AK: Historic Iditarod, an Alaska ghost town

The austere iditarod checkpoint, with just two major shelter structures, and tents or converted out buildings set up for Iditarod. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/ Alaska Public Media)

For 46 years, the Iditarod Sled Dog Race has traced a thousand-mile path from Anchorage or Willow up to Nome. But the original route actually started in Seward, and only existed for a few year’s time — the product of gold rushes, boom towns and a creeping interest by the federal government.

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This year, along the southern route, the race passed through its namesake: the ghost town of Iditarod, which sits on the shores of the Iditarod River. The word itself is an adaptation of the Deg Hit’an name Haiditirod or Haidilatna, which mean the ‘distant place.’ The checkpoint is the remnant of a large town that was once here, straddling the river.

“It was a major commercial operation with a bank, with their own electric system, with a couple of hotels, the typical brothel and shoes stores,” said Jim Paulus, a race judge at the checkpoint. “It served a lot of people.”

Bank vault door at Iditarod (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/ Alaska Public Media)

The checkpoint is run out of a restored cabin, and is surrounded by a few tiny out-buildings and temporary pop-up tents. A newer shelter cabin serves as a place for mushers to sleep during the race.

Paulus said that this side of the river was once filled with homes, a blacksmith shop and more. But it’s a shadow of its former self.

In 1908, gold was discovered within what became known as the Iditarod Mining District, a vast area from Ruby on the Yukon River down all the way to the drainages of the upper Kuskokwim. It was an un-exploited terrain within the state that prospectors referred to as the Inland Empire. A gold rush kicked off by 1910, and the town Iditarod became a hub of around 3,000 residents serving a greater population of 10,000.

“You had boatloads of people coming and going, miners coming in, leaving, coming back in and out, a very fluid community,” Paulus said.

Today, on the other side of the river are the skeletal wooden husks of old buildings that haven’t totally yet collapsed. Iditarod was one of Alaska’s last big gold stampedes. A decade prior, the boom in Nome brought 20,000-30,000 people to the Seward Peninsula. Locked in by sea ice for much of the year, during the long winters there was virtually no way for people to get out, or to bring much in.

Many of Alaska’s gold-rush newcomers were from the United States, and the federal government had an interest in connecting them with some semblance of services. In 1908, the Alaska Road Commission began scouting a unified trail that could connect Nome with the ice-free harbor in Seward to facilitate travel and freighting mail. After the rush in Iditarod brought traffic and commerce to the sparsely populated Inland Empire, a viable route was forged through the boom town, connecting the Bering Sea coast, Yukon River, Turnagain Arm, and Gulf of Alaska.

Woodsen and Danica Saunders and their not-quite-two-year old daughter Atlee. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/Alaska Public Media)

Hundreds of miles from the road system, Iditarod doesn’t get many tourists. But today there are three: Danica and Woodsen Saunders, who tote their not-quite-two-year-old daughter Atlee around in a small blue plastic sled.

The Saunders fly along the trail in a small Super Cub, and for the third year have turned the sled dog race into a kind of hearty family spring break for themselves, stopping along the trail to explore.

At this particular moment, we’ve all crawled through a warped  window into a long two-story structure that is folding in on itself on one side like a devastated ginger-bread house.

“Collapsing, collapsed, deteriorating old building,” Woodsen Saunders sums up, probing the debris strewn floor for hinges, screws, and the occasional pump valve.

The town of Iditarod didn’t last long. It surged after 1910. By 1920, much of the gold had been scratched out of the land, and the census noted just 50 year-round residents. By the 1940 census, the number was one. The departures were so quick there are remnants of everyday life still scattered on the floor and taped to the walls.

“Dawson, Fairbanks, Tanana, Bettles, Nulato,” Danica Saunders read off a faint piece of paper on a beam. “It is a barge schedule.”

What we call the Iditarod Trail today was a tapestry of parochial routes linked together for a few years by commerce. There were traditional indigenous routes like the portage trail between Unalakleet and Kaltag. And there were newer pathways blazed by fortune-seeking newcomers. Much of what made the full Seward-to-Nome route possible was the presence of roadhouses scattered amply along the way to offer shelter and a hot meal to travelers.

Woodsen Saunders explores a collapsed building at the Iditarod checkpoint from the historic site. (Photo by Zachariah Hughes/ Alaska Public Media)

But the trail depended on traffic, and as the Iditarod boom waned that became a problem. Most travelers used just a portion of the thousand-mile trail; few made the full journey from Nome to Seward or vice-versa. The federal mail contract that paid for sled-dog drivers to haul freight the full length of the trail was only in effect for a few years in the 1910s. After 1918, mail runs were routed through Fairbanks.

Not far from the two-story building is a concrete bank vault left standing, its floor littered with old paper notes nibbled down by time and nesting mice. We peak into another crumpled one-story structure that looks like it must have been a home.

“Abandoned ghost town building,” Woodsen Saunders says, looking past the old tile flooring.

There’s a an irony to the Iditarod Sled Dog Race now being in its 46th year, having survived longer than both the historic trail and the the town itself did.