Early mail routes on the Last Frontier

Aunt Phil's Trunk

When Alaska was transferred from Russia rule to the United States, it was up to the Americans to establish a way to deliver mail across its new possession. The Russians had not used a postal system.

Communications between Russia and Russian America was handled by dispatch cases transported by Russian supply ships. Russian residents sent and received both business and personal mail through the Russian commanders in their communities.

Three months before Alaska was formally handed off to American rule, the first post office in the northern territory was established in Sitka on July 23, 1867. John H. Kincaid, who later became an Alaska governor, was named as the first postmaster.

With the gold rushes came the first attempts to introduce horses to set up postal routes across the new land. But deep snow proved too much of a handicap for these beasts of burden. The newcomers next tried reindeer, but these animals proved stubborn and nearly impossible to harness break. Dog teams, however, proved successful for blazing trails. So it was up to the dogs and a special breed of men to tame the wilderness and carry mail to settlements that seemed to spring up overnight.

One of the best postmen in the country was Ben F. Downing. The tall, sinewy mail carrier from Maine heard about the Klondike strike while working for a wagon train on the cattle ranges of Texas. He decided to check out the new diggings in 1897.

Downing found a claim that had few takers: to start mail service from Dawson to the new gold metropolis of Nome.

The post office issued bids for the mail route to Nome, and when P.C. Richardson – the first to get the contract – found the task too difficult, Downing took over.

The mail trail wound from Dawson, via Eagle, Circle, Fort Yukon to Fort Gibbon at the mouth of the Tanana, and then to Nome. The 1,600-mile route was largely unexplored, so Downing surveyed for cut-offs to reduce distance and danger and marked the trail with stakes or branches.

He put shelter cabins about 25 miles apart along the river. Sometimes he used woodcutters’ cabins he found near the riverbanks. He supplied them with provisions, stoves and shelters for the dogs.

From Dawson to Eagle, he ran a four-horse bobsled stage, which carried passengers and mail. Below Eagle, he switched to dogs. The eight- to 10-dog mail teams were hitched tandem to sleds specially made to carry the mail. Loads averaged about 100 pounds to a dog.

Downing carried the mail for four years on the Dawson-to-Nome run. Then Northern Commercial Co. outbid him for the contract and took over his teams and shelter cabins.

C.L. Andrews, Alaskan historian and author of Story of Alaska, said the last time he saw his old friend, Downing was standing on the bank of the Yukon River with a monster of a husky, forepaws on his shoulders, trying to lick his face.

Between dodges to miss the dog’s tongue, Downing managed to gasp, “I alluz did love my dogs.”

Downing died in January 1906 while undergoing surgery in a San Francisco hospital to remove an Indian rifle ball, a souvenir from his days in Texas.

This column features tidbits found among the writings of the late Alaska historian, Phyllis Downing Carlson. Her niece, Laurel Downing Bill, is turning many of Carlson’s stories into a series of books titled “Aunt Phil’s Trunk.” Volumes 1-4 are available at bookstores and gift shops throughout Alaska, as well as online at http://www.auntphilstrunk.com.