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The Sierra Dog Sled Derby

When snow begins to fall in the Sierra Nevada, these rugged mountains quickly transform into a picturesque playground for winter sports.

Donner Lake and Summit Bridge Circa 1935 - PCM Collection

The snow here is legendary. Once an incredible challenge, heavy snows altered the fate of travelers like the Donner Party and stalled the construction of the Central Pacific Railroad for nearly two years as it inched through the aptly named Donner Summit.

Track Clearing Near the Summit

This seasonal transformation also produced remarkable opportunity for recreation but it was not until major highway infrastructure was developed in the 1920s that this winter wonderland became finally accessible year-round.

Skiers near Soda Springs. Circa 1935 - PCM Collection

Today, the High Sierra near Truckee is known as a world-class destination for winter sports enthusiasts. The 1960 Winter Olympic Games, held in nearby Squaw Valley, helped bring this attention to the Golden State but the path to these games began in 1928 when the Sierra Sled Dog Association was formed.

A Brief History of Sled Dogs and the Famed Scotty Allan

World-famous musher, Scotty Allan was recruited to direct a dog sled derby to take place in February 1929 with hopes of putting California’s Sierra winter wonderland on the map.

Scotty Allan and Baldy

Sled dogs have served important roles in remote snowbound communities around the world who rely upon them for transportation and supplies.

Truckee, CA 1905 - PCM Collection

They have been used in arctic expeditions and were essential in the Canadian Klondike and Alaskan Nome territory when gold prospectors flocked to the regions in the late 1890s.

Prospecting in Alaska - Library of Congress

Background Image: Tahoe-area Constable and professional musher, Harry Johansson and his team. Circa 1934 - PCM Collection

It was in Nome that the first formal dog sled races were formed in 1908, known as the All Alaska Sweepstakes (pictured here in 1913).

Dog Sledding Enters Popular Culture

Scotty Allan and Baldy

Allan Alexander “Scotty” Allan was a pioneer in dog sledding. Having initially reached the Klondike to prospect, Allan quickly turned to his skillset of teaming and soon began training dogs and working to transport mail and supplies via sled.

In 1903, he inspired Jack London’s Call of the Wild and went on to become a three-time winner of the Alaska Sweepstakes.

The thrilling story of Allan’s lead dog, Baldy, and their 1909 win was published by his kennel business-partner, Esther Birdsall Darling, in her 1918 work, Baldy of Nome.

Background Image: Nome Alaska 1908

Tales like these helped launch sled dogs into popular culture. Allan was even recruited by the French government to train sled dogs for service during World War I, where over 400 were ultimately shipped to the Front. Sled dogs were celebrated as heroes, and again in 1925 when Alaskan mushers worked together to relay Diphtheria antitoxin to stop an outbreak in Nome.

Leonhard Seppala and his team who made the 1925 diptheria serum run to Nome

While these adventure tales of sled dogs were growing in popularity so, too, was an opportunity to promote winter tourism in California.

The Sierra Dog Sled Derby

In 1928, Placer County boosters were vying for consideration to host the 1932 Winter Olympics. They promoted the fact that California was one of the only places in the world where one could travel from coastal springtime to “snow and ice and the zestful sports they provide” in just a few hours.

Sacramento Bee February 2, 1929

They hoped to demonstrate that California winters could contend with those on the East Coast and formed the Sierra Sled Dog Association to begin promoting the possibilities.

Placer Herald January 19, 1929

The Association recruited Scotty Allan to be director general of the race. A purse of $6,000 was raised and the course was laid.

The Tahoe Tavern Circa 1935 - PCM Collection

The race would run from Truckee to the Tahoe Tavern, a distance of 16 miles that ran along the Truckee River and upon the old Overland Trail. There would be 3 laps, driven over the course of 3 days and for a total of 96 miles. The dates were set with the inaugural Sierra Dog Derby scheduled to take place from February 10-12, 1929.

Sierra Dog Derby at Truckee. 1929 -PCM Collection

Background Image: Sierra Dog Derby, Placer County Team. Circa 1931 - PCM Collection

Eleven racers, both men and women, entered the competition and included celebrity out-of-state racers who made the derby circuit, as well as local competitors.

San Francisco Chronicle Insert February 3, 1929

The Derby attracted national attention and several film crews arrived to help capture the inaugural race.

And the Winner is...Fred Printz!

Sacramento Bee February 13, 1929

The competition was spirited but in the end, Fred Printz, a mail carrier and musher from Cascade, Idaho, was the clear winner with his team of Irish setters who walked away with the $3,000 grand prize. His time was 8 hours 39 minutes and 17 seconds.

Trailing by just over 30 minutes was Scotty Allan who received second place and $2,000. Just 1 minute and 24 seconds later, third-place winner Roy Stover of McCall, Idaho passed the finish line to claim his $1,000 prize.

Background Image: Sierra Dog Derby at Truckee, 1929. PCM Collection

The event was a huge success and drew thousands of spectators. Besides the Dog Derby, visitors were invited to participate in all manner of winter sports at the Tahoe Tavern as well as in Soda Springs and Truckee.

Sacramento Bee February 6, 1929

The Southern Pacific ran special trains with reduced fares where visitors could also find plenty of opportunity for skiing, tobogganing, ice-skating, bobsledding, sleighing, snowshoeing and all kinds of other snow fun.

Background Image: Sierra Dog Derby at Truckee, 1929. PCM Collection

The Legacy Endures

1931 Dog Derby Pin - PCM Collection

In 1931, the race was shortened to two laps in consideration of the strain of the dog teams but it continued on for many more years.

Soda Springs. Circa 1935 - PCM Collection

This attracted key attention to the winter recreation opportunities in California, which only expanded throughout the 1930s with the establishment of world-class skiing facilities.

Not only did the Dog Derby help pave the way for the 1960 Squaw Valley Winter Olympics, another fateful event occurred at the conclusion of the 1929 Derby.

In Scotty Allan’s cabin the evening the inaugural Derby ended, he and Bob Watson (another pioneer of the Klondike Trail of 1898) reminisced about the days of old and hatched the idea to mark the old Overland Road. This would lead to the establishment of the Western States Trail...

Wendell Robie passing Watson Monument during Tevis Ride. Circa 1974 - PCM Collection.

...but that is a story for another day.

Background Image: Norden, Circa 1935. PCM Collection

A Selection of Related Placer County Historical Presentations