Saturday, February 25, 2012

Leonhard Seppala's Chatanika cabin--a link to one of dog mushing's greats

Leonhard Seppala's cabin as it looked in the 1990s

Most people probably aren’t aware that Leonhard (Sepp) Seppala, who achieved fame during the 1925 diphtheria serum run to Nome and popularized the use of Siberian huskies in sled dog racing, lived at Chatanika, Alaska for almost 20 years. (His cabin is shown in the drawing.)

Sepp emigrated from Norway to Alaska in 1900 and began working for the Pioneer Mining Company (PMC) at Nome. It was at a PMC mess hall that Sepp met his future wife, Constance. (She was a waitress there and he was the camp’s mining foreman.) Eventually, Sepp become superintendent of the ditches vital for bringing water to the diggings.

Sepp was introduced to dog mushing when his employer grubstaked three other men and him to a winter prospecting trip in the Kougarok area north of Nome. They traveled by dogsled, and although the prospecting trip came to naught, Sepp fell in love with mushing.

It was probably inevitable that men began racing their sled dogs (especially when they could bet on the outcome), and one of the first recorded long-distance races started in Nome. The All-Alaska Sweepstakes was a 408-mile race from Nome (on the south side of the Seward Peninsula) to Candle (on the north side) and back.

It was held annually from 1908 until 1917, when World War I forced its demise. Sepp won the race three years straight — from 1915 to 1917. The first year he won, Constance was also crowned All-Alaska Sweepstakes queen.

PMC sold its operations to Hammon Consolidated Gold Fields Company in the 1920s, but Sepp continued working on the ditches. Hammon was eventually absorbed by U.S. Smelting, Mining and Refining Company (the parent company of Fairbanks Exploration Company). When the FE company began its Chatanika operations (about 30 road miles north of Fairbanks), Sepp transferred. He became superintendent of the Davidson Ditch in 1929.

For the first few years at Chatanika, Sepp worked on the Davidson Ditch in the summer and raced his Siberian huskies in the Eastern U.S. and Canada during the winter. About 1930 he quit racing in the Lower 48 and returned to Alaska as a year-round resident. One of his few forays into racing after that appears to have been the 1932 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in New York. Sled dog racing was a demonstration event that year and Sepp took a silver medal.

He also stayed active mushing in the Fairbanks area, participating in local races and winter festivals. The Seppalas’ daughter, Sigrid, was crowned Miss Fairbanks during the 1937 winter festival.

According to “Historic Resources in the Fairbanks North Star Borough,” the Seppalas built a small 16-by-16-foot log cabin in the early 1930s just east of the newly established FE Company camp at Chatanika. They expanded the cabin over time. Photos from the 1940s show the cabin with a shed addition to the rear, along with a white picket fence and a huge flower garden. Later another small cabin was tacked onto the addition’s east end.

The Steese Highway used to run right by the Seppalas’ cabin, but was relocated to the base of the hill in later years. The road that runs in front of the cabin is now called Old Chatanika Road.

Sepp retired from the FE Company in 1946 and moved to Seattle, where he died in 1967. The book, “Seppala’s Saga of the Sled Dog,” says Sepp once estimated that he had driven with his sled dogs more than a quarter of a million miles.

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