Wells Fargo and Alaska are intertwined through history like lashings on dog sleds. Bought from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million, the Alaska territory was considered too vast, far away, and empty to be much good for anything. But history, including Wells Fargo’s own gold rush history in Alaska, proved the naysayers wrong.
In honor of that legacy and the centennial celebration of Anchorage, we sponsored the re-creation of a freight sled like those once used to haul gold.
Although Wells Fargo’s modern retail banking history in Alaska began in the 2000s, our presence in Alaska actually dates to 1883. That’s when its express business opened offices in Wrangell, Sitka, and Juneau to serve fish canneries and gold camps.
In 1911, Wells Fargo expanded by opening offices in 32 Alaska communities from Wrangell to Nome, bringing secure, reliable transport of mail and commodities as well as basic financial services.
The discovery of gold near Wrangell in 1861 created the first true Alaska gold rush. But it was the discovery of gold in Canada’s Klondike that brought tens of thousands of people north to try to cash in. Throngs of prospectors needed financial services, as well as mail, news, goods in and tons of gold out — and Wells Fargo was there.
Two veteran dog mushers, Wells Fargo expressmen Bob Griffith and U.G. Norton, guided sled dog teams for 55 days to take the first winter gold shipment from the mining town of Iditarod in interior Alaska on Dec. 14, 1911. (Mushers often used more than one sled to haul out the heavy loads of gold.)
Over frozen lakes, rivers, tundra, and two mountain ranges, south to Seward they traveled, over a route now known as the Iditarod Trail but also historically known as the Seward-to-Nome Mail Trail.
In just a few years, airplanes replaced such long-distance sled runs. Today, most know “Iditarod” as the last great sled race on earth. (The Athabaskan word means “Far Away Place” or “Clear Water.”) The Iditarod race commemorates a 1925 run by sled dogs to deliver vaccine to Nome during a diphtheria outbreak.
In the modern race, mushers consider Iditarod a halfway point en route to the finish at Nome in odd years; in even years, the race bypasses Iditarod altogether.
While today’s mushers travel the Iditarod trail in lightweight sleds, old-time “freighters” were made of hardwoods and weighed more than 200 pounds before loading.
As for the freight sled I mentioned earlier, Iditarod historian Rod Perry, his brother Allan, and their friend Cliff Sisson built an old-style freighter, one of the few produced in 70 years, just in time to lead the ceremonial start of the 2014 Iditarod race.
If you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and visit with us in Anchorage at the Alaska Heritage Museum and see the sled in person. Or check our museum website for photos.
While Rod’s sled didn’t carry a ton of gold, it did set out with two Wells Fargo strong boxes aboard and 130 years of Wells Fargo history in Alaska.
Bennett is museum manager for the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo in Anchorage, Alaska. He oversees the museum’s collection of 6,000 historical objects and works of art as well as its 2,800-volume library.