Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part III)
Leonhard Seppala and His Lead Dog, Togo
Getting the diphtheria antitoxin to Nome the fastest way possible was paramount. The lives of scores of people, if not the whole town, depended on it.
The original plan for dog sleds was for two teams to meet in the middle. One team would set out from the end of the railroad at Nenana, and the other would set out from Nome. They would meet in the middle, at Nulato, and the Nome team would return with the serum.
The logical choice for the team to make the round trip between Nome and the halfway point was Leonhard Seppala and his team of Siberian Huskies, led by Togo. Togo was 12 years old, which was somewhat elderly, but he had been Seppala’s lead dog for tens of thousands of miles across the Alaskan Interior. Seppala himself held records for races like the All-Alaska Sweepstakes. He had trusted Togo with his life more than once.
Togo had not originally seemed like lead-dog material. In fact, Seppala tried to sell him twice, but Togo kept finding his way back to Seppala’s kennels. When he was just eight months old, Togo had escaped the kennel and followed Seppala. Seppala couldn’t turn back to return Togo, so he let the pup run with the team. Togo finished that trip in the harness next to the lead dog, and Seppala realized that Togo had great potential.
Alaska’s territorial governor was familiar with Seppala’s speed records across the frozen expanse of Northern Alaska’s interior, but thought that the fastest way to get the serum to Nome was by a relay involving more teams – thus, no team would be driving exhausted, the dogs would at their fastest and freshest, and the serum would get to Nome where it was desperately needed that much faster. The governor sent a telegram to the US Postal Inspector in Nenana, who would have the closest official contact with the mushers. The Postal Inspector contacted the Northern Commercial Company, which actually hired the drivers of the dog sleds. The company notified drivers all along the route to be ready for a relay. They wouldn’t be getting paid for this run. It was a mission of mercy.
Twenty teams of men and dogs took part in the relay. Athabaskan Indians (native to the Alaskan interior), Eskimos (native to the Alaskan coasts), and US Postal Service mushers all participated.
Dogs and men are believed to have arrived in Alaska together, walking across the Bering Land Bridge. Although the people native to Alaska hunted other animals, the dog was their only domesticated species. Dog fur kept Eskimos warm, dog meat filled their bellies when there was no other source of food. Dogs were used for hunting, as beasts of burden, and as guides through the confusing white terrain. It is believed that the Eskimos first came up with the idea of hitching dogs to sleds. The Athabaskans of the interior did not use sled dogs until after white men came to Alaska.
Twenty-four hours after the crate of diphtheria antitoxin serum left Anchorage, Alaska, the temperature in Nenana, Alaska, at the end of the railroad, was fifty degrees below zero. Traditionally, when the temperature reached -38 degrees Fahrenheit, so cold that mercury froze in thermometers, neither man nor beast went out. Wild Bill Shannon set out from Nenana with his team of Malamutes in that searing cold for a fifty-two mile run over very rough terrain. Normally the 52 miles between Nenana and Tolovana, where the next team in the relay waited, took two days with an overnight stop in Minto.
The train from Anchorage arrived at 9:00 p.m. January 27, 1925. Despite being cautioned by the Nenana Postal Inspector to wait until morning to start the run to Tovolo, Shannon insisted upon leaving immediately. “People are dying,” he said. His attitude was the attitude of every driver in the relay.
The trail normally used by the dog sleds had been churned up by horses in the days before, so Shannon turned his team to run on the frozen surface of the Tanana River. The air over the river was even colder, and the danger of water breaking through the ice was ever-present. As time wore on, Shannon had a harder time warming his feet and hands. He began losing his focus. Suddenly Blackie, his lead Malamute, swerved, taking the sled in a new direction. Shannon nearly lost his grip on the sled and looked around in surprise at Blackie’s move. He saw a black hole in the ice – an area of open water that the team had narrowly missed. Thanks to Blackie’s canine perceptions and quick thinking, disaster had been averted. It would not be the only time along this relay that the serum was nearly lost. But for the wit and courage of the lead dogs, the serum would never make it to Nome.
The temperature continued to drop through the Arctic night. Shannon felt his extremities freezing and knew he had to take steps to get the blood circulating in his body. So, he took steps. He got off the sled and literally ran alongside the team. This helped for only a short time, and soon Shannon realized he was in real danger of hypothermia. By the time he reached Minto, the halfway point between Nenana and Tolovana, the outside temperature was -62 degrees. Four dogs had bloody muzzles from breathing the icy air, and Shannon’s face was black with frostbite.
After four hours of warming himself by the stove in Minto, Shannon set out for the remaining 22 miles of the run to Tolovana. He had to leave three of his dogs behind because they were too weakened by pulmonary hemorrhaging caused by the cold to continue. A fourth dog looked questionable, but Shannon decided to take him. If necessary, that dog could be unhitched from the team and ride the rest of the way to Tolovana. Shannon made it to Tolovana by 11:00 a.m. on January 28. It was -56 degrees Farhenheit when he turned the precious cargo over to Edgar Kallands, the next driver in the relay.
In Nome that same morning, Leonhard Seppala set out. He had 315 miles to travel to get to the halfway point at Nulato, then 315 miles back to Nome with the serum. On the way he had to traverse the questionable pack ice of Norton Sound. The Sound might be completely frozen or it might have ice floes that would kill him and his team. the shortest distance between Nulato and Nome lay directly across the Sound, though.
In the meantime, the number of confirmed cases of diphtheria in Nome were increasing by the hour. Although both the white and native populations obeyed the quarantine, the strain was extremely virulent and and probably infected the population well before the quarantine had been ordered. The diphtheria bacterium could live for weeks outside its human host on something as benign as a toy. The children of the area had all attended Christmas celebrations and had been in school and church prior to the quarantine.
Nome’s mayor contacted the territorial governor again, begging for relief by airplane. A little more serum, enough to treat perhaps five people, had been located in Juneau and was being sent by rail to Nenana to await the next mail run. It wouldn’t be enough.
Next: more dogs, and a nation holds its collective breath …
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