Adventurers carve postal system through Alaska wilderness

Aviator Carl Ben Eielson, left, completed the first experimental mail flight between Fairbanks and Nenana on Feb. 21, 1924.
Aviator Carl Ben Eielson, left, completed the first experimental mail flight between Fairbanks and Nenana on Feb. 21, 1924.

The first post office in Alaska was established in Sitka on July 23, 1867. John H. Kindaid, who later became an Alaskan governor, was named the first postmaster, three months before Alaska was formally transferred from Russian to American rule.

“The Russians maintained no postal system in Alaska,” wrote James S. Couch in “Philately Below Zero.” He explained: “All communications between Russia and Russian America was carried on via dispatch cases transported by Russian supply ships, and Russian residents dispatched and received both business and personal mail through the Russian commanders of the community – there was no post office system as we know it.”

With the gold rushes came the first attempt to introduce horses as beasts of burden in the new land of ice and snow. But deep snow proved too much of a handicap. Next, reindeer and dogs were tried. The reindeer proved stubborn and impossible to harness break, so it was up to the dogs.

In the Interior, the dog team was the first to prove successful in delivering mail and the last to give way to the new-fangled airplane. But the dogs did have to give way after a long and illustrious service.

On Feb. 21, 1924, Fred Milligan was driving his dog team with the U.S. mail on a bitterly cold day through deep snow on the trail between Nenana and McGrath – a 20-day run – when he and the dogs heard a sound from the sky. They stopped, looked around and then gazed skyward.

Milligan heard a strange noise. It grew louder. Then he saw an airplane passing overhead, with its pilot waving from the open cockpit. It was Carl Ben Eielson in his small, single-engine plane.

That was a milestone in Alaskan history. As Milligan and his dogs plodded on to the end of the day’s run, the plane passed again on its return trip from McGrath. Eielson had proved that carrying the mail by flying machine was practical, safe, economical and fast.

The last official dog team mail contract expired in 1949 – the mail run between Rampart and Fairbanks – but dogs continued to carry mail between Central and Miller House on the Steese Highway in emergencies. And airplane competition didn’t stop Chester Noongwook of St. Lawrence Island from continuing his dog sled mail run until 1963, the last mail deliver of its kind in the country.

2 comments on “Adventurers carve postal system through Alaska wilderness

  1. This was especially interesting to me as my mom was postmaster in Kenai for 13 years when I was a kid. Thanks!

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