Safe for now


Seppala House in Nome ready to move/Leo Boardway photo

The old home of legendary Alaska musher Leonhard Seppala of Nome is on the move.

Nome city fathers who’d once ordered the building bulldozed to keep it from being used by the homeless in the far north city are now onboard with the efforts to save it, according to Urtha Lenharr, president of a newly formed non-profit company called “The Leonhard Seppala House Project Inc.”

Lenharr, who spent a good part of his life in Northwest Alaska and there came to admire the accomplishments of Seppala, learned of the house’s impending demolition when he headed north from his new home in Pennsylvania to watch the end of the 2018 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.

He quickly and easily convinced the then-owners of the structure to gift it to him, but was facing difficulties in finding a site outside of Nome on which to relocate the building by a city-imposed deadline of July 1.

The city early on voiced support for his house-saving efforts, but said it couldn’t help. Public pressure applied by Alaska fans of mushing and the Iditarod appears to have shifted that view somewhat.

“This past week City Manager (Tom Moran) told the Seppala House Project that they could place the building out by the Doll House at the monofill site,” Lenharr messaged today. “This is so much closer than moving far, far away from town.  The city is behind the restoration project and has approved Community Share Funds which the group will use to pay to have the house moved.”

The monofil site on Center Creek Road is where Nome residents go to dispose of “inert waste including construction and demolition debris, scrap metal, tires, white goods, and vehicles,” according to the municipal website.

The house will be placed on blocks there until restoration work is finished, and it can be moved back into the city for use as a historic site for visitors. Lenharr was hopeful house mover Roger Thompson would have the transfer done by the end of the day.

“The floor was pretty rotten and had to be reinforced with steel,” Lenharr said, “but he’s doing an excellent job.”

Restoration does not look to be cheap or easy, but Lenharr and the other founders of the Seppala House non-profit are rallying to the cause. Well-known Alaska artist and Iditarod veteran Jon Van Zyle of Chugiak is the group’s vice-president.

The diverse group of Alaskans joining him on the non-profit’s board include his wife, Jona; Martha Ethridge, the Anchorage-based special projects coordinator for the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium; Nona Safra, the owner of the Moose Creek Farm on the Kenai PeninsulaPhillip Dunn, the founder of the old Bering Straits newspaper, later a teach in Northwest Alaska, and now a writer and amateur historian in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley; and Theresa Daily of Chugiak, a graphic artist and sometimes spokeswoman for four-time Iditarod champ Lance Mackey.

All are fans of the man who was the most famous face in Alaska long before late Gov. Wally Hickel burst onto the national scene as Secretary of the Interior and former Gov. Sarah Palin later set American politics aflame as the Republican candidate for vice-president.

Long before the internet instantaneously sped Palin news around the globe, Seppala became world-famous for his role in the Nome Serum Run of 1925, a dogsled relay to deliver diphtheria serum to Nome because of bad weather that prevented planes from flying and kept the horses used often for transportation in those days in their barns.

Fifty-degree-below-zero weather can easily prove deadly to working horses, which sweat through the skin when exercising as do people. Dogs sweat only through their mouths and their feet, which prevents their furry coats from becoming wet and useless as insulation against the cold.

After the Serum Run, Seppala took his beloved lead dog Togo and about 40 other dogs on a nationwide tour that ended in New York City where Roald Amundsen, the famed polar explorer and Norwegian like Seppala, presented Togo with a gold medal for his role in the Serum Run.

As sled dogs slid out of the public eye, Seppala’s national fame slowly died, but he remained famous in the north until his death and remains to this day one of the best-known mushers ever to travel the trails of Alaska.




4 replies »

  1. Not connected: Iditarod and delivery of serum to Nome in 1925
    “Vi Redington: ‘Originally, we most certainly did not think of our race of the race trail in any connection whatsoever with the famous Nanana-to Nome Serum Run. We had no intention to connect the two.’”

    – Vi Redington was the wife of Joe Redington, Sr. Some people say Joe was “The Father of the Iditarod.
    – Perry, Rod. TrailBreakers – Pioneering Alaska’s Iditarod Vo. II. Chugiak: Rod Perry, 2010.

    Iditarod celebrates a musher’s memory not delivery of serum in Nome:

    The Iditarod Trail Committee promotes the Iditarod as a commemoration of the 1925 Anchorage to Nome diphtheria serum delivery. However, the race actually celebrates the memory of musher Leonhard Seppala. The Iditarod was patterned after the All-Alaskan Sweepstakes which were races held in the early 1900s. The Iditarod was not patterned after the serum delivery.

    The idea for the Iditarod started with Dorothy Page.

    “(In 1967) run in two heats over a 25-mile course, the race was officially named the Iditarod Trail Seppala Memorial Race, in honor of mushing legend Leonhard Seppala.” “Over the years, the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race’s origins have been closely linked with the ‘great mercy race’ to Nome. Most people believe the Iditarod was established to honor drivers and dogs who carried the diphtheria serum, a notion the media have perpetuated. In reality, ‘Seppala was picked to represent all the mushers,’ Page stressed. ‘He died in 1967 and we thought it was appropriate to name the race in his honor. But it could just as easily have been named after Scotty Allan. The race was patterned after the Sweepstakes races, not the serum run.’”

