Saving Alaska


Legendary Alaska musher Leonhard Seppala, right, and family outside their Nome home with a guest in the early 1900s/Photo courtesy Seppala Family Collection

As the 49th state speeds into its short summer on the quick trip to the longer winter, there are growing concerns that history is about to be lost at both ends of the iconic Iditarod Trail.

In Nome, volunteers are struggling to meet a July 1 deadline to save the Leonhard Seppala house once home to the legendary dog driver of the early Twentieth Century. And in Seward – at the sometimes overlooked, tidewater-terminus of the first major travel route to slice north through the territory – the Friends of the Jesse Lee Home are still battling to head off demolition of the 1920s-era orphanage where lived Benny Benson, the 13-year-old Alaska Native who in 1927 designed what was to become the state flag.

City fathers in both communities have pledged their support for rescue and restoration efforts, but the leaders of rehabilitation organizations question the commitments. The Seppala house is in immediate danger, said Urtha Lenharr, the man organizing the Seppala House Project to save it. 

Everyone in Nome city government from the mayor on down has said they want to preserve the house, he said. The Nome City Council on June 6 approved a proclamation declaring its support, but added that it “does not have funding to assist with the project.”

The Nome Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution in support of the effort the same day. But it also didn’t offer what is most needed for any restoration project: money.

“The city still says (the house) needs to be moved by July 1,” Lenharr said. “It is set to be destroyed July 1 unless we get it moved outside city limits till it is restored and then it can be returned to the city as a shining star to help promote tourism as a museum in honor of Seppala.”

Nome did give the preservation group a $3,000 grant to help with moving costs, but the organization is still trying to find a property outside of the city on which to place the decaying structure. Lenharr has had offers of empty land, but none of it has a road necessary to facilitate moving a house.

He added that when he asked for an extension of the July 1 deadline because of the relocation struggle, he was told that “if we do it for one house, we’ll have to do it for all of them.”

The Seppala house is one of five structures left from a list of 50 Nome decided it wanted torn down almost a year ago.

“Owners of those five structures would be given official notice for a hearing before the Council to correct fire or health hazards, or to retrieve the structure from the status of public nuisances with cleanup and fix up. Ten of the buildings on the list were laggers from a 2013 list,” the Nome Nugget reported in August 2017.

Nome is one of Alaska’s oldest cities. Its history dates back to the 1898 discovery of gold along the Bering Sea coast. The gold started a mini-stampede north. Within a year, 10,000 people had arrived in Nome to make it the largest city in Alaska, ahead of Juneau and Skagway in the Panhandle.

Anchorage, now the state’s largest city, did not exist at the time and wouldn’t get its start until construction of the Alaska Railroad in 1914. By then the Bering Sea gold rush had peaked and Nome was fast fading.

The city, however, hung on as did a few of its old buildings, the notable among them being Old St. Joseph’s Catholic Church and the Discovery Saloon. Both of those structures made it onto the National Register of Historic Places and were preserved.

Other buildings were torn down or deteriorated into shacks where local drunks sometimes hangout. Newer structures built before World War II have now joined even older buildings in the badly deteriorated category.

The home of Seppala, who has surpassed short-time resident Wyatt Earp as the city’s most famous resident, was somehow overlooked as a historic touchstone and joined the list of the weathered and beaten.

Abandoned history

Whether there is the will now to save and restore it remains to be seen. The anthropologist Howard L. Smith once described historic preservation in Alaska as following “a general trend from outright hostility to benign neglect.”

The National Park Service has in recent years led large efforts to save such things as the Kennecott Copper Mines in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, plus goodly parts of Skagway in Gold Rush National Historic Park and other smaller buildings in national parks across the state.

But at the local level, preservation efforts have often fallen to volunteers. They are now organizing in Fairbanks to try to save the SS Nenana, a once-restored sternwheeler that the Fairbanks North Star Borough has allowed to decay. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports it is now facing a  $267 million maintenance backlog.

