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.
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.