Curator's Picks will be a regular feature on the NPM Blog. Historian & Curator Nancy Pope (a walking encyclopedia of American postal history) is a 25-year veteran of the Smithsonian.
The irresistible lure of gold drew thousands of Americans to the Klondike and Alaska in the late 1890s. Words from home were a desperately-sought comfort in the strange, harsh land. It fell to the Post Office Department to ensure that these stampeders could maintain contact with family and friends thousands of miles away. For several years, most of the contractors who were hired to deliver mail used dog sleds during the long, dark winters.
This sled, built in 1922, is an extraordinary reminder of this remarkable chapter in Alaskan postal history. Sam Olson hand-crafted this 13-foot-long dog sled out of hickory in 1922. Contract mail carrier Alfred “Ed” Biederman (1861-1945) used this hand-made hickory dog sled for his 160-mile route between Circle and Eagle, Alaska. It has moose hide lashings and iron runners, brake, and springs, with cotton cords for securing mail loads. Mail delivery was a Biederman family tradition. After frostbite crippled Ed in 1935, his son, Charlie Biederman (1918-1995), took over.
Ed had been born in Bohemia, arriving in the US in 1874. He began working as a baker in Philadelphia, but when the cry of GOLD was heard across the country in 1898, he joined the great Klondike Stampeed. And, like many others, by the time Ed Biederman reached the gold fields, the good claims were already staked out. He found work as a sub-contract mail carrier for the Northern Commercial Company, eventually claiming the Eagle to Circle route.
Ed Biederman built a series of cabins every 25 miles along the mail route. On good days, Biederman could travel between a set of cabins in only four hours. On bad days, these trip segments could take as long as 18 hours. When temperatures dropped much below 40 degrees below zero, the sled’s runners would stick in the grooves of the trail. But, when all went well, the sled team would pull up to 500 pounds of mail between Circle and Eagle in six days. A portion of the Yukon Quest dogsled race trail from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory Canada, to Fairbanks, Alaska, runs along the old Biederman mail trail.
Charlie Biederman’s days as a dog-sledding mail carrier ended in 1938. He kept the sled in the family, and gave it to his nephew, Max Beck, who donated it to the National Postal Museum in January 1995. The sled is currently on display in the museum.
About the Author
The late Nancy A. Pope, a Smithsonian Institution curator and founding historian of the National Postal Museum, worked with the items in this collection since joining the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. In 1993 she curated the opening exhibitions for the National Postal Museum. Since then, she has curated several additional exhibitions. Nancy led the project team that built the National Postal Museum's first website in 2002. She also created the museum's earliest social media presence in 2007.