Saturday, October 20, 2012

Red River Derby Revisited

There had never been a race like this before.

At the time it was run, it was the longest dog sled race in history.  There was media coverage from all over the world.  The course ran from Winnipeg to St. Paul, and came right past Emerson, Pembina, and St. Vincent, before veering slightly west and then again south towards Hamilton and beyond... 

Dawson Sees
Big Dog Derby

New Castle Man Describes
Race From Winnipeg to
St. Paul


Took Moving Pictures of Great
Spectacle From Railway Train

PITTSBURG, Pa., Feb. 17 -- While Pittsburg shivered last week at 6 below zero and thought it really cold, a tale of life in the great outdoors of the frozen north, with the mercury at 35 below, the unwritten account of the famous 525-mile Red River Derby dog race from Winnipeg, Canada, to St. Paul, Minn., was learned here today on the return of George W. Dawson of New Castle, "Camera-reporter" for the Selig Tribune News Service, who, "covered" the race from start to finish.

Dawson's assignment for eight days was to "shoot" the 11 teams of dogs and their drivers as they "mushed" over the snow-covered prairie land of the north, to tell civilization the progress of the big annual Derby.  With 14 other camera men and reporters of the big news associations and newspapers of the north he crossed the trail in a special train on the Great Northern railway, at times doing a trick for a couple of miles alongside the panting driver of the dog teams.

Get a Gala Start

The race started in Winnipeg at noon, January 23.  All the town turned out for the event.  The camera men and writers, clad in winter togs, stayed with the 11 entrants for 25 miles in automobiles and sleds, covering the first art of the race.  Then they climbed aboard the special train and kept pace with the racers along the route.  A flat car on the rear was used to film spurts and features of the contest.

The endurance of the men and the sagacity of their animals are only short of marvelous, according to Dawson.  Each sled has five or six dogs, harnessed single file with a "lead" dog making the way.  These dogs are valued from $25 to $500 each.  They are crossbreeds of Newfoundlands and "huskies," "huskies" and wolves, and collies and wolves   Now dog fanciers are trying to cross greyhounds and "huskies" to get fast "lead" dogs.

Dogs Are Fierce

The dogs are vicious when out of harness, according to Dawson, but are docile when on the trail.  They were fed five fish a day in the long race and lapped up snow instead of drinking water which might "log" them.  Every precaution was taken to keep them fit.  Each night their feet were examined and bits of ice cleaned away from between their toes.  The dogs were provided with deerskin "booties" to protect their feet.  Mouths were examined and cleaned.

On the trail, which followed the railroad tracks when drifts were too high, the dogs made seven to eight miles an hour, averaging 65 to 75 miles a day.  The team drivers oped behind their sled, jumping on when they came to a slope or to a place where the snow crust was too thin to sustain a man's weight.  The cold was intense.  On the border of Minnesota, 17 1/2 inches of snow fell in eight hours, blinding men and dogs.

Excitement Intense

As the end of the race drew near, great excitement marked the towns where the racers passed.  The race narrowed down to five teams and every effort was strained by the men to bring in for the first prize.  On the whole course, Dawson says, he never saw a driver use the long whip on the dogs.  This whip is 8 to 12 feet long, and is used more for snapping than for lashing the animals.  The dogs are guided by calls the same as horses.  "Mush" is the command to go.

Although Albert Campbell, Cree Indian, won the race, popular favor was with Fred Hartman of Boston, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who went to Canada for his health.  The "Yankee" entered the race with a mediocre team, according to Dawson, and would have finished first had not his lead dog died on the way and later had not the Indians with whom he was pacing been tipped off that he was leaving one post near the finish at 1 o'clock in the morning instead of at 4, when the rest of the party was to start out.

Hartman the Hero

Hartman was the hero at the finish.  Purses were made up for him, and if he entered next year, with the 25 teams already signed up, he will be looked on as one of the pluckiest drivers in the squad.

In Canada, Dawson says, civilians on the street are approached and asked why they are no in the army.  If a satisfactory excuse i not given, a miniature petticoat is pinned on their lapel.  Sometimes a white feather is used.  In theatres a man in civilian dress immediately is surrounded by soldiers and his woman friend is invited to use their seats at the play.  Thirty Thousand men have left Winnipeg for service in the army.

For more information about the race, I recommend this article about how it inspired the film "Iron Will", where it tells many interesting details about the actual events it was based on...

Original article from the New Castle News
[Click to Enlarge]