration takes place over five years, 2008-2012. This celebration recognizes a series of 100th anniversaries associated with today’s Iditarod Trail system and its fabulous history. This year, 2010, is the midway year during the commemoration. It is especially significant for the Trail itself. One hundred years ago, the Alaska Road Commission began initial work on building and marking the Trail, with more work continuing into 2011.

The year 2008 marked 100 years since the beginning of an overland route from Seward to Nome. In 1908, the first government reconnaissance and survey work began for the Trail. Late 1908 also saw the initial gold discovery in the region that set off the rush of an estimated 10,000 gold-seekers.

In 2009, the Iditarod Centennial continued with the 100th anniversary of the great stampede of
thousands of miners and others to the Iditarod gold fields causing “America’s Last Great Gold Rush.” 

In 2012, when the Iditarod Centennial ends, that will be a 100 years since the creation of Alaska Territory. The Iditarod Gold Rush and all the people it brought to Alaska helped justify Alaska becoming a Territory on Aug. 24, 1912 (prior to that it was the District of Alaska).

Hidden among the important milestones in the history of the Iditarod Trail and the great gold discoveries of the Iditarod Mining District are other, smaller but intriguing, 100th anniversaries. Some of my favorites are the 100th anniversaries of the first electric light system and phone system in Alaska’s Inland Empire, established at Iditarod. These basic features of modern society arrived with great effort to this remote region of Alaska—all because of the lure of gold and getting rich!

My favorite 100th anniversary event to affect the Iditarod region took place nearby and is even lesser known. In April of 1910, an Alaskan newspaper carried what was probably the first story of an Alaskan trying to build an airplane. While the first demonstration of air flight would not happen in Alaska until 1913, with no significant use of airplanes until the 1920s, this 1910 report no doubt reached the town of Iditarod. While viewed as mostly a novelty, few people at the time would have guessed that “flying machines” would become one of the main reasons why use of the Iditarod Trail system would quickly decline. Starting in the 1920s, flying became a better and faster way of travel in many parts of Alaska. Thus, the Iditarod Trail system was no longer required for winter travel between Seward and Nome and points in between.

After much of the easier-to-mine gold played out in the Iditarod region in the later 1910s and 1920s, the Iditarod Trail system’s use declined further due to the lack of miners coming to the region. Between the end of easy gold and the coming of airplanes, widespread use of the Iditarod Trail ended.

As a consequence, lights were turned off in the once-famous town of Iditarod, the phones stopped ringing, and eventually all that was left of the town slowly returned to Mother Nature’s care. Today, Iditarod’s once bustling streets are silent and its bears are disturbed only by the airplanes that fly overhead.

—Robert King
Robert_King@blm.gov