Meanwhile, the Jesse Lee preservation effort is a tangled, decade-long story of millions of dollars spent on half-made repairs, plans instead of action, and paperwork problems, much of which Dorene Lorenz, chair of Friends of the Jesse Lee Home, attributes to a collective lack of socio-political will to really save the structure.

She’s convinced the City of Seward just wants to tear the building down and be done with it. The Alaska Legislature this year gave the city $1.26 million for demolition, but the Friends group has until next year to try to save the place.

It needs to raise approximately $300,000 to cover the cost of cleaning up asbestos and lead paint, and fixing water, waste-water, fire hydrants piping by August of next year to prevent the building from reverting back to city officials who want to tear it down,  Lorenz messaged Monday.

The group remains in full fund-raising mode now joined by the Friends of the SS Nenana and the Seppalla House Project. Good projects all, they face an uphill task raising funds in a state with the nation’s  highest population turnover now mired in a recession.

Lenharr – a former longtime resident of Northwest Alaska now living in Pennsylvania – is hopeful he can rally national and international support to the Seppala cause given the Iditarod’s global reputation. The race has long pitched itself as something of a tribute to the 1925 run of life-saving diphtheria serum by a relay of dog teams from Nenana in Central Alaska to Nome on the Bering Sea coast.

The dogs of Seppala, a Siberian husky breeder, and the man himself played pivotal roles in The Serum Run.

As a student of Alaska history, Lenharr long ago asked about the Seppalla house, and “it was promised to me by Tony Krier,” an old time Nome resident. The house was still under the ownership of Krier Enterprises, a Krier family business, when the city decided the rundown structure had to go.

The family didn’t want to deal with renovation and planned to just flatten the old structure. Lenharr didn’t find out was going on until he arrived in Nome for the finish of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race this year. He immediately jumped in to try to save the house.

He now owns it. The Krier family was happy to gift it to him in the hopes of it becoming a future museum in the Seward Peninsula community. But putting the house under the control of someone who wants to save it instead of tear it down hasn’t solved all the problems.

There are still the issues of the move and the renovation and then another move.

Writer Rod Perry, a veteran of the first Iditarod and the author of “Trail Breakers: Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod,” expressed a bit of disbelief that Nome hasn’t rallied more to the cause of saving the house.

“What is Nome known for outside of Nome?” he asked. “I would venture that today, to the world, (it’s) 1.) finish of the (Iditarod) race; 2.) The Serum Run brought to world attention via Ian Woolridge’s London Daily Mail race coverage, then blown up and hyped from there with Woolridge’s history tangles and Balto hoopla now imbedded in concrete; and  3.) history and romance of the gold rush.

“In my humble opinion, it’s not known beyond the Seward Peninsula for one single thing else.”

Seppala never ran the Iditarod. He was long dead before the first race was run in 1973. But he was a three-time winner of the All Alaska Sweepstakes, the formative gold standard for long-distance sled dog races.

And his connections to the The Serum Run and the Gold Rush are well documented. The cruise ship line Hurtigruten calls Seppala “Alaska’s Norwegian hero” for his accomplishments in the territory.

A pioneer in far north tourism as Seppala was a pioneer in sled-dog racing, Hurtigruten has the ice-strengthened, hybrid cruise ship MS Roald Amundsen due to launch in October. The Amundsen is scheduled to cruise the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic to Nome late next summer where some passengers will disembark and others will board for a September cruise from Nome south into the inside waters of the Alaska Panhandle on the way to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

With luck, the former home of the Norwegian hero will still be standing when Hurtigruten’s pioneer adventure tourists show up in Seppala’s old stomping grounds.


Clarification: This story was revised on June 6 to remove the impression Nome had a significant number of structures surviving from the Gold Rush days.


















21 replies »

  1. Hey Craig thanks for watching out for all things Alaska ! It’s good to see you help protect our history! Nice to see— “you can keep your head when all about , are loosing theirs and blaming you . If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you ,yet make alowance for their doubting to” —- Tough journalist you are ! Yeah I snagged that . Survival food in this crazy era !

