Alaska's Winter Mails

Alaska Territory, 1912-1937

Scott US 2100
Alaskan Malamute
issued 1984.
One of a block of 4 se-tenant designs honoring American dog breeds, this stamp includes the Alaskan Malamute (left) along with a rough collie. Malamutes, weighing 80-100 pounds each, were a mainstay in the later years of the Alaskan dog sled mail routes.

Scott US 2223
Polar Explorers
issued 1986.
One of four se-tenant designs, this stamp shows explorers Peary and Henson, who reached the pole in 1909, with a dog sled and team in the right hand portion.

Alaska was organized under a territorial government in 1912. By this time, the roller coaster ride of the gold rushes had subsided, leaving permanent populations in some towns (Nome, Fairbanks) while others would eventually become ghost towns (Dyea, Iditarod.) During this period, scientific and military interest in the areas north of the arctic circle resulted in the establishment of permanent settlements and post offices at sites like Barrow, Wainwright, and Point Hope.

First day cover, November 12, 1937 at Juneau, celebrates the 25th anniversary of Alaska's territorial government. This one carried promotional material from a pharmaceutical manufacturer.

It was during this territorial period that Alaska's most famous freight delivery took place via dogsled. In January of 1925, a diphtheria epidemic threatened the children and native Americans of Nome. Isolated by ice pack and snow, with no roads to the outside even today, Nome could have been decimated or worse. The local health service physician ran out of antitoxin, but was able to telegraph to Anchorage for help. Serum was located there, but the only transport available in the winter months was by dogsled. The precious cargo was sent from Anchorage to Nenana by rail. Alaska's best mushers, many of them contractors for the U.S. Post Office Department, relayed the parcel from Nenana to Nome. They covered a distance of more than 670 miles in under 6 days, saving the children there and earning medals from the pharmaceutical maker.

Picture postcard with caption "Leonard Seppala and Team", date of photo is not known. Indication in the print that it has passed a censor suggests the actual printing is of World War II vintage, but the photo itself may be older.

The driver who covered the largest distance in the relay was Leonhard Seppala, whether you count only the distance he traveled carrying the serum (91 miles) or the total distance he covered in order to get into position for his portion (260 miles.) The driver who covered the last segment and actually delivered the serum to Nome was Gunnar Kaasen. In a controversy that lasted decades, Seppala sought to have his own lead dog Togo honored for their part in the delivery. However, it was Kaasen's lead dog Balto whose statue was erected in New York City and who was honored by a children's feature film released in 1995.

The Nome Kennel Club and the Iditarod Race Committee chose to honor Seppala's Togo with this cachet carried in the 17th running of the Iditarod, 1989. This example was carried by Joe Redington, Sr., one of the original founders of the race.

By the late 1930s, the end was in sight for the dog team mails, even though it would be two more decades before they were totally eliminated. The airplane had proven practical, and small planes began to criss-cross the Alaskan mountains and tundra carrying mail.

First flight cover, Juneau to Fairbanks, May 3, 1938. Note the time of the backstamp: seven hours for a trip that would have required at least two days by ship to Anchorage and another day by rail to reach Fairbanks.

The larger communities were the first to acquire airfields and regular air service. Even after air travel became reliable in the winter months, dog teams continued to serve as "feeder" services. During the frozen months (more than half the year in northern areas) they moved mail between the airfields and small remote settlements and villages.

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Created by Gary Lee Phillips, mail to

1998 Gary Lee Phillips.