Iditarod Trail 1925: The Serum Run (Conclusion)
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.
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 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.
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, 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, 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.
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)