5 February 1930
If you ask most Canadians today to name the principal winter sports, hockey would undoubtedly top any list. Other contenders would include skiing (alpine or cross-country), ice-skating, snow-boarding, bobsledding, and snowmobiling. Curling too would likely make the cut. If people thought about the question a bit longer, dog sled racing might also be mentioned. Today, the most famous dog sled race is the 1,000-mile Alaskan Iditarod from Anchorage in the south to Nome on the western Bering Sea. The race, held annually, covers some of the toughest winter terrain. The race was started in 1973 in part as a means of saving the dog-sled culture and the Alaskan husky, threatened by the growing popularity of the snowmobile. Another prominent sled race is the Yukon Quest, a 1,000-mile journey, held annually since 1984, from Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, tracing the route prospectors took during the great Klondike Gold Rush of 1898.
Despite the high profile of these two races, dog-sledding is pursued by relatively few outdoor winter enthusiasts. But ninety years ago, it was mainstream stuff, with both national and locally-sponsored races known as “dog derbies.” Major sled races of the day included the American Dog Derby of Ashton, Idaho, the Hudson Bay Dog Derby of Le Pas, Manitoba, and the Eastern International Dog Derby held at Quebec City. Just as today’s fans idolize star hockey players, the top sled drivers, such as Emile St. Godard of Le Pas, Manitoba and Finnish-American Leonhard Seppala of Nome, Alaska were household names. Seppala became world famous in 1925 when he and his team of dogs led by Togo, along with other “mushers,” brought much needed anti-diphtheria serum to Nome from Nenana, Alaska, a distance of 600 miles, by sled. Seppala, who drove the most dangerous section across the treacherous ice of Norton Sound in order to save a day’s travel time, handed the serum off to Norwegian Gunnar Kaasen and his team of dogs led by Balto for the final leg of the journey into Nome. Being the first dog to enter Nome, Balto received the public’s adulation; a fact that didn’t sit well with Seppala who thought his dog Togo was more deserving of honour. A bronze statue of Balto stands in New York’s Central Park, while his stuffed body is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. In 1995, an animated Hollywood movie titled Balto, which was loosely based on the 1925 serum run, was produced by Amblin Entertainment and distributed by Universal Pictures.
In 1930, as part of the Ottawa’s Winter Carnival activities, the Ottawa Business Men’s Association organized the first Ottawa International Dog Derby. Under the leadership of Major F. D. Burpee, the Association raised $3,895 from area businesses and citizens to help fund the event. The Sparks Street department stores Murphy-Gamble and Bryson-Graham donated $100 and $50, respectively. The Ottawa Electric Railway and the Ottawa Electric Company each gave $50, while Thomas Ahearn, the great Ottawa inventor and entrepreneur personally donated $25. Additional funding to cover transportation, as well as room and board for the drivers and their dogs, was provided by the Canadian National Railways and the Château Laurier Hotel. The Château also purchased the gold Challenge Trophy for the Derby winner valued at $1,000.
The 100-mile Derby was held over three days, with the third and last segment of the race taking place on 5 February 1930. The course for the Derby started at Connaught Place in front of the Château Laurier. It crossed the site of the old Russell Hotel, before heading down the Driveway, under the Bank Street Bridge, along Carling Avenue out to Britannia and Bell’s Corners, over to Fallowfield, down a side road to the Prescott Highway (Prince of Wales Drive), then homeward for the “final dash” along the Driveway to the finish line at Connaught Place. Weather conditions for the Derby were perfect—cold and snowy.
The event was open to any individual from Canada and the United States, with teams of no more than seven dogs. The dogs’ feet could be enclosed in protective boots or moccasins. Doping was prohibited. Teams were divided into three groups, with starting positions within each group determined by lot. The starting position of each group rotated so that the sled teams in the first group on Day One would start last on Day Two, and second on Day Three. There were five race judges, among whom were some eminent mushers, including Major Burwash who had gone out to the Yukon in the 1898 Gold Rush and had mushed 175,000 miles through the Arctic and sub-Arctic.