    – Dorothy Page, co-founder of the Iditarod, discussing the origins of the race
    – Sherwonit, Bill. Iditarod, Seattle: Alaska Northwest Books, 1991

    (Bill Sherwonit reported on sled dog racing for over ten years for the Anchorage Times. He wrote articles for numerous publications including National Wildlife magazine and the Anchorage Daily News.)

    Joe Redington, Sr. later expanded the original 1967 event making it longer and more lucrative. There are few similarities between the route of the serum delivery and the present-day Iditarod dog sled race routes. In the serum delivery, a train carried the medication from Anchorage to Nenana. From there the dogs ran the remaining 674 miles in relays to Norton Sound and up the Bering Sea Coast to Nome. There were 20 serum mushers with dog teams and no dog ran over 92 miles.

    The Iditarod race follows a northern route in even-numbered years and a southern route in odd numbered years. The northern route goes from Anchorage to Ophir and then north to Ruby. The southern route goes from Anchorage to McGrath and then on to Unalakleet. Only the trails from Ruby to Nome and Unalakleet to Nome have similarities to the serum delivery route.

    Alaskans say Iditarod is not Alaska’s cultural heritage:

    “The Iditarod, the thousand-mile-plus sled dog race underway in Alaska, is partly portrayed by promoters as a link to Alaska’s cultural heritage, to pre-snowmobile times, when Alaskans used dogs for winter transportation.

    However, not all Alaskans buy that interpretation. Fact is, many of them believe pioneering Alaskans would be appalled to see the punishment endured by the dogs during the Anchorage-to-Nome race.”

    Earl Gustkey, Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1992

    Alaskans of pre-snowmobile years would never run dogs a thousand miles:

    “Sportswriter Fattig of the Anchorage Times interviewed a couple of Alaskans from McGrath, one of the race’s checkpoints, and found them outspokenly opposed to the length of the race. They pointed out that Alaskans of pre-snowmobile years would never run a dog team a thousand miles.

    ‘We knew Leonard Seppala (one of the mushers in the 1925 diphtheria run to Nome) and that little guy would turn over in his grave if he knew what was happening,’ Margaret Mespelt, 76, an Alaskan since 1929, told Fattig.”

    – Earl Gustkey, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1986

    Iditarod mushers allowed to use GPS position indicators:

    “Largely unnoticed, the Iditarod Trail Committee has slipped what could be a significant game-changer into the rules for the running of The Last Great Race.

    Mushers headed from Willow to Nome will, for the first time, this year be allowed to use GPS position indicators to keep track of where they are along the 900-mile trail, race spokesman Chas St. George said Thursday. While the Iditarod uses GPS to track teams along the trail, the use of GPS by competitors themselves has been hotly debated for years.

    Some have argued that using modern technology to find the way north in a race that celebrates the old Alaska is sort of cheating.”

    – Craig Medred, Alaska Dispatch, February 17, 2011

    Rule 34 – Electronic Devices: “Use of GPS is permitted.”
    – Iditarod 2011 rules, Iditarod website, 2011

    Mushers equipped with the most high-tech outdoors equipment:

    “Mushers are equipped with the most high-tech outdoors equipment available, including custom-made sleds with adjustable runners for varying snow conditions and, starting this year, global-positioning-satellite devices to check on their progress.”

    – Yereth Rosen, Reuters, March 4, 2011

    Iditarod does not honor history:

    Anchorage Daily News – Letters to the editor, May 22, 2005:

    “Serum run of 1925 was a relay

    “With reference to Thomas Thuneman’s letter, it needs to be said that the Iditarod Race does not honor history (“Iditarod dogs love running, and race reminds us of history,” May 14). The serum run was done in relays and not a grueling, money-oriented 1,100-mile race. Change the direction of the Iditarod race to honor “true history” and there will be more support and far less criticism.

    —- Ethel D. Christensen, Anchorage

    EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer is a director of a local animal welfare organization.”

    (Sled Dog Action Coalition Note: Mrs. Christensen was the executive director of the Alaska SPCA.)

    After each Iditarod: Dead dogs at the dump with blood coming out of both ends:

    “Another McGrath resident, Ted Almasy, 65, who has lived in Alaska for 40 years, told Fattig: ‘That first race (1973), from Anchorage to McGrath, all you could see along the trail was dog blood and dead dogs. That’s when I got into it with them. After each Iditarod, we used to see dead dogs at the dump. You’d see them poor dogs, blood coming out of both ends.’”

    – Earl Gustry, Los Angeles Times, March 24, 1986

    Even in 1986, the outside world reporting it differently:

    This information shared, in addition to all of Craig’s articles written on historical (long distance mushing/Iditarod/serum run/Nome aspects, and some of this information shared does cite Craig’s info, thank you.

  2. Nice details! Can you post an address to send a check to ? For support of this historic structures rehabilitation?

  3. geez Craig….everyone is tired
    of the dogs and Iditarod…,We
    are all more concerned with
    crime, mail thefts, burglaries,
    home invasions…..etc…

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