THE 1925 SERUM RUN
This is the story of how sled dogs saved the town of Nome, Alaska, and how dogs like Balto and Togo became internationally known.
In January 1925, the only doctor in Nome, a former gold rush town on the western edge of Alaska, examined some desperately ill children. He became alarmed. His young patients showed symptoms of diphtheria, a highly contagious and often fatal disease.
The children’s diagnosis set off an astounding chain of events. An epidemic could be prevented if the serum to combat diphtheria could somehow be transported across hundreds of miles of Alaskan wilderness in brutal winter conditions.
The fate of Nome’s citizens came to rest on an improbable relay race on a trail winding hundreds of miles through the wilderness using Alaska’s distinctive form of transportation: dog sledding, or “mushing.” If all went well, the serum would be delivered to Nome in time to halt the epidemic.
Within two weeks of Dr. Curtis Welch seeing the children with terrifying symptoms, newspaper readers across America were gripped by dispatches about determined men and their exceptional sled dogs racing through the frigid wilderness.
The story, a harrowing adventure tale combining modern medicine with traditional mushing, resonated with the public. Within a year, an impressive bronze statue of one of the heroes who brought the serum to Nome was unveiled in New York City’s Central Park. The hero was a dog, Balto.
And for nearly a century many people have contended the real hero of the story was another dog, a husky named Togo.
THE DIPHTHERIA OUTBREAK IN NOME
Diphtheria is a serious infection caused by a specific bacteria, corynebacterium diphtheriae, that creates a toxin in the human body. The bacteria is easily spread, usually by infected people coughing or sneezing.
The symptoms of diphtheria would typically start out as fever and chills, a sore throat, and coughing. If the condition worsens, the toxins kill healthy tissue in the respiratory system, and the dead cells form a gray membrane. The patient is essentially suffocated.
In the late 19th century, when diphtheria outbreaks were a major cause for concern, antitoxins were developed which could stop the infection and save the patient’s life.
By January 21 two children in Nome had died. And more cases of diphtheria were being reported every day. The town’s entire population of 1,400 was at risk. And the disease could easily spread to thousands more living across western Alaska.
Dr. Welch convinced the mayor and town council to impose a quarantine. And he sent urgent telegrams to the U.S Public Health Service, pleading for a fresh shipment of antitoxin.
There was a stockpile of serum in Anchorage, 1,000 miles away, and a plan to transport it came together. An emergency parcel could leave Anchorage on the Alaska Railroad. A steam locomotive could carry it as far as the small town of Nenana, in central Alaska. From there, men and dogs would take over, racing the serum westward to Nome in a long-distance relay.
THE RACE TO DELIVER THE SERUM
The sled dog teams would need to travel 674 miles of trail through the wilderness, and in some of the worst conditions imaginable. The temperatures would be far below zero. Snow and wind could reduce visibility to virtually zero.
Word went out for volunteer mushers via telegraph and telephone. Twenty drivers and teams of dogs responded. They were all very experienced, and some delivered mail and supplies to small towns along the trail.
One volunteer, a Nome resident, Leonhard Seppala, was an obvious choice to handle the most difficult and potentially dangerous portion of the relay.
A native of Norway, he had emigrated to Alaska in 1900, when a friend invited him to work for a mining company during the gold rush. Seppala settled in Nome and worked as a dogsled driver. His normal routine was to move workers and supplies to various company outposts in the region.
A natural athlete, the 5-foot-4-inch Seppala became known for competing in the Alaska Sweepstakes, a long-distance sled dog race. He had been an early advocate for using dogs imported from Siberia, rather than the traditional Alaskan malamute. Known at the time as “Siberians,” the breed is now officially classed by the American Kennel Club as the Siberian Husky. Smaller than the malamute, they possess strength and resilience and make exceptional sled dogs.
Huskies exhibit impressive instincts for pulling sleds. The term “adaptive intelligence” is often used to describe their ability to make decisions and quickly adapt when conditions become perilous. During the serum relay in 1925, Seppala’s very experienced lead dog, 12-year-old Togo, would play a heroic role.
For years Seppala’s name had occasionally appeared in small items about dogsled races on the sports pages of American newspapers. In early February 1925, his name would be appearing on the front pages of newspapers, and millions of Americans would know of him as the most adept member of the relay team racing the serum to Nome.
