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Iditarod Trail 1925: The Serum Run (Conclusion)

A Team of Dogs Pulling a Sled

The serum arrived, frozen, on Gunnar Kaasen’s sled at 5:00 a.m. February 2, 1925, two weeks after the first diphtheria death in Nome. Five people had died waiting for the serum to arrive. With 28 confirmed cases of diphtheria and as many as 80 people in Nome known to have been exposed, the 300,00 units of serum were gone long before the second shipment of 1.1million units arrived.

Dr. Welch later said that there were 70 confirmed cases of diphtheria in and around Nome that winter. Although the official death toll was five, Dr. Welch believed that the actual number was much higher since the Eskimo population may have buried children without reporting the illness. Without that first heroic run by 20 men and their hardy dogs, the death toll would have been much higher. And although the initial delivery of 300,000 units of diphtheria antitoxin serum is the one that made the headlines, without the same heroic effort made two weeks later by many of the same men and dogs, the casualties of the epidemic would have been much worse.

Ed Rohn, the man who had been sleeping at Port Safety when Gunnar Kaasen passed him by at 3:00 a.m. delivered the package containing 1.1 million units of serum February 15, 1925. Once again the teams braved howling winds and blizzard conditions to get the serum to Nome. The quarantine was lifted Saturday, February 21, 1925, a month after diphtheria killed little Billy Barnett and nearly three weeks after the first doses of serum arrived in Gunnar Kaasen’s sled.

The serum made it from Nulato to Nome in five and a half days, traveling along a mail route that normally took 25 days. Not only had the serum made it to nome in record time, it had done so in the dead of winter during a major winter storms in the Alaskan Interior as well as around Norton Sound.

Norton Sound

A Dog Sled Crossing Norton Sound

Wild Bill Shannon, the Irishman who was the first driver in the relay, returned from the initial serum run to Nenana with four dogs riding and five dogs pulling his sled. Three of the four riders, the same three he had left in Minto because of the pulmonary hemorrhaging, died a few days later. Shannon told a newspaper reporter, “What those dogs did on the run to Nome is above valuation. I claim no credit for it myself. The real heroes of that run …were the dogs of the teams that did the pulling, dogs … that gave their lives on an errand of mercy.”

His dogs weren’t the only ones sacrificed in the race to keep children alive at the top of the world in the dead of winter. Charlie Evans had borrowed two lead dogs for his run between Bishop Mountain and Nulato, both of whom died of frozen groins. Because dogs not specifically bred for the Arctic tend not to have thick fur in their groin area, mushers often wrapped the dogs in additional furs to prevent this problem. When Charlie Olson’s dogs began to suffer from frozen groins, he stopped and put blankets on each dog to keep them from freezing. Two of his dogs ended up badly groin-frozen. Ed Rohn’s lead dog, Star, was seriously injured in a fall into a fissure crossing Golovin Bay during the second serum run. Togo and one of his teammates didn’t make it back to Nome with the rest, either. They saw a reindeer and tore out of their harnesses to chase it, much like Henry Ivanoff’s dogs had done just outside Shaktoolik, about the time Leonhard Seppala happened by. Togo found his way home several days later, much to Seppala’s relief.

Leonhard Seppala

Leonhard Seppala and a Team of His Sled Dogs

Seppala always maintained that it was categorically unfair that Togo, the leader of the dog team which covered the most miles in the desperate race to save to the children, never got the recognition Balto received. Indeed, Togo is actually made a villain in Balto, that children’s movie I mentioned back in the first segment of this series. Should we blame producer Steven Spielberg and his ilk for making a truly exciting story intentionally wrong? Frankly, in this case, I do. The serum run is a story that is exciting and dramatic without having to resort to exaggeration, distortion of facts, or outright fabrication.

Leonhard Seppala

Leonhard Seppala

Togo and the man who drove his team, Leonhard Seppala, are names known mostly to hardcore followers of the Iditarod race. Seppala made the decision to cross frozen Norton Sound with the serum despite the danger of breaking pack ice that might have cost the team and the children of Nome their lives. Had he not crossed the frozen expanse of sea, though, more children would have died because of the delay in getting the serum to them. Seppala was already widely regarded as the territory’s best musher, and his part of the serum run was certainly the hardest of any of the 20 mushers who participated. Togo worked so hard on the Serum Run he injured himself and never raced again.

