Iditarod history

Iditarod celebrates a musher’s memory not the serum run

The Iditarod Trail Committee promotes the Iditarod as a commemoration of the 1925 Anchorage to Nome diphtheria serum run. However, the race actually celebrates the memory of musher Leonhard Seppala. The Iditarod was patterned after the All-Alaskan Sweepstakes which were races held in the early 1900s. The Iditarod was not patterned after the serum run.

The idea for the Iditarod started with Dorothy Page.

“(In 1967) run in two heats over a 25-mile course, the race was officially named the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race, in honor of mushing legend Leonhard Seppala.”

“Over the years, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s origins have been closely linked with the ‘great mercy race’ to Nome. Most people believe the Iditarod was established to honor drivers and dogs who carried the diphtheria serum, a notion the media have perpetuated. In reality, ‘Seppala was picked to represent all the mushers,’ Page stressed. ‘He died in 1967 and we thought it was appropriate to name the race in his honor. But it could just as easily have been named after Scotty Allan. The race was patterned after the Sweepstakes races, not the serum run.’”

- Dorothy Page, co-founder of the Iditarod, discussing the origins of the race
- Sherwonit, Bill. Iditarod, Seattle: Alaska Northwest Books, 1991

(Bill Sherwonit reported on sled dog racing for over ten years for the Anchorage Times. He wrote articles for numerous publications including National Wildlife magazine and the Anchorage Daily News.)

Joe Redington, Sr. later expanded the original 1967 event making it longer and more lucrative.

Half of the 1925 serum run was done by train. Dogs ran in relays for the remaining 674 miles, with no dog running more than 100 miles. In the Iditarod, dogs run 1,150 miles over terrain far more grueling than the terrain found on the serum run route.

Iditarod dog in dog truck before start of race. Photo attributed to Travis S on flickr, March 7, 2009

Iditarod dog in dog truck before start of race.
Photo attributed to Travis S on flickr, March 7, 2009

Iditarod does not honor history

“With reference to Thomas Thuneman’s letter, it needs to be said that the Iditarod Race does not honor history (“Iditarod dogs love running, and race reminds us of history,” May 14). The serum run was done in relays and not a grueling, money-oriented 1,100-mile race. Change the direction of the Iditarod race to honor “true history” and there will be more support and far less criticism.”

—- Ethel D. Christensen, Director Alaska SPCA, letter to the editor, Anchorage Daily News, May 22, 2005

Rob Moore: “Ethel, the Iditarod is painted as this awesome adventure of man and animal against nature. And the Iditarod website states, ‘As each mile is covered a tribute to Alaska’s past is issued.’ Is this race a tribute to Alaska’s past?”

Ethel Christensen: “Absolutely not. They try to say they’re commemorating the serum run. The serum run was 674 miles from Nenana to Nome and it was done in relays by 20 different men and the longest haul of the serum was 91 or 92 miles and that was Leonhard Seppala. Now he did not deliver it to Nome. He went, I think, to Shatoolik to Golovin, which was probably the worst part of the trail. But it arrived in Anchorage by boat and to Seward and then fortunately the railroad had been built in 1917 to Nenana. And It went by railroad to Nenana. So, it does definitely, definitely not commemorate history.”

- Ethel Christensen is the founder and former director of the Alaska SPCA.
- Rob Moore hosts Animal Voices, a radio show in Toronto, Canada.
- This interview was done on February 28, 2006

Krabloonik dog with open sores on his snout. Krabloonik is owned by Iditarod musher Dan MacEachen. Photo attributed to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.

Krabloonik dog with open sores on his snout. Krabloonik is owned by Iditarod musher Dan MacEachen. Photo attributed to the Colorado Department of Agriculture.