MARQUETTE - When the 2012 Midnight Run sled dog teams sprint down West Washington Street tonight, it will mark something even more historic than the start of events for the 23rd annual U.P. 200. It will also serve to commemorate the centennial anniversary of Marquette sled dog races.
On Feb. 22, 1912, Marquette's first recorded sled dog races - nothing more than a group of excited children, pulled by family pets and cheered on by scores of residents - were run on Washington Street.
According to historical Mining Journal articles, the races began as an alternative to Ishpeming's more well-known winter events.
When Ishpeming began holding annual skiing competitions in 1888, Marquette children - released from school in observance of George Washington's Feb. 22 birthday - often had little to do and couldn't make it to the events there. So in 1912, Marquette barber Joe Smith pulled the community together and began organizing downtown dog sled races for children.
And 100 years ago this month, children gathered on Washington Street to run a number of heats in three different feature events.
The races, which ran annually and sometimes drew thousands of spectators, were always on Washington's birthday and were run down Washington Street, unless snow amounts on that road were not accommodating.
The event even branched out for a period, including pony races, as well as bobsled, hockey and skating competitions. Another mention of the races appears in a February of 1936 Mining Journal, which stated the event was to be run down Washington, between Third and Fourth streets.
Smith, for his part, likely drew inspiration from Ishpeming, where similar races had already been popular for years.
Records for the west end races, which took place on Jan. 1 and seemed to always draw good crowds, stretch back into the 1800s.
"The roofs of buildings, shade trees along the street, the hitching and lamp posts, liberty, barber and telegraph poles, dry goods boxes and wet goods kegs, were loaded down with humanity," read a description of Ishpeming's pre-race atmosphere, which ran in the Iron Agitator on Jan. 3 1887.
The Mining Journal from Jan. 3, 1880 also notes that a large crowd was on-hand for that year's event.
It was upon all that history that Jeff Mann, then-president of the Upper Peninsula Sled Dog Association, began to build when he organized the first U.P. 200 in 1990.
Whereas children at the turn of the century would win prizes donated by local businesses, Mann offered his mushers a $10,000 purse. Snow, now removed by industrial plows, actually had to be brought back to Washington Street for the start of the races.
Things have changed a bit, even since 1990. The purse has now swelled to more than $28,000 and the route has changed more than once. This year, due to a lack of snow cover on trails immediately south of Marquette, the U.P. 200 will start elsewhere for the first time.
The race will start in Chatham at 8 p.m. tonight. From there, mushers will go to Wetmore, then to Grand Marais. The teams will return to Wetmore and then finish in Grand Marais.
The Midnight Run, a 60-mile race, will officially begin in Chatham at 10 p.m. There will be, however, a ceremonial Midnight Run start at 7:10 p.m. on Washington Street. The Midnight Run will follow a loop near Chatham.
The Jack Pine 30 is a 30-mile, six-dog sprint that begins Saturday at Larry's Family Foods in Gwinn.
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.