There was lots of pre-race hype. In late January, one of the Derby contestants, Jack “Yukon” Melville, an Algonquin Park camp owner, made a $500 bet with Mayor Plant and Joseph Van Wyck, the manager of the Château Laurier, that he could mush 400 miles from Rochester to Ottawa, and arrive in time for the start of the race. Melville attached long banners to the sides of his sled inviting everybody to Ottawa to advertise the Dog Derby and the Ottawa Winter Carnival. To facilitate Melville’s journey, Mayor Plant wired town mayors along his route. The Ottawa Automobile Club also wired ahead to ascertain snow conditions on the highways. While Melville completed the sled trip, he arrived back in Ottawa one day late, losing the bet and missing the start of the Ottawa Derby, owing to a lack of snow in upstate New York. The unfortunate Melville also broke two ribs setting out from Rochester. However, so delighted was the city, hotel and the Ottawa Business Men’s Association with the massive press coverage of Melville’s journey and the Ottawa Winter Carnival, his losses were covered. “Jack Melville is not going to lose out on his trip, wager or no wager,” the Château’s manager said according to The Ottawa Evening Journal.
With Melville out of the running, eight sled teams showed up on Day One of the Derby on Monday 3 February. However, judges scratched the entry of Mrs E. P. Ricker Jr of Poland Springs, Maine, the only female musher, owing to four of her dogs being injured in a fight. This left seven teams to contest the first Ottawa International Dog Derby. At noon, in front of a huge, frenzied crowd, estimated at up to 20,000 people, including Prime Minister Mackenzie King who attended with his dog Pat, the Governor General, the Viscount Willingdon, officially opened the Derby. First away was Harry Wheeler of Grey Rocks, Quebec and his team of five huskies. Next was the crowd favourite, Emile St. Godard of Le Pas, Manitoba and his team of seven greyhound/husky mixed breeds led by Toby. Third out was Leonhard Seppala and his seven huskies, followed by Georges Chevrette of Quebec City. Chevrette’s team of greyhound/husky mixed breeds dashed into the crowds on the word “Go,” forcing people to scatter. Undeterred, Chrevette continued the race after disentangling his team, aided by a helpful bystander. Next came Earl Brydges of Le Pas and his seven huskies, followed by Boston’s Walter Channing and his seven Russian wolfhound/husky mixed breeds. Last, was Frank Dupuis of Berthier, Quebec and his six-dog team, owned by the “Come-On Travellers’ Club” of Quebec. Dupuis, held up by Ottawa traffic, almost missed his start. A bellboy from the Château Laurier rushed out to the starting line with a telephone message to the officials saying that Dupuis was on his way. Arriving a few minutes later, Dupuis, unperturbed by a time penalty, gave a jaunty wave to the crowd, and set out puffing on a big cigar. St. Godard easily won the first leg of the Derby in a time of 2 hours and 37 minutes, many minutes ahead of his nearest opponent.
Day Two was also easily won by St. Godard who set the pace in front of another huge crowd that lined the route. But the second day of the competition was not without its excitement. Frank Dupuis’ dogs got spooked by a heaving throng of people who had pushed their way onto the Driveway track despite police barricades. With no place to go, he and his sled were forced over a snow bank into the railing of the Rideau Canal. As it wasn’t his fault, Derby judges allowed him to restart the race without penalty.
The third and final day of the competition also had its share of thrills. Prior to the start of the last lap, judges disqualified Frank Dupuis “for cause,” reducing the field to just six teams. The rumour was that he had mistreated his dogs. Then St. Godard, who had run flawless legs the previous two days, got into early difficulties when his dogs ran into the crowd and tangled their leashes. Although he lost more than a minute of time re-organizing his sled team, St. Godard continued to have commanding cumulative time advantage over his nearest rivals, leaving Seppala and Brydges to fight it out for second place.
As the clock on the old Post Office read 3.04 pm, a loud roar went up from the huge crowd of spectators, many of whom were school children whose principals had given them time off to watch the race. “Here comes St. Godard under the bridge” was the cry as the “The Saint” mushed his way down the Driveway under the Laurier Street Bridge. Onlookers crowded the windows and even the roof tops of the Post Office, the Château Laurier and Union Station. When the leaders swept down the Driveway past the court house, the presiding magistrate allowed people to rush to the eastern windows for a view of the passing sledders. Emile St. Godard won the first Ottawa International Derby in a total time of 8 hours, 13 minute and 23 seconds. Second place went to fellow Manitoban Earl Brydges with a time of 8 hours 33 minutes and 45 seconds. In third place, close behind, was Leonhard Seppala with a time of 8 hours 34 minutes and 13 seconds.
The following evening at the Carnival Ball, hosted by the Ottawa Business Men’s Association, St. Godard strode into the Château Laurier’s ballroom wearing breeches and moccasins with Toby by his side to be presented the gold Challenge Trophy by the Governor General. To honour Toby, the Trophy was filled with milk. Lord Willingdon also gave St. Godard a cheque for $1,000, the purse for first place. (An anonymous sportsman gave St. Godard an additional $300.) Earl Brydges, the runner-up, received $400, while third-place Leonhard Seppala received $100.
