You already know that dogs are considered man’s best friend. You’ve also heard stories of dogs risking their own lives to save their owners’ lives. But have you heard the story of the incredible and heroic dogs that stopped an epidemic and saved the lives of perhaps thousands of individuals?
It was a cold January in 1925, in Nome, Alaska – a remote town just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle – that a diphtheria epidemic was on the verge of sweeping through and threatening the lives of hundreds of children. The only doctor in town, Curtis Welch, had previously placed an order for the diphtheria antitoxin, however it did not arrive before the port closed. With several children already dead and numerous others showing signs of the deadly disease, Welch called an emergency meeting and announced that he needed 1,000,000 units of the antitoxin to stave off an epidemic.
There was a serum available that could be administered to the children; however, it was available only in Anchorage nearly 1,000 miles away. This era was a decade before bush pilots would become a dominant mode of transportation in the region and the only plane in Alaska capable of making the run had been dismantled for the season. At the time, the only other mode of transport between the Anchorage region and Nome was by dog sled on the Iditarod Trail – the trail that would later become famous for its annual dog sled race. This trail ran 938 miles from the port of Seward, across numerous mountain ranges and the Alaska Interior, before reaching Nome.
If the diphtheria epidemic was going to be avoided, dogs were going to have to haul the serum across the harsh landscape, in freezing weather, at a rapid pace, all while struggling to stay alive.
Balto & Togo
In order to pull off this incredible feat, it was going to take an army of mushers and several teams of dogs. With more than 20 mushers signing on to take part, the first musher set out.
The longest and most hazardous stretch of the run was covered by Norwegian musher Leonhard Seppala and his team of dogs, led by a gray and brown Siberian Husky named Togo. Togo, an incredibly robust creature, had been Seppala’s lead dog since he was 8-months old. He had covered 4,000 miles in one year alone, and guided Seppala to remote parts of Alaska and to wins in several races. Now at age twelve, Togo was poised to lead one of his last great adventures. Departing from Nenana on February 19, 1925 and moving at incredibly fast speeds for sled dogs, Seppala’s team carried the serum for 261 miles – nearly double what any other team did – eschewing warnings to stay clear of the dangerous Bering Sea inlet known as Norton Sound, and traveling directly over the frozen sea. Venturing through the dark and enduring temperatures that dipped to 85-degrees below zero, Togo and team soldiered on fearlessly.
Alaska’s governor, closely monitoring the situation, was fearful that Seppala’s dogs would get too tired to finish the race, so he called in additional teams to make the finish. On February 25, 1925, Norwegian musher Gunnar Kaasen took possession of the serum for the final leg of the journey, his team led by a Siberian Husky named Balto. Balto was named after the Sami explorer Samuel Balto, and like Togo, was also a highly robust creature. Balto’s team did their run almost entirely in the dark. Just 5 ½ days after the serum departed from Nenana, Balto and Kaasen made it into Nome with the serum in tow. The townspeople of Nome all rushed to thank Kaasen, but he suggested they heap their praise on Balto instead.
Despite Togo’s incredible contribution, Balto who was widely considered the most heroic of the sled dogs that participated, and therefore became an international celebrity.
Place of Honor
Shortly after the race, Balto began receiving and incredible amount of press coverage for his heroics, including praise from President Calvin Coolidge.
Famed sculptor, Frederick Roth, created a statue of Balto that was erected in New York City’s Central Park. At the unveiling, Balto himself was present. The statue has a plaque that lists Balto’s sled team and bears the inscription:
Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin six hundred miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.
In 1927, Balto was brought to Cleveland where he was given a hero’s welcome at a parade. Balto lived out his final years at the Brookside Zoo. When he died in 1933, his remains were mounted by a taxidermist and donated to the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Alaska tried to bring Balto’s remains back to the state, but failed in their efforts.
There was much jealousy with regards to the fame and attention that was lavished on Balto, especially by those who believed Togo was the real hero of the run. But anyone who was close to the race knows that all of the dogs involved deserved to be celebrated.
The dogs that participated in the serum run displayed the kind of dedication, tenacity and strong will that many humans could only hope to possess. They were put into a situation where they had to engage in a selfless act and put their lives at risk to help humankind. The run was a testament to the indomitable spirit of dogs that should be cherished for their connection to humankind.