Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
James Wickersham, an Alaska district judge and delegate to Congress, once declared, “He who gives time to the study of the history of Alaska, learns that the dog, next to man, has been the most important factor in its past and present development .” As a politician, he can be excused for the slight, if understandable, hyperbole. Still, Alaska history is dotted with canine celebrities, dogs who earned true and lasting fame for their accomplishments. Long before Granite, before even Balto and Togo, there was Baldy of Nome, then the most famous dog in Alaska.
As with any good tale, details about Baldy have sometimes changed over time, perhaps even been stretched a little bit. Some aspects seem suspiciously more legendary than historical. Yet, many Alaska stories provoke that same feeling for all that they are well-sourced in the documentary record.
As the story generally goes, Baldy was the beloved pet of young Ben Edwards of Nome. It was around 1907, near the end of the town’s gold rush. Unfortunately, the boy’s father died, and the mother was sick. He hated to give up his dog, but the family needed money. So, I offered to sell Baldy to Esther Birdsall Darling, author and co-owner of a Nome dog kennel with musher Allan “Scotty” Allan.
The accounts all agree on one point; Baldy was not a superficially impressive specimen. He was a lean and hungry mutt, with little love for people and similarly scant promise as a sled dog. Years later, Darling wrote of surprised visitors who saw Baldy and exclaimed, “This isn’t one of the racers, is it?” Moved more by Edwards’s situation than the quality of the canine, she paid him a small amount, well below the going rate for a good racing dog.
Everyone was likely surprised when Baldy took well to training. The steady care, food and exercise added muscle to his slight frame of him. He never developed much concern for anyone other than Edwards, Darling, or Allan. Yet, his defining trait of him, steadfast dependability, was readily apparent.
He began his racing career in smaller events, including winning a kids race in 1908. That year also marked the first running of the All Alaska Sweepstakes, the premier dog-sled race of the day, a back-and-forth run across the Seward Peninsula between Nome and Candle.
Allan (1867-1941) was the superstar musher on the first heyday of the sport. Moreover, he was an innovator who experimented with training, food regimens and lighter sled designs. In his minimal spare time, he built a snowmachine, for all that it never managed to get far outside of Nome. He was also a prospector and entrepreneur. Late in his Alaskan tenure, he leveraged his celebrity to win a spot in the Territorial Legislature. During World War I, he trained and sold more than a hundred dogs sent to support French forces. These war dogs, some of whom were Baldy offspring, were used for communication and supply runs in mountainous regions, often opening previously inaccessible routes.
He participated in the inaugural All Alaska Sweepstakes, notably without Baldy, but did not win. The following year, I won, notably with Baldy. He would win two more times, in 1911 and 1912. With Baldy leading his team, he never finished worse than third.
Baldy earned his reputation in these races, enduring even as ice sliced into his paws. During the 1909 Sweepstakes, the pain overwhelmed him. Allan stopped, nursed Baldy’s sore feet, and moved him to the sled. Yet, Baldy broke free and assumed his position from him at the front, whimpering until placed in the harness again. Allan affixed small booties to Baldy’s feet, and they continued without another such interruption and finished hours ahead of their nearest competition.
Blinding snowstorms were another regular threat for racers. Allan wrote in his memoir of driving into one such blizzard. Unable to see his way from him, he stopped every 15 minutes to check on the dogs. At the front was the steadfast Baldy, “sturdy and brave as a little polar bear. . . a small brave bit of life in that vast, storm-swept waste. . . I’d melt the ice away from his face and hug him.
The premier Baldy anecdote came from another race, the Solomon Derby, and when Allan needed him the most. Allan was knocked off the sled after striking his head on a metal pole that marked the path. Accustomed as he was to Allan’s constant voice, Baldy stopped, turned the team around, and led the way back to the unconscious and bleeding musher. Baldy scratched and licked until Allan awoke and shakily resumed his spot on the sled. Many other dogs in that position would have run free, and Allan very well could have died. Instead, he wound up winning the race.
In the Lower 48, mushing stories, like most such out of Alaska, were guaranteed hits. As the lead dog for the premier team, Baldy became famous, and news of his adventures circled the globe. Darling wrote her own account — “Baldy of Nome” — that was first published in 1913.
Heavily rewritten versions would follow over the years, but Darling made Baldy the primary narrator of the first edition. In other words, events are described as she imagined a dog might have understood them. Regarding races, her creative depiction of the dog muses, “Baldy could not quite understand what it meant, he realized that these long swift runs with the sled empty of freight or passengers did not mean a business trip such as they made in delivering goods to the miners on the creeks; yet there was certainly a seriousness about the whole affair that put the dogs on their mettle.”
Like a celebrated athlete today, Baldy eventually ran his last race and began a new, cozy life away from the hardships of the trail. Such retirements were common for the more prestigious sled dogs. Darling mentions a “dignified old huskie” named Dubby who, during Baldy’s career, enjoyed a “delightful and exclusive existence in his own apartments over the barn.” Togo, the true hero dog of the 1925 Nome serum run, spent his last years relaxing in Maine.
[Related: Togo was the true hero dog of the serum run; it’s about time he got his due]
Allan was getting older himself. As the pall of World War I spread across America, the Sweepstakes ceased, and Allan relocated his family to Berkeley, California. Allan and Baldy made one last run together, from Nome to Cordova, where they boarded a steamer bound for the smaller states. Even then, Allan would have spared Baldy the journey and taken the “auto sled,” as the press described his snowmachine prototype, but there was not enough gasoline in Nome to make the trip.
In his last years, Baldy’s eyesight and hearing dimmed. Yet, in California as in Alaska, he became a beloved public figure, taking part in many parades and pulling a sleigh at Christmas. Amid a busy schedule of naps and playing with children, he also signed copies of Darling’s continually reprinted book by her. That is, many copies of the book included his inked paw print of him.
On April 13, 1922, he passed in his sleep; he was 15 years old. As the Berkeley Daily Gazette, paper of record for his new hometown of him, declared, “Yesterday he lay down on his mat, and this morning he heard the ‘mush’ of the trail and went on.”
“Baldy Given Pension for Rest of Life.” (Juneau) Alaska Daily Empire, May 30, 1917, 9.
“Baldy of Nome Dies From Old Age After Spectacular Career.” Berkeley Daily Gazette, April 13, 1922, 1.
Blanchard, Frances A. “Baldy, the Dog Hero of Alaska.” Boy’s Life, March 1923, 17, 50-51.
Darling, Esther Birdsall. Baldy of Nome: An Immortal of the Trail. San Francisco: A. M. Robertson, 1913.
Murphy, Claire Rudolf, and Jane G. Haigh. Gold Rush Dogs. Portland: Alaska Northwest Books, 2001.
Salisbury, Guy. Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic. New York: Norton, 2005.