Tom Bennett is our Curator at the Alaska Heritage Museum at Wells Fargo, in Anchorage. He has been involved with museums for 29 years as a Museum Attendant to Director. Tom is involved with the Alaska Zoo and is currently a Board Member with the Alaska Museum of Natural History. (CR)
Wells Fargo and Alaska are entwined through history—like lashings on kayaks and gold sleds. After the purchase of Alaska from Russia in March 1867, for a mere 7.2 million dollars, Alaska was known as “Seward’s Folly” because the territory was seen as a vast and empty, much too far away to be much good for anything. History, though, tells us it was more fortune than folly.
Gold was discovered near Wrangell in 1861, creating 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 and cash in. Rich gold deposits extended a thousand miles of discovery after discovery. The throngs of prospectors needed financial services, as well as mail, news, goods in and tons of gold out.
Wells Fargo’s presence in Alaska goes back to 1883, when seasonal express offices were established in Wrangell, Sitka and Juneau. Offices served fish canneries and gold camps. In 1911, Wells Fargo opened offices in 32 Alaska communities from Wrangell to Nome, bringing secure, reliable transport of mail and commodities as well as basic financial services.
The first winter gold shipment by dog sled from the mining town of Iditarod in interior Alaska ran on December 14, 1911 . With two veteran dog mushers, Wells Fargo expressmen Bob Griffith and and U.G. Norman guided teams for 55 days, (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; a route that came to be known as the Seward to Nome Mail Trail.
In just a few years, such long distance runs were replaced by airplanes. 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 an urgent 1925 run for medicine to Nome. In the modern race, mushers consider Iditarod a halfway point en route to the finish at Nome. (In odd years, that is. In even years, the race bypasses Iditarod altogether.)
While mushers today travel the Iditarod trail in light-weight sleds, old time “freighters” were made of hardwoods and weighed over 200 lbs. before loading. Freight mushers also employed an invention called a “ouija board,” used to help pivot and steer the heavy sled through tight turns along the trail. Of particular interest to us in the Alaska Heritage Museum is the similarity of the ouija boards to traditional Native kayaks, which lashed frame pieces together rather than using rigid connections. This method allowed both vehicles to flex and move with changes in terrain or waters. It’s another ingenuity connection between past and present.
To commemorate Wells Fargo’s historical connections to Alaska, Iditarod historian Rod Perry, his brother Allan and their friend Cliff Sisson completed 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. While it didn’t carry a ton of gold, it did set out two Wells Fargo strong boxes. And as such, 130 years of Wells Fargo history in Alaska.