Not much is known about Eli Smith besides that he was born in Wisconsin around 1856. On November 14, 1905, he hitched up his dogsled and left Nome, Alaska. His destination was Washington, D.C. Armed with a letter from the Nome postmaster to the postmaster general in Washington, D.C., Smith set out on a journey his friends wagered $10,000 that he could not deliver the letter.
Besides a boat trip from Valdez to Seattle, the entire trip was done by dogsled. Not an easy feat in the least! One part of the bet was that Smith had to reach Washington with at least six of his original ten dogs and he had to arrive by May 1907 – eighteen months from when he left. While that seemed to be quite a bit of time, one has to remember that he was traveling by dogsled over rocky dirt roads and this was 1905. For more perspective, Henry Ford’s original Model A had only been on the market for two years.
The journey, coupled with rough traveling conditions, posed significant dangers. Smith recorded in his diary, “Sometimes I met people on the trail coming in over the ice, but mostly I just sledded away day after day over the trackless snow, seeing nothing alive but my dogs.” Just getting through Alaska was a difficult travel with temperatures reaching 60 below. Around Tanana, Alaska, Smith came across a man dragging his sled with a yoke. After they made camp, Smith saw that the man’s hands were frozen. Once the man’s hands were thawed out, they turned brown. The two headed for a nearby fort where the surgeon chopped the man’s hands off.
When he reached the Washington State, Smith headed for the country’s capital. In areas where there was no snow, Smith attached wheels to his sled. It seems his trip was going well until he reached Wisconsin. Three of his dogs died when they consumed poison a trapper had laid out for foxes. Now down to only seven dogs, Smith again headed to Washington, D.C.
A year into his journey, Smith was finally making headlines in newspapers. In late 1906, the Morning Star’s headline read: “Dogs and Wolves from ‘The Wild’ Invade Indianapolis.” Crowds began to greet Smith as he arrived in towns. It was said that President Theodore Roosevelt was looking forward to meeting Smith and his dogsled. On February 20, 1907, Smith finally reached his destination. Pulling into the White House driveway, he was greeted by Roosevelt. The president’s sons, Quentin and Archie, posed for photographs with the dogsled and Smith also drove them around the famous house.
Afterwards, Roosevelt invited Smith in and wrote a note so the dog musher could claim his prize. The note stated: “Eli A. Smith of Nome, with his dog team, has just arrived here. Good luck to him! Theodore Roosevelt.” It is unsure whether Smith did collect his $10,000. After his long journey, not much else his known about Smith’s activities. His obituary in a Fresno, California newspaper states that he died poor.
A trunk full of clippings and the tarnished keys to a dozen cities were about all that was left today to remind the world of Eli Smith, an oldtime Alaskan sourdough who rode a dog sled to fame and fortune. Smith, 92, died yesterday, an obscure old man in a rest home. But there was a time when he was toasted in Nome and Washington, and his poke was full of gold dust. Back in 1905, on a $10,000 bet with the late sports promoter Tex Richard. Smith started mushing a team from D C. Nome to Washington. Two years later he completed the trip. [His trip to] Washington [paid] off and President Teddy Roosevelt was there to the in a greet him.
Washington Post, “Smith’s Dogs Keep Trail: Alaskan Mail Carrier Due Here Before Congress Adjourns,” February 6, 1907.
Washington Post, “Coming with Dog Team: Eli Smith, Alaskan Mail Carrier, Arrives Here To-day,” February 20, 1907.
New York Times, “Ends 8,000-Mile Trip: Eli Smith, Alaska Mail Carrier, Here with Dog Team,” February 21, 1907.
The Milwaukee Journal, “Nome to Washington Race Winner Back in Milwaukee,” November 24, 1938.
The Fresco Bee, “Eli Smith: Obituary,” January 15, 1948.
New York Times, “Eli A. Smith, Mushed Dog Team 8,000 Miles,” January 16, 1948.
Alaska State Library