HARD TRAVELING ON THE TRAIL
The trail from Nenana to Nome was part of an ancient network of trails through the wilderness first used by Native Alaskans. By 1925 roadhouses were positioned about every 20 miles so mushers and their dogs would rest and eat. The relay was quickly organized by contacting drivers and positioning them at specific roadhouses along the trail.
On a Tuesday night, January 27, 1925, at the tiny town of Nenana, deep in the Alaskan interior, a musher known as Wild Bill Shannon waited at the train station. The temperature outside was 50 degrees below zero. It was a very dangerous night to be heading out on the trail.
True to his name, Wild Bill was determined to get moving. When the train arrived at 9 p.m., he took the 20-pound parcel wrapped in fur and packed it on his sled. With his team of dogs, led by Blackie, a five-year-old Siberian Husky, Shannon drove into the darkness. The serum was on its way to Nome, 674 miles away.
Shannon had a rough night. By the time he got to a roadhouse where he could rest a bit at 3 a.m., he had developed frostbite on his face and three of his dogs were too tired to continue. He pressed on. At 11 a.m. he arrived at his destination, a roadhouse 52 miles from where he started in the night. The serum was handed off to the next driver, Edgar Kallands.
On the morning after Wild Bill began the relay, Leonhard Seppala got a phone call at the western end of the trail, telling him to start getting in position for his own leg of the relay. He would have to drive his sled, led by Togo, more than 300 miles eastward, where he would await the parcel. Then he would head back westward. In both directions he would cross the dangerous ice covering the Norton Sound, an inlet of the Bering Sea.
On that same day, January 28, 1925, on the other side of the United States, the front page of the Washington Evening Star featured an Associate Press dispatch describing the effort in faraway Alaska. The article noted the “fastest and most faithful dog teams in the district” were in a race “against the advances of an epidemic of diphtheria raging at Nome.”
Out on the trail heading westward to Nome, the men driving the sleds would be the only humans for miles around. Their isolation was profound. Unknown to them, millions of newspaper readers were eagerly following along as updates were telegraphed from outposts along the trail.
SEPPALA AND TOGO FACE DANGER
The relay continued with mushers and their dogs steadily heading westward. On the fourth day, January 31, 1925, Leonhard Seppala was approaching his rendezvous point, a town called Unalakleet. He had already crossed the dangerous ice covering the Norton Sound heading east.
As he continued on the trail, Seppala encountered another team of dogs up ahead. The other musher was waving his hands, trying to flag down Seppala. It was Henry Ivanoff, yelling that he had the serum.
Seppala took the parcel from Ivanoff and began his trip back to Nome. He had a critical decision to make. Crossing the Norton Sound was always dangerous, but there was also a storm coming in from the Bering Sea. That meant the ice could break up, dooming Seppala, Togo and the other dogs, and the precious serum.
It was possible to drive the sled around the Norton Sound, but that would add a day to the journey. Seppala didn’t want to waste any time.
Heading out onto the Norton Sound in the darkening late afternoon, Seppala had confidence in Togo, who was leading the way. It became too dark for Seppala to see, and the wind was so loud he couldn’t listen for any sound of the ice cracking.
Togo was keeping his head down and keeping a straight course. At about 8 p.m. Seppala and the dogs arrived on the other side of the frozen inlet. They had covered 84 miles in one day, and the dogs were exhausted. Seppala fed the dogs seal blubber and salmon, and the dogs went to sleep. Seppala also slept for a few hours.
Waking up at 2 a.m., Seppala realized the storm was getting worse. He started off toward his next destination, Golovin, 50 miles away. Seppala couldn’t see the trail at times, but Togo led the way. The final part of the trail required climbing a series of steep hills. Seppala kept his dogs in top condition, and they exhibited astounding endurance.
By 3 p.m. Seppala and his team arrived at Golovin and passed the parcel of serum on to Charlie Olson. The precious parcel of antitoxin was 78 miles from Nome.
THE FINAL RUN TO NOME
Olson took off with the parcel, taking it 25 miles to Bluff. When he arrived he told Gunnar Kaasen, the next musher, of the horrendous weather conditions he’d just endured. A blizzard was raging, and the wind was strong enough at times to blow his sled off the trail.