With the Derby judged a huge success, organizers of the Ottawa Carnival hoped that it would become an annual event. While the second Ottawa International Dog Derby, which was also won by St. Godard, was held in 1931, it was to be the last for almost twenty years, a victim of the Depression. In its place a “Junior Dog Derby” for youngsters was organized at Lansdowne Park until it too succumbed. In February 1949, senior dog-sled racing resumed in the nation’s capital under the auspices of the Junior Board of Trade’s first Winter Carnival. Once again, the Château Laurier’s Gold Challenge Cup was presented to the winner. Annual races were held through the 1950s.
Over a sledding career that spanned ten years form 1925 to 1934, Emile St. Godard, the winner of the first Ottawa International Dog Derby, won more than twenty major races, including the 1932 Winter Olympics held at Lake Placid, New York, A demonstration sport at that year’s Olympics, St. Godard took the gold medal beating his arch-rival Leonhard Seppala who had to settle for silver. Fellow Canadian Shorty Russick took bronze.
Toby, St. Godard’s lead dog, died from peritonitis in 1934 at the age of nine. Indicative of his fame, many newspapers, including The Ottawa Evening Journal, ran obituaries for the half husky, half greyhound sled dog. Devastated by the death of his devoted friend, to whom he credited his victories, St. Godard retired. He died in 1948 at the age of 43. He was inducted posthumously into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1956, the only sled dog racer so honoured. In 2007, he was also inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame.
Dog sledding has seen a modest revival in recent years, helped by the success of the Iditarod and the Yukon Quest races. In eastern Ontario and west Quebec, there are a number of dog sled operators, including Escapade Eskimo, Timberland Tours, and Mush Larose, who offer the chance to feel the thrill of racing across snow-covered fields behind a team of powerful, sled dogs.
Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, Emile St. Godard, http://www.sportshall.ca/stories.html?proID=196&catID=all.
Escapade Ottawa, 2016. Activités Extérieure en Outaouais, http://www.escapade-eskimo.com/.
Iditarod, 2016. The Last Great Race, http://iditarod.com/.
Ottawa, Evening Journal (The), 1930. “State Dog Derby Will be Greatest of Any In Canada,” 18 January.
————————————, 1930. “Course Is Decided For Big Dog Derby,” 21 January.
————————————, 1930. “Dogs To Mush 400 Miles Before February 2 To Win $500 Wager,” 27 January.
————————————, 1930. “Woman’s Entry Leave Field To Seven Men,” 3 February.
————————————, 1930. “Rules For Dog Sled Derby,” 3 February.
————————————, 1930. “Melville Suffers Two Smashed Ribs On Rochester Trip,” 4 February.
————————————, 1930. “Another Huge Crowd To See Dog Teams Go,” 4 February.
————————————, 1930. “These Dog Derby Judges Men With A Keen Sense For Adventurous Life,” 5 February.
————————————, 1930. “St. Godard’s Team Runs Into Crowd At Starting Post,” 5 February.
————————————, 1930. “St. Godard Wins Dog Derby; Brydges Comes Second,” 5 February.
————————————, 1930. “Godard Sets Up World Record 100-Mile Course.” 6 February.
————————————, 1930. “Toby Attends Ball As St. Godard Gets Beautiful Trophy,” 7 February.
————————————, 1930. “Total Dog Derby Donations $3,895, 25 February.
————————————, 1931. “Goes To Dogs With Great Vigor,” 6 February.
————————————, 1931. “Junior Dog Derby To Be Big Feature Of Carnival Week,” 29 December.
————————————, 1934. “Toby, Famous Lead Dog, Dead,” 31 July.
Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame, 2106. Emile St. Godard, http://honouredmembers.sportmanitoba.ca/inductee.php?id=360&criteria_sort=name.
Mush Larose, 2016. Ottawa Region Harness Dog Sports Club, http://mushlarose.ca/.
Sam Waller Museum, Le Pas, Manitoba, Sled Dog Racing, Community Memories, Virtual Museum, http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line_index&fl=0&lg=English&ex=00000382&pos=1.
Rankin, Joan, E. 1990. Meet me at the Château, A Legacy of Memory, Natural Heritage Books: Toronto.
Timberland Tours, Avec chiens de traineaux toute l’année, http://timberlandtours.ca/index.html.
Yukon Quest, 2016. The 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race – Whitehorse, Yukon to Fairbanks, Alaska, http://yukonquest.com/about.