Iditarod Trail, 1925: The Serum Run (Part IV)
Newspapers had picked up the story of the epidemic early. As the tone of the telegrams between Nome and the outside world became more urgent, radio began to carry the story to an even broader audience. Winter storms swept across the continent as Nome waited for the serum, and people enduring zero degree weather on the East Coast were amazed at the determination and hardiness of the dog sleds driving through temperatures more than 50 degrees colder. The entire nation was transfixed by its radios, chewing its fingernails in hopes that the men and dogs could brave the blizzards and hurricane force winds of the Alaskan winter storms, cross an untrustworthy seasonal ice pack, and deliver the serum to the exhausted doctor and nurses as the number of victims reportedly rose with each passing hour.
On January 28, the exhausted and frostbitten Wild Bill Shannon handed the package over to a 20 year old Athabaskan musher named Edgar Kallands at Tolovana. Kallands made his five hour, 31 mile run to Manley Hot Springs under essentially the same conditions that had nearly done Shannon in. The temperature was -56 Farhenheit. When Kallands arrived in Manley Hot Springs, his gloves, with his hands inside, had frozen to the handlebar of the sled. “The roadhouse owner had to pour boiling water over the birchwood bar to pry him loose,” the Associated Press reported.
At Manley Hot Springs, the precious cargo was handed to Dan Green, who took it another 28 miles to Fish Lake, where another Athabaskan driver, Johnny Folger, took possession of it and got it to Tanana, another 26 miles closer to Nome. At each stop, just as the Anchorage doctor had instructed, the serum was warmed for fifteen minutes. From Tanana, Sam Joseph, also an Athabaskan Indian, took the serum another 34 miles to Kallands, the settlement named for the family of young Edgar Kallands. Titus Nikolai then transported the package 24 miles to Nine Mile Cabin, where he gave it to Dave Corning. Corning took it another 30 miles to Kokrines, then Harry Pitka took it the next 30 miles to Ruby. At Ruby, Bill McCarty took over and drove 28 miles to Whiskey Creek, where Edgar Nollner waited. Nollner delivered the package to his brother George at Galena, another 24 miles closer to Nome.
George Nollner took the serum 18 miles to Bishop Mountain. He arrived at 3:00 a.m. on Friday, January 30. He and his friend Charlie Evans, the next driver in the relay, sat in the relative warmth of the cabin. Like everyone else along the way, they were worried that the deep cold and the infrequent thawing of the serum would render it useless. The temperature at Bishop Mountain was -62 degrees Fahrenheit, and Evans had thirty miles to go to Nulato, the halfway point, where Leonhard Seppala expected to take possession of the precious serum and return to Nome.
Evans ran into trouble as he approached the convergence of the Koyukuk and Yukon rivers. Water had broken through the ice and the trail was covered with dangerous overflow. Overflow is caused when because of the pressure beneath the solid surface of ice, water breaks through in a gush, then continues seeping. Sheets of extremely slick, glacier-like ice result from the water flowing over the ice. An ice fog also develops at about -50, when the relatively warmer water vapor from the overflow turns to tiny ice crystals in the air. The ice fog Evans encountered was as high as his waist. He could no longer even see his dogs, much less the trail.
Eventually, a breeze began to blow that dissipated some of the ice fog. This was a mixed blessing, though, because with the breeze came a worse wind chill. Evans couldn’t get off the sled to warm himself with exercise. If he did, and the ice fog thickened again, he’d be lost, and the dogs would have gone on without him. Less than ten miles from Nulato, the unthinkable happened. Evans had two lead dogs he had borrowed for the run. First one collapsed and had to be loaded onto the sled, then the other collapsed. Evans hitched himself to the sled and led the team the rest of the way to Nulato. When he arrived about 10:00 a.m., both lead dogs were dead.
The serum had arrived at the halfway point in three days, the shortest time that distance had ever been traveled. Leonhard Seppala had expected to meet the serum in Nulato, but the Territorial governor had other ideas. On that Friday, January 30, ten days after Dr. Welch had confirmed diphtheria among Nome’s population, the death toll stood at five. Getting the serum to Nome as fast as possible was paramount.
Leonhard Seppala, who held the records for the fastest runs by dog sled, had set out from Nome on January 26 planning to travel a total of 630 miles. Traveling that distance without rest would be impossible and time was of the essence. Alaska’s territorial governor made the decision to add more drivers and dogs to the number making the relay. The idea was that the fresher the teams were, the faster they’d get the serum to Nome. All in all 20 drivers and their teams of dogs would be participating in the relay.
Seppala had already set out on the first 315 mile leg of his journey, though, and he was still the best one to take the serum across the pack ice of Norton Sound. Driving across the frozen sound would shave a full day off the time it would take to get the serum to Nome. There was no way to get word to Seppala, though, that the plan had changed. As drivers were called to participate in the relay they were told to keep a look out for Seppala and to hand the serum over to him when they saw him.
Next: Crossing the open ice of Norton Sound; and the canine heroes Togo and Balto