part of a sequel 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.
It was Nome in 1905. The local miners and postmen had a slight disagreement over the limits of mushing. Could a driver take a team from Nome to Washington, DC? The miners said no. The postman said yes. Ultimately, significant sums of money were at stake.
The bet was easy enough. For $10,000, the musher had to deliver a letter from Judge Alfred Moore to the White House by May 1, 1907. After accounting for inflation, $10,000 in 1905 is very roughly $320,000 today. The money was deposited into a bank account as security, but the musher had to fend for himself on the trip and was not allowed to accept donations. One of the senior postmen, Eli Smith, agreed to the challenge. The whole episode raises many questions. First of all, how far would you go for a bet?
Eli Smith was born in Wisconsin around 1855. After starting his own business, he meandered from job to job. He was a butcher in Montana, rancher in Idaho, steward on the Hudson Bay Company ferries, prospector in the Klondike, and probably many other temporary occupations. In the early 1900s he settled in Nome, where he did some mining but mainly made a living as a postman. He soon gained a reputation for speed and endurance, picking his way around the Seward Peninsula.
On November 14, 1905 he left Nome. The Alaska portion of the trip was easy enough, familiar terrain. By January 1906 he was in Valdez, where he and his team boarded a steamer for Seattle and proceeded overland.
“It was kind of ups and downs,” he later described the trip. “Sometimes the track was bad. I didn’t ride the sled, but took my place in the team and played the role of the eighth dog.”
A good day meant he covered 25 miles, and his best day, according to his flexible memory, covered 116 miles in the Northwest.
The team was a traveling sensation. Each new city meant a new crowd eager to take part in the spectacle. Many had never seen a dog team in action, let alone one from Alaska driven by a real sourdough. The experience was like a Jack London novel brought to life, proof that there is truth in all the seemingly great tales and legends of the North.
When Smith reached the Midwest, he was no longer a complete surprise. News spread like a wave before him. And Smith was eager to please. Rather than driving through quickly, he liked to stop and give lectures on life in Alaska.
In June he reached Milwaukee, where he had family. Though he was long alive, homecomings were rare occasions. So he stayed in Wisconsin for a few months before resuming the trip in September.
By the time he reached Pittsburgh, daily updates in the capital became the norm as residents — and the press waiting for a guaranteed success story — braced themselves for his arrival. But as anticipation mounted in Washington, rain and mud slowed Smith’s progress.
Finally, on February 20, 1907, Smith and his team entered the city. Onlookers began to follow them as they made their way through the urban environment. When he reached the White House, he was at the head of a ragged parade of onlookers, street urchins and photographers.
He parked his sled just outside the main portico of the White House. To be clear, he didn’t just show up like a doorstep seller and ask to see President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. The visit had been planned and approved. White House security back then was only a fraction of what it is today. Visitors could roam the grounds until the 1920s. But after three assassination attempts and many more such assassination attempts, the former open-door policy in the Executive Mansion had been severely limited. By 1907, it had been decades since anything like Andrew Jackson’s disastrous 1829 open house had happened, when a runaway mob trampled the White House.
Even as Smith entered the premises, the news spread like wildfire among the residents of the building. Employees, police officers, guards, reporters, politicians, and visiting dignitaries left their posts or places in line and streamed outside to enjoy the spectacle. Within minutes, two of the President’s children, Quentin and Archie, were climbing onto the sled, asking questions, inspecting the dogs and demanding a ride. Smith dutifully placed Quentin on the sled and quickly ran across the grounds while the photographers in attendance happily burned through their film.
With that wish granted, Smith parked and stood in line to meet the President. His clothes were as he dressed on the trails around Nome: sealskin leggings, wool shirt, hat with earflaps, and mukluks of walrus and reindeer skin. His heavy gloves hung from his back, swinging as he moved. He took off his coat, the only allowance for the warmer weather.
After a short wait, the President greeted him and the two talked privately for a few minutes. Roosevelt took Judge Moore’s letter and wrote a brief note confirming delivery for the wager. Before leaving, Smith entertained the crowd with several more laps around the White House.
The journey from Nome to Washington took a year, three months and six days. As Smith eagerly pointed out to reporters, he missed the deadline by more than two months. The following weeks consisted mainly of public appearances. Despite his busy schedule, less than a month after showing up at the White House, he met, courted, and eventually married a woman.
The already small and wiry musher lost 20 pounds while crossing the continent. However, the journey was the hardest for the dogs, although it’s difficult to know the exact impact. Smith was a storyteller, a natural narrator prone to exaggeration. The details have shifted significantly over time. His descriptions of his original team ranged from seven to ten dogs. He also enjoyed telling the captivated audience that many of the dogs were purebred wolves.
Despite this, he kept reporting that many of his dogs died on the voyage. Three were allegedly poisoned in Wisconsin. As the miles piled up, more and more died along the way. Smith was repeatedly forced to source and train new dogs, causing delays.
In addition to delivering at the White House, Smith had a side bet in every state capital. After some time in Alaska, he returned south to complete the search. By 1912 he had toured the eastern half of the country before turning to the west. Only one of his original canine team survived, a male mutant named Jack.
With the admission of Arizona in January, the union included 48 states. He was in Oklahoma in March. Texas came in April. Arizona was ticked off in October. There was only one state. After another lengthy hiatus, he moved to Sacramento, California, in May 1913.
Celebrities came and went as Smith returned to Alaska. By the early 1940s, the woman was long gone. His money was gone too, the last of it lost in a mining company that had gone sour. By 1942, he was the unknown and destitute resident of a nursing home in Chico, California. And there he died on January 13, 1948. He was about 92 years old. Since he had no known relatives, the clerks checked his belongings. There they discovered a carefully preserved stack of newspaper clippings and a journal, details of Smith’s adventures stretching back to Wisconsin. Thanks to that revelation, his story resurfaced in the press, a final round of awards.
Caulwell, Frank. “The nervous Alaskan ‘musher’ will enter the state capital in a few days with a team of Malamute dogs led by a pure-blood wolf.” Washington Post, January 27, 1907, Jan.
“Dogs carry him on a long journey.” Prescott Journal Miner, October 3, 1912, 5.
“Eli Smith – His Life A Fabulous Story.” [California] Chico Enterprise, January 18, 1948, 2nd
“End of the Long Journey”. [Washington, D.C.] Evening Star, February 20, 1907, 2.
“Visit every capital city with a dog team at a stake of $25,000.” Bakersfield Californian, May 13, 1913, Aug.
“The legendary Alaskan pioneer dies penniless here today.” [California] Chico Enterprise, January 13, 1948, 1
[untitled note]. [Valdez] Alaska Prospector, January 18, 1906, 7