During the 625 miles the dogs and men ran from Anchorage to Nome, many Americans were transfixed by the story as it unfolded almost in real time in their homes via the marvelous invention called “radio.” The story gripped the imagination of the entire nation, and once the children of Nome were saved the team led by Balto began touring the country.

Within a couple of years, though, the dogs ended up a permanent attraction in one of the many vaudeville shows that were so popular at the time. The animals were apparently mistreated and not well cared for. George Kimball of Cleveland, Ohio, saw the team in Los Angeles and was appalled at their condition. With the help of Cleveland’s schoolchildren, $2,000.00 was raised and Balto and the rest of the team were purchased from the vaudeville show. The dogs lived in Cleveland for the rest of their lives. After Balto’s death in 1933 he was stuffed, mounted, and placed on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where I believe he is still a very popular attraction.

Balto’s Stuffed Carcass

Balto, at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History

Togo is also preserved for posterity. His stuffed and mounted form is on display at the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race Gift Shop and Museum in Wasilla, Alaska.

Togo, Stuffed and Mounted, at the Head of the Iditarod Trail in Wasilla, Alaska

Togo, at the Iditarod Trail Museum

The Seppala Siberian Huskies continue to be a much coveted bloodline. Leonhard Seppala imported his dogs from Siberia. They were dogs intended to work hard, pull loads, and last in the harsh Alaskan cold. Most of today’s Siberian Huskies tend to have characteristics more suited to racing, with shorter coats, longer legs, finer bones, and a narrower head. Seppala’s Huskies had wider heads with larger sinus cavities for warming the Arctic air; today’s Siberian Huskies need to be more concerned with heat than with cold.

Leonhard Seppala Mushing

The news reports of the Nome epidemic and the publicity afforded by the touring dogs inspired a drive to immunize children against diphtheria. The first successful diphtheria vaccine had been tested in 1924, less than a year before the Nome epidemic. Now, of course, diphtheria vaccines are part of all early childhood immunization programs. If there is any doubt as to whether it might be preferable to allow a child to have the disease rather than inoculate him against it, parents should read a description of the progression of the illness and be informed of the nearly 100% mortality rate prior to the discovery of the antitoxin serum.

In 1966-67 Dorothy Page and Joe Redington Sr. organized the first Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race to commemorate the original serum relay. In 1973 the race was expanded to its present course. The entire course of the relay from Nenana to Nome has never been covered as quickly as it was between January 28 – February 2, 1925.

Resources for this series of blogs include:

Salisbury, Gay & Laney Salisbury, The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic (New York: Norton 2003)
Nome Convention & Visitors Bureau (http://www.nomealaska.org/vc/cam-page.htm)
The Official Site of the Iditarod (http://www.iditarod.com)
Kent A. Kantowski’s Serum Run Web Pages (http://www.angelfire.com/ak4/kakphoto/SerumRun/serum_run.htm)
Mike Coppock’s Serum Run Web Page (http://www.dountoothers.org/serumrun.html)
Race To Nome: The Story of the Iditarod Trail Dog Race (http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/iditarod.html)
Balto’s True Story (http://www.baltostruestory.net/)
Norman Vaughan Serum 1925 Run (http://www.serumrun.org/index.html)
The Seppala Siberian Sled Dog Project (http://www.seppalasleddogs.com)

August 7, 2007 - Posted by | Children, Death, Health, History, Science

20 Comments »

  1. Hey Aramink – thanks for linking my site! However, the URL has changed, as the site was hijacked by a cybersquatter and is now loaded with porn.

    The new site URL, without all that cyber nonsense on it, is: http://www.baltostruestory.net

    Can you please update your references? And maybe I’ll link you back! Thanks!

    Earl Aversano, webmaster
    Balto’s True Story

    Comment by Earl Aversano | October 4, 2012 | Reply

  2. [...] The race to Nome [...]

    Pingback by IDITAROD DREAM « Fifth Grade GLP | January 19, 2012 | Reply

  3. I have read some facts based on the Serum Run and all the dogs that were involved. It is however life – the way glory always seems to fall on those who may or may not deserve it in whomever’s eyes. Just take into account what these dogs (Togo, Balto and others) did for the people of Nome. They were all heroes! They saved lives and that is the most important part of all! We tend to look at all the negative parts of a story and never appreciate the true sacrifice, courage and bravery that is in a story such as this.

    I do however belive that both dogs should have burials. Not turned into a circus frenzy for people to stare at. There final resting place in opinion should also be in Nome, it just seems fitting.