Kaasen, with two huskies named Balto and Fox in the lead, headed into the face of the blizzard. They had to leave the trail at times to go around drifting snow. They could have gotten hopelessly lost but were saved by Balto’s sense of smell. He picked up the scent of other dogs which had passed by weeks earlier, and instinctively led the team back on the trail.
The plan was for Kaasen to hand off to the last musher in the relay, Ed Rohn. But when approaching the rendezvous point, Kaasen didn’t bother to stop at the roadhouse where Rohn was sleeping. He continued onward to Nome.
At 5:30 a.m. on Monday, February 2, 1925, Kaasen and team arrived on Front Street in Nome. The serum had arrived.
Dr. Welch examined the serum and he discovered it was frozen. But, it could be thawed and used. The doctor in Anchorage had packed it well and none of the vials had broken. By 11 a.m. the serum was thawed and ready to be administered to the sickest patients in Nome.
On Tuesday, February 3, 1925, the lead story on the front page of the New York Times was about the serum’s safe, though frozen, arrival in Nome. The story mentioned Gunnar Kaasen braving the blizzard, and noted that the dogsled relay of the serum had taken five and a half days.
The story in the New York Times also mentioned Leonhard Seppala, and gave him credit for traveling the “most viciously winter-ridden stretch” of the journey.
Newspaper accounts said Seppala had not yet been heard from, as he would be resting his dogs and slowly making his way homeward to Nome.
HONORING HEROIC SLED DOGS
On Wednesday, February 4, a lengthy article attributed as Gunnar Kaasen’s first-person account appeared in newspapers across America. Kaasen praised Balto effusively and gave him credit for being able to keep them on the trail in blinding conditions, telling reporters "I couldn't see the trail. Many times I couldn't even see my dogs, so blinding was the gale. I gave Balto, my lead dog, his head and trusted him. He never once faltered. It was Balto who led the way."
The very next day, February 5, the New York Times published an editorial which began by praising Balto and suggesting a monument be placed in his honor. Some New Yorkers took that suggestion quite seriously. A campaign began to commission a statue of Balto.
By the time Seppala returned to Nome with Togo and his other dogs, the story of Balto was spreading across America. Seppala naturally believed the wrong dog was being publicized.
Kaasen and Balto were even brought to Hollywood, where they appeared in a silent film, “Balto’s Race to Nome.” Kaasen and Balto also went out on a vaudeville circuit during the summer of 1925.
Dog lovers in New York City commissioned a noted sculptor, Frederick Roth, to create a bronze statue of Balto. Roth worked on the project throughout the summer of 1925, using a malamute as a model.
The statue, cast in bronze, was unveiled in New York City’s Central Park on December 15, 1925. As newsreel cameras captured the scene, Kaasen and Balto attended the unveiling ceremony. A New York Times story the next day said “several hundred persons congregated around a jutting rock in the park” on which the statue stood. Balto, the newspaper reported, was “unmoved” by his likeness.
The statue of Balto became a beloved landmark. For decades, countless children posed for snapshots beside it. Lately, people like to post photos of their dogs posing with Balto on Instagram.
Togo also made an appearance in New York City. A year after the unveiling of the Balto statue, Leonhard Seppala and Togo were honored between periods of a hockey game at Madison Square Garden. The New York Times noted that Togo was given a gold medal for heroism by Roald Amundsen, the famed Arctic explorer.
Seppala and Togo had traveled to the Northeast to compete in a race in Maine in January 1927. Seppala decided to stay in Maine for a few years, and Togo lived the rest of his life there.
Kaasen had sold Balto before returning to Alaska. A businessman from Cleveland bought Balto from a vaudeville show, and donated him to the Cleveland Zoo. Balto spent the rest of his life as a popular attraction for children visiting the zoo.
Balto’s name does appear on the statue in Central Park. Yet the inscription carved on a stone plaque at the statue’s base honors more than one dog: “Dedicated to the indomitable spirit of the sled dogs that relayed antitoxin 600 miles over rough ice, across treacherous waters, through Arctic blizzards, from Nenana to the relief of stricken Nome in the winter of 1925.”
Beneath that inscription, three more words pay tribute to Balto, Togo, and the rest: “Endurance, Fidelity, Intelligence.”