    • Ramey,
      Sure you are glad to see Craig “protects our history”…
      Which you mean White, European, Musher History.
      What about the other 20 mushers who participated in the Serum Run?
      Most of whom were Alaskan Natives.
      What about the 6,000 year old history of the Eskimos who inherited the land before “our” culture arrived?
      Some historians say as many as 80% of Aleuts died after Europeans brought “old world” diseases to Alaska.
      I think the money spent saving this old cabin could be better spent “tapping” the hot springs outside of Nome and getting the town some renewable energy.
      After all, if you really wish to “Save Alaska” and preserve white man’s culture up here in the last 200 years, you should look to save Orphanages, Brothels and Saloons since they affected the communities of western AK more than a few privileged European settlers have.

      • Ah Steve . Welcome back ! You bark up wrong tree ! I respect all of Alaskan history. White native and everything in between. Protecting and praising one part of history does not diminish another part automatically. That is a falicy in your thought of my statement. A little history for you! I was born in Tanana a native village my godparents were natives – Earhart s . One of my very best most loyal friend was native . He just died of cancer . One of my other best friends is loyd Charlie a native in Minto . Another is in Fort Yukon My dads best friend is Ken chase a native from anvik . I have been steeped in Alaska and native culture for a long time . Why would you twist things to try and assume I think one way ? Can’t be pleasant for you . Let’s talk about the hot springs out side nome . Have you done your research? Currently it is being considered for power development! I have a friend involved with the study . Secondly it has a long history itself good and bad , look it up . Natives have used it for eons it’s been an orphanage, part of a church and I think but am not sure but I think it’s in semi private hands . If you can call churches private ? I maybe owned by someone else by now . Just becouse you pay to preserve a part of history does not mean anyone would or could allocate those funds for power development. I love the idea though!! Have a great day Steve! Sorry the fishing sucks . Pretty frustrating!

      • Steve: i didn’t know American culture came in distinct colors anymore. the most influential American culture in a lot of rural Alaska for a while has been hiphop. some might call that black culture, but it’s mainstream enough now you’d really just have to call it American culture.
        as to protecting/preserving history, all you can really protect/preserve is structural artifacts. but they do tell use things about people. i wish someone had thought to preserve more of the old caribou fences in the Interior.

      • Let’s face it…there have been two distinctly different cultures at work in Alaska.
        One based on subsistence and migration, where the European culture (Started with Spanish and Russian explorers) was based on permanent settlements, monetary rewards and resource extraction.
        I find it interesting that when Alaska was “Russian America” that Gold was not even valuable to them….they allowed it to lay in place on the shores of Nome.
        The Russians were too busy killing everything that had fur on it’s back.

        My point in this discussion is that modern AK journalists choose to replay certain parts of recent Alaskan history over and over….like Seppala and Balto in Serum run.
        Can anyone tell us anything about the other 20 or so “dog drivers” involved in the run to Nome?
        Most were Alaskan Natives and from villages in the Interior along the route.
        Sure we can see the statue of Balto in NYC, but what about the other 150 dogs in the Serum run relay?
        The truth is the “Diphtheria Epidemic” was never really an epidemic….could have been, but only 5 children really died.
        Thousands of Alaskan Natives died on the Aleutian Islands after sick Russians spread “old world” diseases throughout Alaska, but this point is rarely brought up.
        At this point as many Native Villages struggle with “European Ways” that have been forced upon them with BIA schooling and Orphanages destroying native families and culture, we should examine the way that Eskimos and Natives lived on this land for thousands of years….without commercial mushing or the “Gold Standard” for banking.
        As resources like fresh Salmon dry up in S.C. Alaska, we on the “rail belt” can learn a lot from the forgotten ways of those who inherited the land before us….way before the Norwegian Mushers arrived!