    Thanks for a great blog, I’ve learned a lot! Sunny greatings from down in South Africa!

    Comment by Geolain | December 17, 2009 | Reply

  4. Balto obviously has puppies because they are in the cartoon film Balto 2. I’m sure with all their money Disney managed to sew his balls back on so he could have puppies. Especially as they seem to of managed to play god and transform a pure bred pedigree Siberian Husky into a wolf hybrid. I think Disney should be given an award for educating us so well, I mean look at Dumbo, I had no idea elephants could fly before I watched that!!!!!!!!! :-D (er. NOT, for those of you that have still not got the irony!)

    Comment by Load of Balto | September 25, 2009 | Reply

  5. Laura, Your comment is a great gift. Thank you.

    Comment by Aramink | May 2, 2009 | Reply

  6. I found your blog through a Google Search, while looking for pictures of Balto (and not those awful cartoons) for a project that I’m working on for my son’s Kg Teacher.

    I know, very well, the story of the Serum Run.

    Still, I cried while reading your posts.

    Thank you for putting together this wonderful set of posts, and thanks for turning me on to yet another book, The Cruelest Miles, that I will be adding to my Iditarod Library (alas, most of my knowledge has come from the Web).

    I am sure I will be back to read more of your fascinating blog.

    And as an aside, I agree that Spielberg’s treatment of Togo in the movie is shameful. This was a gripping enough story without throwing that crap in there.

    Comment by Laura (LS) | May 2, 2009 | Reply

  7. this is sad

    Comment by asia | April 22, 2009 | Reply

  8. i think togo should have gotten all the credit because he did all the work and balto just showed up

    Comment by Daniel | April 20, 2009 | Reply

  9. Some people need to study their history, Yes Balto does have decendants. He was a very famous Husky mix for many years.
    Also as raising Huskies, there is no proof that any of the dogs were mistreated, there are times during the year they shed and look really bad, this may have been the case.
    I do agree that both Balto and Togo need to have a proper burial.

    Comment by Kathy | March 15, 2009 | Reply

    • Actually, Balto WAS abused. He and 6 other members of his team spent a few months in a sideshow. For 10 cents a visitor, people could come in and look at the dogs, who were kept in a small stuffy room with one small window harnessed, and on the gang line. They were rescued by business man George Kimble. And no, he did not have descendants. He was NEUTERED!

      Comment by Strider | April 6, 2010 | Reply

  10. in my opinion Togo should be more shown than Balto honestly Togo made the longest run pulled the ice together on an ice flow to save the team and serum and all Balto did was finish the run. Togo was brave courageous and very recourcful.

    Comment by ted | March 2, 2009 | Reply

  11. [...] most of Nenana’s business district is under receding water. This was the site where the first Iditarod serum run by dogsled began. The life-saving serum was brought by rail from Seward, and a relay team of 20 [...]

    Pingback by Passing Thru » Blog Archive » NO FARTHER THAN FAIRBANKS | August 22, 2008 | Reply

  12. Balto does not have descendants. He was neutered when he was still a puppy.

    Some more famous dogs: Rin Tin Tin, all 101 dalmatians, and Laika (the first dog in space).

    Comment by Nova | August 5, 2008 | Reply

  13. His descendants are all over the world. Balto was one famous dog. Name another famous purebred dog – not counting Lassie!

    Comment by Aramink | August 3, 2008 | Reply

  14. really? are his descendants in alaska?

    Comment by Lanni | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  15. it is a shame that Balto was stuffed and put on display after his death and worse he was mistreated when he was alive

    i think that the best thing to do is to bring him back to Nome and burie him with the highest honnor we can possibly give him

    P.S: did you know that Balto have desendents

    Comment by Francois | July 1, 2008 | Reply

    • Balto does NOT have descendants. Leonard Seppala neutered him when he was 6 months old because he was not “racing form”. He had a barrel chest and boxy body. Seppala actually disapproved of Kaasen’s choice of putting Balto in the lead position, having kept him as merely a working dog his whole life.

      Comment by Strider | April 6, 2010 | Reply

  16. I think this is very interesting but at the same time it is sad. I am mixed with feeling. But on the other hand this is great.

    Comment by jermey | June 8, 2008 | Reply

    • unfortunatly, no he doesn’t
      he was neutered as a puppy

      Comment by Renahada | April 6, 2010 | Reply


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