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Alaska Life

In the midst of the Cold War, Alaska’s effort to spread Christmas cheer involved sending a small herd of reindeer to D.C.

  • Author: David Reamer
    | Histories of Anchorage
  • Updated: December 20, 2020
  • Published December 20, 2020

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

’Operation Reindeer gets underway as motor carrier executives and animal experts set plans. Edwin L. Isenberger (left), Operations Engineer for Consolidated Freightways Inc., discusses novel move with Smithsonian National Zoological Park's Senior Keeper Charles Thomas and Assocaite Director J. Lear Grimmer. This image was taken at the Seattle Zoo where the handlers stopped to visit with ’Pepper Pot ’ at the reindeer exhibition to set plans for the trip. Operation Reindeer was the name for the transfer of 14 reindeer and 1 caribou to the National Zoological Park from Alaska in 1958. (Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 365, Box 15, Folder: 11)

It was November 1958, a year deeply lodged within the Cold War and the accompanying atmosphere of imminent doom. A single rash design, with the cascading madness that would have followed, could at any time end civilization or the human species entirely. Fear lingered in every Anchorage corner. Local students learned to duck and cover under their desks in case of Soviet attack, for all the good it would have done. Less well known at the time were the three nuclear missile sites under construction surrounding the town. Several assorted bunkers and other buildings remain as relics from those missile batteries in Kincaid Park, Arctic Valley, and at the end of Knik Goose Bay Road. Still, sometimes a single happy act, maybe one timed for the holiday season, can change a mood.

The holiday season is an opportunity to rediscover happiness before the year expires, a time to spread cheer and lift the spirits of your fellow man. So, Alaska Governor Mike Stepovich offered a herd of reindeer to President Dwight Eisenhower. The gesture was a symbolic gift for Eisenhower’s eventual support for Alaska statehood, which took effect on January 3, 1959. The reindeer would grace the annual Pageant of Peace parade and witness the National Christmas Tree’s lighting before taking up residence at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Alaskans know a lot about Christmas and reindeer. We have our own North Pole and Santa Claus. Star the reindeer is one of Anchorage’s least divisive residents. But Alaska reindeer do not fly. They lack the magical diet available at that other North Pole, the elvish concoction of candy canes and hope. The reindeer needed some assistance, a government intervention, if they were to arrive in time for Christmas. Representatives from several shipping firms, the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Smithsonian worked together on the logistics, a lengthy journey involving some specialized engineering and several modes of transportation. The endeavor soon gained a name: Operation Reindeer.

Domesticated reindeer are not native to North America. Though sharing the same genus and species — Rangifer tarandus — as wild caribou, domesticated reindeer are a subspecies. Domestication is the primary difference, though there are also some physical distinctions. On average, male reindeer are smaller than male caribou, and reindeer tend to have denser, thicker fur. By the 1880s, decades of non-Alaska Native hunters had decimated the Alaskan whale, seal, and walrus populations. Reindeer were introduced in the 1890s as a resource replacement for Alaska Natives.

Two leading officials from the National Zoo, Associate Director J. Lear Grimmer and senior keeper Charles Thomas, oversaw Operation Reindeer. Their Alaskan adventure began with a long flight to Kotzebue in November. There, they managed the capture of a suitable herd of 14 reindeer. They also trapped a caribou cow and two greater white-fronted geese.

Operation Reindeer’s next leg was its most harrowing. An Alaska Air National Guard plane carried Grimmer, Thomas, and their menagerie the 550 miles from Kotzebue to Anchorage. During the flight, one of the reindeer kicked open a door. Grimmer and Thomas fought with all their strength to shut it, 2,000 feet above the wintry, isolated terrain.

In Anchorage, the expedition met with future Mayor George Sullivan, then a traffic manager for Garrison Fast Freight. Sullivan supervised the loading of the herd onto a train to Seward. At Seward, the herd was transferred again, this time to the S.S. Iliamna of the Alaska Steamship Company, which carried them 1,400 miles to Seattle.

In Seattle, the herd was allowed a break at the Seattle Zoo. Having already used a plane, train, and ship, Grimmer and Thomas now went with the more convenient choice of a truck for the remaining 3,100 miles to D.C. A 40-ft. Consolidated Freightways livestock trailer was divided into individual, air-conditioned stalls roomy enough to accommodate all antler thrashings.

On Dec. 5, a two-man crew drove the truck out of Seattle. At Billings, Montana, a new team took over. The trek was designed with numerous rest stops to soothe the reindeer, including a visit to Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. Finally, on December 11, the truck rolled into Washington, D.C.

The reindeer were carefully treated during their journey. Grimmer and Thomas gave them tranquilizers, antibiotics, and a specially designed alfalfa wafer that replaced their tundra diet. After a successful medical checkup, eight of the reindeer lived on the National Mall in the days leading up to the Parade of Peace. And on December 23, they pulled Santa’s sleigh in the parade, through the city, and to President’s Park south of the White House. At 5 P.M., they watched as President Eisenhower lit the National Christmas Tree. After that, the herd reunited at the National Zoo.

The more than 5,000-mile journey from Alaska to D.C. crossed 11 other states: Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. All the transportation companies involved donated their services. Consolidated Freightways funded much of Operation Reindeer, including publishing an information packet distributed to the public and news agencies.

While no grandmas were run over, the reindeer made few friends along the way. In fact, the 14 reindeer were less like Rudolph and more like the reindeer who laughed and called him names. They nearly ripped the pants off their parade Santa. Grimmer was especially thrilled with Operation Reindeer’s conclusion. “Reindeer hate everybody and each other,” said Grimmer. “Given a chance, they will impale you on their antlers like martini olives on a toothpick.”

One last note about Christmas in 1958. Santa and his reindeer brought Alaska another gift apart from statehood. This was also the year the hula hoop swept the nation. In the Lower 48, the fad was running wild by July. However, trends took a while to reach Alaska in those days, and the fad did not start to peak in Anchorage until the end of the year. Clubs and schools had spinning events for adults and children. Some churches even got in on the action. Greater Friendship Baptist in Fairview, a Southern Baptist church no less, hosted a hula hoop contest. The problem, as one Anchorage Daily Times columnist noted, was how to wrap them for under the tree.

Key sources:

Bellizzi, Courtney. “Operation Reindeer.” Smithsonian Institution Archives, December 22, 2010, siarchives.si.edu/blog/operation-reindeer.

Creach, Ed. “No, Virginia, Rudolph Does Not Have a Red Nose.” Anchorage Daily Times, December 24, 1958, 7.

“Ready Gift of Reindeer.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 18, 1958, 13.

“Reindeer for Ike’s Party Now on Ship Bound South.” Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, December 1, 1958, 3.

“Reindeer on War for U.S. Yule Pageant.” San Mateo Times, December 3, 1958, 40.



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