      • Steve: all cultures migrated. the Athabascans from the north arrived in the Southwest to meat the Mexicans from the south just barely before the white folk from the east showed up. and all cultures about subsistence.
        most of those Europeans who moved across North America were subsistence farmers of some sort. it was a less transient life than the Plains Indians and probably a harder one.
        and in Alaska, do you you really think anyone would be better off living an 18th century lifestyle her today or that the pre-White contact years were all peace and harmony? people are people. they are by nature tribal and awfully damn uncooperative. some reading for you about how it really was:
        meanwhile, what would be really cool is to see some living Native culture preserved, like how to make a traditional dipnet. i’d love to go to the Kenai and catch fish with one.

      • Steve . Look up serum run Wikipedia. Any of the mushers can be looked up from there . Native and otherwise. Lots of info . University of Fairbanks did full biography on Edgar nolner . I only bring him up because he is famous for fathering a lot of kids . Multiple marriages. He stuck out . He lived to old age . Still danced at potlucks into his 80-s-90s . Lots of history on all the mushers. Seppala got famous at time because he was a heavily admired musher at time and had a famous lead dog plus he did the hardest stretch of trail . His helper who ran b string leader Balto became famous because he was a scammer and heavily promoted himself. A lot of the natives did not become famous partialy because it’s my understanding it’s in their culture to not praise themselves or elaborate on their accomplishments. This reduces their chance at becoming publicly acknowledged. No one ignores their history. I’ve read a fair amount about many of them . The trials they overcame . No sense in you trying to stir up divisive racial issues. Alaska doesn’t need it . Thankfully most of Alaskans have moved past that . I do admire that you want to abandon all technology and don spruce bark and moss eating bugs fish and roots to survive. Not everyone wants to though! Have a great day !

      • “A lot of the natives did not become famous partialy because it’s my understanding it’s in their culture to not praise themselves or elaborate on their accomplishments. This reduces their chance at becoming publicly acknowledged.”

        There is a lot to learn from your own words here Mr. Truth…
        Living among young ITC mushers with trust funds, Go Pro cameras and social media accounts, I can tell you our European Culture can learn a lot from the culture it stepped on in Alaska.
        I am not trying to stir up anything other than the Truth (you speak so highly of).

        Craig points out the wars at the mouth of the Yukon River with bow and arrows and I can only think it may have been the first “Fish War” in Alaska.
        As our natural salmon runs get depleted and the state fish ranching paradigm moves to a monoculture of pink hatchery fish to China, I can only look back in time to see what lies ahead.
        I am not interested in eating bugs, but I would like a balance of natural game and fish for my son and his future.

        Not to get off topic, but you said it yourself Ramey…Seppala is famous cause he “blew his own horn the loudest”.
        This Norwegian lifestyle still lives on today with our young ITC “Norwegian National” who continues in the Seppala spirit…while the natives in the villages continue with their own struggles, away from the limelight of Iditarod sponsors, media hype and prize money.

  2. Craig,
    Who are you saving Alaska from?
    Was life in Nome really that good back in da day?
    You start to sound like Trump….”Make Alaska Great Again”
    Well, it was never that “great” up in da North and the corporate bankers of today have the resources locked up real good…
    Cannot even snag a salmon if they were running up their natural creeks this summer.
    AK is a good place for a Redneck “Bubba” to earn a living at “Man Camp” nothing more these days.

  3. The Earth’s wobble changes on a regular basis. Thus creating changes in weather patterns leading to glaciations and warming periods.In fact, time itself changes as the Earths velocity slows down its course through space and time.

  4. Just another conundrum – there are 2 solutions – the capitalist vs. the socialist. Even under the socialist solution, income must be generated.

    • BTW I am running for Governor in 2022. Unless the people drag me kicking and screaming into the race this year. Looks like we all lose this year probably. We will rise from there.

    • According to the State OMB, we can deficit spend for several more years until the shxx hits the fan. Party On Bros!

    • Craig, instead of a “like” button you should have one that reads “inscrutable.”

  5. The photo was courtesy of the Seppala Family photo collection. I received the copy I forwarded to you from Jon Van Zyle.

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